The Dassault Rafale

v1.0.0 / 01 dec 02 / greg goebel / public domain

* In the final years of the Cold War, in the belief that the USSR was developing improved fighter aircraft, a number of Western nations began their own efforts to develop advanced "fourth generation" fighters to counter the Soviet threat.

The French entry into this field was the Dassault "Rafale". Although the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the threat the Western fourth-generation fighters were built to face didn't materialize, air forces still need improved fighters to replace aging existing aircraft, and the Rafale is now going into service. This document provides a short survey of the Rafale.



* Different Western nations had slightly different specific motives for developing a fourth-generation fighter. In the late 1970s, the Armee de l'Air (AdA, the French air force) was already fielding their new Dassault Mirage 2000 multirole fighter, and was thinking of what its next-generation successor would look like. The AdA also was faced over the next two decades with the obsolescence of many of their current first-line aircraft, including the Dassault Mirage III, 5 and F1 fighters; the Dassault Mirage IV bomber; and particularly the SEPECAT Jaguar strike aircraft. The AdA requirement for a replacement emerged as the "Avion de Combat Tactique (ACT / Tactical Combat Aircraft)".

Similarly, the Aeronavale (the French naval air arm) needed a replacement for their Dassault Etendard and Super Etendard strike aircraft, and in particular their US-built Vought F-8 Crusader fighters. The Aeronavale requirement emerged as the "Avion de Combat Marine (ACM / Naval Combat Aircraft).

There were many areas of convergence between the AdA and Aeronavale requirements, and so the two services were able to agree to develop a single multirole fighter to meet their needs. This agreement emerged in the form of a requirement for a demonstrator, designated the "Avion de Combat Experimental (ACX / Experimental Combat Aircraft)", as a first step towards an operational aircraft.

The ACX requirement specified an aircraft with a weight of about 9 tonnes (10 tons) that could carry at least six air-to-air missiles (AAMs) in the air combat role, and up to 3,500 kilograms (7,715 pounds) of ordnance over a combat radius of 650 kilometers (405 miles) in the attack role. This would turn out to be a relatively modest capability in comparison to the aircraft that finally emerged.

Dassault was authorized to begin full development of an ACX demonstrator in early 1983, naming the machine the "Rafale (Squall)", while SNECMA began work on a new afterburning turbofan for the ACX, the "M88". Two Rafale demonstrators were actually specified at the outset, but the order was later cut to one.

There were discussions with other potential European partners before and after this decision, but the French were insistent on developing a machine tailored to their own requirements, with France firmly in the driver's seat, and were not inclined to compromise. Their position was a "nonstarter" and the British, Germans, Italians, and Spanish moved off in 1985 to develop their own fourth generation fighter, the "EuroFighter", in parallel with the Rafale. The French went it almost completely alone in building the Rafale, not even leveraging major subsystems off of foreign technology, as the Swedes did with their Gripen fourth-generation fighter.

* Dassault began work on a "Rafale A" technology demonstrator effort in March 1984, with the machine rolled out on 14 December 1985. It was a sleek, single-seat, canard delta machine, fitted with two General Electric F404-GE-400 afterburning turbofans as used by the US F-18 Hornet, since the SNECMA M88 was not ready at that time.

The demonstrator performed its first flight on 4 July 1986. It exceeded Mach 1.3 on its first flight and Mach 1.8 a few days later. The Rafale A made its first formal public debut in September 1986. The demonstrator's capabilities were impressive enough to encourage the French Ministry of Defense to place a production order for the Rafale in April 1988.

The Rafale A continued to perform test flights in support of the development program. Although not capable of carrier operations, its flight test program included approaches and "touch and go" landings on the carriers CLEMENCEAU and FOCH to see if the design had any inherent "show stoppers" for carrier operations. As it turned out, the Rafale A's approach speed was even lower than that of the Super Etendard and the Crusader.

In May 1990, the Rafale A was refitted with one SNECMA M88 afterburning turbofan, intended for production Rafales, replacing the left-side GE F404. The Rafale A was finally retired in 1994, with prototypes for operational Rafales taking its place in the flight test program.

The Rafale A ended up on display at EPNER, the French test pilot school in Istres, but was later moved to the Dassault plant at Saint-Cloud. It remained on display there until the local authorities claimed that it was causing an unusual number of traffic accidents on the road outside the plant. Dassault was forced to remove it.

