The next millennium will herald a new age for French maritime power

Julian Moxon/PARIS

The service entry of France's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle at the end of 1999 will usher in a new era for French maritime power. It will also mark the initial deployment of the Dassault Rafale M - the first carrier-borne aircraft developed by Dassault Aviation since the Super Etendard entered service in 1978.

The Charles de Gaulle will carry up to 30 Rafale Ms as its primary fleet air-defence force. The original requirement for the carrier - initially meant to be joined by a second ship - was based primarily on the strategic considerations which existed before the end of the Cold War, and to meet French out-of-area defence needs, particularly in Africa. Political necessity has kept the programme alive, with the result that France will soon become the only European nation to field a nuclear carrier able to deploy conventional catapult-launched aircraft. The likelihood of a second carrier being built is questionable, however.

The Rafale M was conceived in 1986, after the plan to develop a carrier version of the variable Dassault Mirage G was abandoned, and the French navy opted not to buy McDonnell Douglas F-18s as an interim replacement for its ageing Vought F-8 Crusaders in service on the carriers Foch and Clemenceau.

In 1988, the navy requirement was merged with the French air force need for a multi-role fighter, itself the result of the decision to go ahead with a national solution instead of becoming a partner with Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK in the Eurofighter EF2000 (then the European Fighter Aircraft) programme. In 1988, the decision was taken to co-develop the two Rafale versions to replace five different aircraft types in both the air force and navy inventories. "Of course there is some compromise," says Louis-Alain Roche, programme manager for the Rafale M at the French ministry of defence, "but we have kept the changes to an absolute minimum. The result is an excellent aircraft that can perform in maritime and land-based roles."


Design origin

The design for both air force and navy Rafales is derived from the original air-force requirement for an 8.5t aircraft. This also fitted navy needs, with the result that the two aircraft are virtually identical in structural, avionics and propulsion terms, the main compromise being the lack of a folding wing for carrier use. "This means we will have to be careful about stowage on the carrier," says Roche, "but it also gives us an advantage in terms of weight and complexity and hence maintenance."

The most visible difference between the two aircraft is the longer, stronger, nose landing gear of the navy version. To this is attached another first for the French navy - a US-style nosegear-mounted catapult hook, replacing the rear-fuselage-mounted "bridle" on previous carrier aircraft. This will enable the aircraft to be aligned and correctly tensioned ready for catapulting without requiring men to operate under the aircraft - improving safety and reducing the launch cycle. The gear also carries an infra-red alignment device, coupled with the inertial-landing system to assist carrier touchdowns.

Other structural changes include a strengthened main landing gear, reinforcement under the main fuselage and a tail hook. The changes necessary for the Rafale M, says Roche, have resulted in a weight difference of just 500kg between the two versions - slightly below the original specification of 600kg.

The entire structure of both versions is given full anti-corrosion treatment, as is the Snecma M88 powerplant. "We decided early on to do the same for the air force and navy aircraft," says Roche. "It is easier in production terms and will ensure that air force aircraft have the best protection available from the beginning of their service life," he adds.

Operationally, the Rafale M and its air force counterpart will be able to fulfil the same missions. The Thomson-CSF/Dassault Electronique RBE2 multi-mode radar operates in exactly the same electronic-scanning modes, and has been tested thoroughly in the maritime environment. Roche provides no performance figures, saying only that "-we have verified that the RBE2 can easily find a ship at full operating range in poor conditions".

The 60 Rafale Ms planned for the navy will arrive in two batches: an initial 12 aircraft, already ordered, for service entry in 2001, with the second batch of 48 due to arrive from 2005 to 2012. The first batch will replace the Crusaders, now deployed in the air-defence role, which will be retired at the end of 1999. The second batch will progressively replace the Super Etendard attack aircraft, due to be retired by 2010.

The Clemenceau will be withdrawn in 1998, but - assuming there is no second nuclear carrier - the Foch will be mothballed for use when the Charles de Gaulle is in dock for maintenance. The numbers of Rafale Ms needed will not change, even if a second carrier were ordered, says Roche "-because only one will ever be at sea".

