Three French air force Dassault Rafale F2 fighters returned to Saint-Dizier air base on 21 May after completing a four-month detachment under "hot and high" conditions at Afghanistan's Kandahar airfield. Alongside Dassault Mirage 2000Ds, the trio flew a combined 230 sorties and 800h, providing close air support for ground troops.
The air force says the Rafale's Thales-developed front sector optronics suite was also used to provide reconnaissance and surveillance during the commitment, for example by tracking the movement of personnel from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and by observing suspect vehicles.
Air force Rafales have visited Afghanistan before, while the French navy sent F1-standard examples to the region aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle earlier this decade.
© Rex Features/Sipa Press
With operational experience growing, airframer Dassault, M88-2 engine manufacturer Snecma and avionics supplier Thales are now waiting on two decisions, which they believe could lead to the Rafale securing its first export sale within the next few months.
The first should come later this year, when Brazil is expected to advance its FX-2 contest by choosing between the Rafale, Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Saab's Gripen NG.
Best and final offers for the deal - which seeks an initial 36 aircraft - were due for submission on 8 June, with a contract signature expected by mid-2010. But the deal holds greater potential, with the requirement to later grow to possibly around 130 airframes.
Industrial aspects of the bids will be a major factor in the decision, with the government looking for national firms such as Embraer to gain new skills via the transfer of technology. France believes that its offering will hold a competitive edge in this area, as Boeing must make its bid via Washington's rigid Foreign Military Sales mechanism, and as the Gripen NG has major US-supplied components, such as its General Electric F414G engines.
"We are the only ones offering [to transfer] all equipment, including source codes," says Jean-Noël Stock, Thales's head of the Rafale programme. This pledge includes the company's RBE2 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which is expected to secure production status with a French order before year-end to equip a fourth batch of Rafales for its air force and navy.
With development activities having concluded recently and the design on track to enter French air force service in 2012, the AESA technology is now central to all export campaigns involving the Rafale, including Brazil, India and Switzerland. "We are not afraid of any weakness in terms of reliability," says Jean-Marc Goujon, Thales Aerospace's head of marketing and product policy.
Switzerland earlier this year decided to slip its fighter selection until January 2010 at the earliest, leaving the Rafale, Gripen and EADS-promoted Eurofighter Typhoon in contention. To be valued at around $1.9 billion, the deal is likely to provide around 30 aircraft to replace part of the nation's fleet of Northrop F-5s.
While an AESA sensor was not mandated in Switzerland's requirements list, an evaluation team from its air force and Armasuisse procurement agency logged significantly more flight hours with two Rafales - including one equipped with an active array - than the other contenders. Only time will tell whether the French team's technological push will tally with Berne's operational needs, available budget and required fleet size.
Despite spurious news reports earlier this year, the Rafale is still very much in the running for the biggest near-term prize in the fighter export market: India's initially 126-aircraft medium multirole combat aircraft deal. Competition comes from the Gripen NG, Super Hornet and Typhoon, plus Lockheed Martin's F-16 and the RSK MiG-35.
The requirement is worth around $10-12 billion, but its place in potentially determining the long-term viability of several of the products on offer will assume extra importance if, as expected, New Delhi potentially doubles the volume of its purchase over time.
In-country flight evaluations had been set for April or May, but are expected to kick off towards the end of this year or early 2010. Despite an apparent early drive to push the programme forward in rapid fashion, New Delhi's expectation of fielding a new type in 2014 already looks highly ambitious, and patience could prove as important a factor as meeting its demands for industrial offset.
With Paris having so far ordered 128 Rafales, and expected to add around 60 more before year-end, the type is widely perceived as being overdue in securing an overseas sale.
Dassault argues that politics was the driving factor behind losses to Boeing's F-15 in South Korea and Singapore. But there was no such excuse when Lockheed's F-16 was selected to meet Morocco's future fighter requirements, despite the Rafale having appeared to be lead candidate. "Morocco was a mistake by France," says Pierre-Yves Chaltiel, chief executive of Thales Airborne Systems, referring to a state insistence that the nation should also acquire other French military equipment as a sale condition.
The Rafale industry team believes that the time is now right for the combat-proven fighter to gain a place in the inventories of foreign militaries, and cites Greece, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as other potential future operators.
"Consider the Mirage 2000: our major export contracts were a good 15 years after the first deliveries to the French air force," says Gérard Christmann, vice-president, general manager of electronic combat solutions for Thales's aerospace activities. Noting that the service fielded operational Rafales only in 2006, he says: "It is totally normal to start the exports now. There are a lot of competitions, and we expect to win some."
THALES DETAILS TECHNOLOGY ROADMAP FOR FIGHTERS EVOLUTION
Now approaching the end of its first decade in national service, the Dassault Rafale continues to receive new capabilities.
The most dramatic enhancements now being made are focused on the aircraft's predominantly Thales-developed electronics equipment. Covering technologies such as radar, communications and self-protection, this accounts for around 30% of the value of each Rafale.
Perhaps the single most important change is the coming availability of the RBE2 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, scheduled to enter French air force use in 2012. Claimed to provide a more than 50% increase in detection range and reduced lifecycle costs when compared with earlier systems, this uses around 1,000 gallium-arsenide transmit/receive modules, manufactured by Europe's United Monolithic Semiconductors.
In addition to its air-to-air and terrain-following modes, the sensor also generates identification- and targeting-quality ground mapping using its synthetic aperture radar mode, and a ground moving target indication function could follow.
The Reco NG pod (on centreline) is among numerous sensor additions
France plans to equip its next batch of roughly 60 Rafales with the AESA array, and to retrofit "omnirole" F3 examples with the equipment, also offered for export.
"The E-scan architecture means not just a traditional radar with an active array on the front end: it's an advanced system based on 10 years of development, testing and feedback," says Jean-Marc Goujon, Thales Aerospace's head of marketing and product policy. "We are the only ones with a fully mature AESA in Europe."
Now being delivered to the French air force, the F3 standard introduces new air-to-surface weapons and Thales Optronique's Reco NG/Areos reconnaissance and Damocles targeting pods.
An upgrade to the Rafale's passive front sector optronics suite will also further its targeting potential, with the system gaining new identification and laser range finding equipment. The aircraft's Spectra electronic warfare system, which provides 360° coverage, is also to get an improved missile warning system from MBDA. And the current integration of Mode 4 identification friend-or-foe equipment will be followed by Mode 5 in 2013.
"There is a roadmap with technologies to the end of the next decade," says Goujon.
"The Rafale will be an evolving product, with regular upgrade."