* The production order envisioned three versions of the Rafale:

Due to the defense shufflings that followed the end of the Cold War, the Rafale program encountered repeated delays but still managed to go forward. The black-painted "C01" prototype of the Rafale C performed its first flight in May 1991. Although two Rafale C prototypes had been planned, the second was judged redundant, but two prototypes, numbers "M01" and "M02", were built for the Rafale M. M01 took to the air in December 1991 and M02 followed in November 1993. The prototype for the Rafale B two-seater, "B01", performed its initial flight in April 1993, before the flight of M02.

M01 took a trip to the US in the summer of 1992 to perform initial carrier catapult trials at a land-based facility at US Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey, Europe having no comparable facility. M01 performed its first true carrier landing, on the FOCH, in April 1993.



* The Rafale C defines a baseline configuration for the Rafale family. The remarks below apply to the Rafale C, and are followed by descriptions of the other variants and their differences from the Rafale C.

The production Rafale has essentially the same general configuration as the Rafale A, but is slightly smaller. It also features changes to reduce its "radar cross section (RCS)", such as improved airframe contours, use of "radar absorbing material (RAM)", and a gold-plated canopy. In fact, for a time in the early 1990s, Dassault advertised the type as the "Rafale D", where "D" stood for "Discreet", to emphasize its semi-stealthy nature.

The Rafale also features much more use of composite materials than the Rafale A, which reduced both the aircraft's RCS and weight. It it relatively small for a twin-engine fighter, with a empty weight about 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds) greater than that of a single-engine F-16C and a maximum takeoff weight about 4,535 kilograms (10,000 pounds) greater.

The Rafale is powered by two SNECMA M88-2 turbofans, with 50 kN (5,100 kg / 11,240 lb) dry thrust and 75 kN (7,645 kg / 16,860 lb) afterburning thrust each, and fitted with "full authority digital engine controls (FADEC)". The engine inlets are fixed. The engines are started by a Microturbo auxiliary power unit (APU), which also provides ground power for aircraft systems. The M88-2 is designed powerful, reliable, and easy to maintain, with a modular configuration that makes it relatively simple to swap out subassemblies. SNECMA is working on an uprated M88-3, which would have 90 kN (9,175 kg / 20,233 lb) afterburning thrust. The Rafale will require larger engine intakes for the M88-3, but new intakes can be retrofitted to older aircraft with little difficulty.

The Rafale features a compound-sweep low-mounted main wing, and all-moving high-mounted canard foreplanes mounted just behind the cockpit. The wing has full-span elevons and leading edge slats. There is an airbrake on either side of the fuselage, just forward of the tail.

The Rafale is aerodynamically unstable to provide agility, and the machine features a digital "fly-by-wire (FBW)" system to keep it flying right. The fighter also has excellent short-field capabilities. A brake parachute is fitted in a fairing below the tailfin.

The aircraft has a fixed, removable inflight refueling probe mounted on the upper right side of the nose, and tricycle landing gear. The nose gear has twin wheels and retracts backward, while the main gear have single wheels and hinge in the wings toward the fuselage. The Rafale is designed to be reliable and easy to maintain under austere field conditions.

   _____________________   _________________   _______________________
   spec                    metric              english
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

   wingspan                10.90 meters        35 feet 9 inches
   length                  15.30 meters        50 feet 2 inches
   height                  5.34 meters         17 feet 6 inches
   empty weight            9,060 kilograms     19,975 pounds
   MTO weight              19,500 kilograms    42,990 pounds

   max speed               2,130 KPH           1,325 MPH / 1,150 KT 
   combat radius           1,095 KM            680 MI / 590 NMI
   _____________________   _________________   _______________________

* The Rafale is fitted with a single 30 millimeter GIAT 791B cannon, mounted on the right engine duct. The GIAT 791B has a cyclic rate of fire of 2,500 rounds per minute, and the fighter carries an ammunition store of 125 rounds.

The Rafale features 14 external stores attachments, including wingtip rails for "dogfighting" AAMs, as well as for airshow smoke generators; three stores pylons under each wing; fore and aft conformal stations for AAMs on each side of the fuselage; and fore and aft centerline pylons.

Total external warload capacity is 9,500 kilograms (20,925 pounds). Possible AAM loads include the proven Matra / BAE Dynamics Magic heat-seeking AAM, and the newer Matra / BAE Dyanmics "Missile d'Interception, de Combat d'Autodefense (MICA / Missile for Interception, Combat, & Self-Defense)".

The MICA was designed in parallel with the Rafale development effort. It is a highly agile, relatively long-range missile and comes in two versions, including the MICA IR, a heat-seeker, and the MICA EM (Electromagnetique), which has an active radar seeker.