Two navy and two air force-configured aircraft have been used in the Rafale test programme. The navy versions, M01 (aero- dynamics and structure) and M02 (avionics), have amassed more than 1,000 flights between them, with 166 carrier landings on the Foch. Four land-based test campaigns were also carried out, beginning in July 1992 at the US Navy's catapult-equipped bases at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Patuxent River, Maryland.


First landing

The first campaign cleared the Rafale M structurally, the second, beginning in January 1993, saw the entire flight envelope opened up with no weapons on board except Matra Magic air-to-air missiles. This cleared the aircraft for its first carrier landing, which took place on the Foch exactly on schedule in April 1993.

The second prototype, equipped with a near-production-standard navigation and armaments suite, was flown for the first time in November the same year. This was used essentially for development of the RBE2 radar, the Thomson-CSF/Dassault Electronique/Matra Spectra electronic-countermeasures system and Thomson-CSF nose-mounted optronics.

Two further land-based campaigns took place, in which the Rafale M was cleared in its most heavily armed configurations, loaded in one case with a pair of mock-up Matra Apache stand-off missiles and three 1,250litre external fuel tanks, and in a second configuration with two Aerospatiale AS30L laser-guided missiles, a single 2,000litre external fuel tank and a laser-designation pod.

The first rendezvous with the Charles de Gaulle is planned for mid-1998, although by then, according to Roche, the aircraft will be cleared for operational use following the final technical campaign aboard the Foch at the start of the year. "At this point, the aircraft will be fitted with the definitive mission-avionics suite," he says, adding that "-the Charles de Gaulle campaign is for the carrier, not the aircraft".

The Rafale M will be able to carry out the same missions as its air force opposite number, with essentially the same armaments. In the air-to-air role it will carry initially the Matra Magic 2 and Mica radar-guided missiles, the latter being joined in 2001/2 by the infra-red Mica version. For air-to-ground operations, it will be equipped from 2005 with the Apache anti-runway weapon and its Scalp cruise-missile variant, plus the new AASM guided bomb, able to be fitted with various guidance devices, which will be depending on the operation.

In 2006, the Rafale M will receive the ANF anti-ship missile, under development by Aerospatiale as an Exocet successor. This is a common development with the future ASMP - a medium-range nuclear missile planned for both the navy and air force which uses the same basic propulsion and guidance systems.

The Rafale M's greater weight and the limited capability of the Charles de Gaulle catapult will leave it with slightly less range than its air-force equivalent, at around 1,850km (1,000nm) radius of action in the air-to-air role, or 1,300km in "hi-lo-lo-hi" strike missions. Aboard the carrier, a fully loaded aircraft will be catapulted into the air, at a minimum weight of 22t against a planned 24t from land. (The current Super Etendard weighs in at around 12.5t.)

Dassault chief test pilot Yves Kerhervé says that the Rafale's wing design enables a "very low" carrier approach speed of 120-128kt (220-235km/h). "The aircraft is perfectly stable, whatever its configuration, with very precise control. The 16 degree approach angle is a long way from the critical 28.5 degree point, providing much better visibility and a far higher margin of safety compared to the Super Etendard and Crusader," he says. He adds that the Rafale will provide novice pilots with "far less demanding" carrier take-offs and landings - again increasing safety.


Low maintenance

Maintenance personnel will also welcome the introduction of the Rafale M, which tests have shown requires much less time in repair than a Super Etendard. Roche says: "We sent experienced technicians to sea to carry out engine and wing changes and demonstrated that most tasks could be done in half the time." .

Funding for the marine Rafale programme seems assured - if only because of the inevitable withdrawal of existing French maritime strike/attack aircraft and the arrival of the Charles de Gaulle.

Dassault has also met the requirements of previous government to bring down the cost of the programme by 10%, while new prime minister Lionel Jospin has pledged that air force and navy aircraft will be protected in the forthcoming defence review.

Source: Flight International