The MICA IR has a "launch before lock" capability allowing it to engage distant targets without giving much warning of its approach through a radar signal. The MICA EM is capable of "fire and forget" operation. In the air defense role, the Rafale can carry up to ten MICAs. Rafale will also very likely carry the long-range, ramjet-powered Matra / BAE Dynamics "Meteor Beyond Visual Range AAM (Meteor BVRAAM)" when that missile becomes available late in the decade.

While the aircraft can carry dumb bombs and unguided rocket pods, the push these days is for smart munitions. The Rafale will carry US Paveway laser-guided bombs, using the Thales Damocles targeting pod, and the fighter will also carry the Matra-BAE Dynamics "Apache / Scalp" cruise missile.

The Apache and Scalp are almost identical externally, with a boxy fuselage, pop-out "switchblade" wings, and a belly air intake, but the Apache carries a submunition warload while the Scalp carries a unitary penetrating warhead. The Apache will not actually be carried by French Rafales, being reserved for the Mirage 2000, but it will be an option for export Rafales.

The French are also working on a new guided-bomb system, under the designation "Armament Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM / Modular Air To Surface Armament)". ASSM will provide modular components to fit dumb bombs with a "Global Positioning System / Inertial Navigation System (GPS/INS)" guidance kit, or a INS guidance kit with a "smart" imaging infrared seeker, either guidance system using a nose fin assembly to steer the bomb, as well as a tailfin assembly with a rocket booster and popout fins to increase span and range.

Another store that will probably be carried by the Rafale is the "Air Sol Moyenne Portee A (ASMP A / Air to Surface Medium Range A)" ramjet-powered, Mach 2.5, nuclear standoff missile. ASMP A is a follow-on to the current ASMP standoff missile carried by the Mirage 2000. An antiship variant of the ASMP A, the "ANF", is also being considered.

The ASMP A / ANF program appears to be on hold for the moment, but the French appear to be interested in following through on the program. In any case, the Rafale will be qualified for the proven Exocet solid-fuel antiship missile, and it is plausible that it may carry the older ASMP if the ASMP A program remains stalled.

French Rafales will be able to carry the "Reconnaissance Nouvelle Generation (Reco NG)" digital reconnaissance pod, which will contain day-night electro-optical sensors, resident processing power, a solid-state recorder, and a high-speed datalink. The Reco NG will go into service in 2006 for use on Mirage 2000N fighters, and will begin service with the Rafale in 2008.

The Rafale's rear centerline pylon and the two inner wing pylons on each wing are "wet" and can be used for carriage of external tanks. All five wet pylons can carry 1,150 liter (304 US gallon) conformal fuel tanks or 1,250 liter (330 US gallon) supersonic fuel tanks. Up to three of the big bulbous-nosed 2,000 liter (528 US gallon) external tanks, much like those those developed for the Mirage 2000 but lacking tailfins, can also be carried, with one on the centerline pylon and one on the inner wet pylon on each wing.

* The pilot sits on a Martin-Baker Mark 16F "zero-zero" (zero speed, zero altitude) ejection seat, inclined 29 degrees to improve pilot tolerance to gee forces, under a canopy that hinges open to the right. An "on-board oxygen generating system (OBOGS)" is provided to eliminate the need to stockpile oxygen canisters.

The pilot flies the aircraft with a sidestick controller mounted on the right side of the seat and a throttle on the left, with both studded with "hands on throttle and stick" controls. The Rafale will also provide "direct voice input (DVI)" capabilities, allowing the pilot to perform actions through spoken commands. The DVI system will have a vocabulary of 90 to 300 words, with first-time recognition 95% of the time. DVI will not be included in initial production Rafales.

The Rafale features a "glass cockpit" and a comprehensive combat avionics suite. The glass cockpit is startlingly austere and would probably come as a complete shock to a fighter pilot from the days of dials and indicators. It includes a wide-angle holographic "head up display (HUD)" to display most of the relevant information using sophisticated symbology, and two accessory color flat-panel multifunction displays (MFDs) with touch input overlays. Pilots will wear special silk-lined leather gloves with no seams on the fingertips to use the touch overlays, and the gloves will also have chamois pads for cleaning the screens. In addition, in full development, the pilot will have a helmet-mounted sight.

The avionics suite includes:

* The Rafale B is very similar to the Rafale C, except of course for the tandem seats. The two seats are covered by a one-piece canopy that hinges open to the right. The Rafale B is fully equipped with operational kit, and the control layout for the front and back seats is as similar as possible to ensure maximum operational flexibility. It has an empty weight about 350 kilograms (772 pounds) greater than the Rafale C, and less internal fuel capacity.

The Rafale B was originally seen primarily as a conversion trainer, to be purchased in small quantities. It was believed that improvements in aircraft avionics would allow the pilot of the single-seat Rafale C to perform all operational missions. However, the Gulf War in 1991 demonstrated to the AdA that strike and reconnaissance missions often required two aircrew, and so the service substantially increased the proportion of two-seaters in their buy.

* The Rafale M is very similar to the Rafale C, the only really visible differences being taller, longer nose gear, with catapult attachment fixtures, and fit of a stinger-type arresting hook under the tail. The longer nose gear, which gives the Rafale M a nose-up attitude on the ground, required removal of the front centerline stores pylon.

The Rafale C and B actually do have a runway arresting hook, but it is much less prominent. The Rafale M requires a much more formidable since a carrier jet snags the cable at full throttle in case the landing is a "bolter" and the aircraft has to come around for another try.

Other changes to the Rafale M include a stronger airframe and main gear to withstand "smackdown" landings on carriers; a built-in, power-operated pilot boarding ladder; a carrier microwave landing system that makes landings procedure much easier than with earlier French carrier aircraft; and a "Telemir" inertial navigation system that can obtain position reference data from the carrier.

The modifications to the Rafale M added about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) to its empty weight relative to the Rafale C. In the interests of commonality with other Rafale variants, the Rafale M does not have folding wings.

* The Rafale BM of course integrates all the carrier kit of the Rafale M with the two-seat cockpit of the Rafale B. The prototype hasn't flown yet, but nobody expects any surprises, though obviously it will have the greatest empty weight of the Rafale family. Apparently the GIAT cannon will be deleted, since the longer nose gear of the naval Rafale cuts into internal space and the room will be needed for avionics.



* Although the Rafale development program has gone well, the program has not gone quite so smoothly politically. The generally unexpected end of the Cold War caused complications for all the Western fourth-generation fighter efforts, resulting in program stretchouts and reduced buys.

First flight of a production Rafale, an Aeronavale Rafale M, was in July 1999, the same day the M02 prototype Rafale M landed on the new French aircraft carrier CHARLES DE GAULLE. The Aeronavale's requirements were regarded as more pressing than those of the AdA, since the Aeronavale's "first line" air combat fighter was the antiquated Vought Crusader, while the AdA had the perfectly modern Mirage 2000.

Initial service deliveries of the Rafale M were in December 2001, with the first Aeronavale Rafale M squadron fully operational, on the CHARLES DE GAULLE, in the summer of 2002. As with the EuroFighter, the Rafale is going into service in a phased fashion:

The Aeronavale expects to receive its first two-seat Rafale BM in 2007, along with the first F3-standard full multirole single-seat Rafale M. All 60 Aeronavale machines are expected to be delivered by 2012. There is currently a debate on the mix of two-seat and single-seat machines, with the inclination being to increase the number of two-seat machines.

Initial delivery to the AdA, of a two-seat Rafale B, was in December 2000. The AdA expects to obtain 212 Rafales, about 60% of them being two-seaters.

* Dassault officials are considering next-generation improvements to the Rafale. One high-profile future option is next-generation computing systems and data links to allow a two-seat Rafale B to control unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and strike support.

Reconnaissance UAVs would be able to identify targets and even designate them with a laser for attacks with guided munitions launched by the Rafale, or an armed UAV could perform the attacks directly. Communications between the Rafale and the UAVs could be performed over satellite links, and such communications links could also be used by the Rafale to obtain information from surveillance platforms, such as an AWACS or Joint-STARS aircraft.

Another possible improvement is an "Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA)" version of the RBE2 radar. An AESA can be thought of as an "RF array processor", made up of a grid of "transmit/receive (T/R)" modules that each have transmitter and receiver circuitry. The T/R modules operate together, with some modules being programmed to perform one set of functions, say to operate as a radar, while others simultaneously operate as, say, a jammer.

* Dassault has banded together with Thales and SNECMA in the "Rafale International" business group, which is working on a Mark 2 export version of the fighter. Dassault has a 60% share in the group, while Thales and SNECMA both have a 20% share.

The Rafale Mk.2 will have the uprated SNECMA M88-3 powerplant with 20% more thrust; improved ground attack software; the AESA RBE2 radar; and conformal fuel tanks.

So far, the Rafale has won no export orders. In 2002, Dassault lost the award for a South Korean competition to the Boeing F-15, which frustrated Dassault officials to the point where they considered for a time a legal challenge to the award. Ironically, Dassault is still having good luck with export sales of the cheaper Mirage 2000, with the latest versions of this proven fighter benefiting from technology developed for the Rafale.



* Sources include:

* Revision history:

   v1.0.0 / 01 dec 02 / gvg