The Dassault Rafale

v1.0.8 / 01 mar 14 / 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 in service. This document provides a history and description of the Rafale.

Dassault Rafale C



* Different Western nations had slightly different specific motives for developing a fourth-generation fighter. In the late 1970s, the Armee de l'Air (AA, the French air force) was already fielding the new Dassault Mirage 2000 multirole fighter, and was considering a next-generation successor. The AA also was faced with the obsolescence over the next two decades 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 AA 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 the Dassault Etendard and Super Etendard strike aircraft, and in particular the service's 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 AA 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 specification compared 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 bypass turbojet 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. The French 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 this initial 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 or the Crusader.

In May 1990, the Rafale A was refitted with one SNECMA M88 bypass turbojet, 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 asked move 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 C also features much more use of composite materials than the Rafale A, which reduces 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 bypass turbojets, with 50 kN (5,100 kgp / 11,240 lbf) dry thrust and 75 kN (7,645 kgp / 16,860 lbf) 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 to be 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 kgp / 20,233 lbf) 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. On the prototypes, there was an airbrake on either side of the fuselage, just forward of the tail, but the airbrakes were deleted in production machines.

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.

Dassault Rafale C

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
   wing area               46.0 sq_meters      495.16 sq_feet
   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 Dynamics "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: the MICA IR (Infrared), 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.

While the aircraft can carry dumb bombs and unguided rocket pods, the push these days is towards smart munitions. The Rafale can carry US Paveway laser-guided bombs (LGBs), guiding them with the Thales Damocles targeting pod, and can 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 is an option for export Rafales.

The French have also introduced a new guided-bomb system, under the designation "Armament Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM / Modular Air To Surface Armament)". ASSM provides 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 Rafale store is the "Air Sol Moyenne Portee A (ASMPA / Air to Surface Medium Range A)" ramjet-powered, Mach 2.5, nuclear standoff missile. ASMPA is a follow-on to the earlier ASMP standoff missile carried by the Mirage 2000, with double the range. An antiship variant of the ASMPA, the "ANF", is also being considered, but the Rafale is begin qualified for the proven Exocet antiship missile in any case.

French Rafales are able to carry the Thales "Reconnaissance Nouvelle Generation (Reco NG)" digital reconnaissance pod, which contains day-night electro-optical sensors, resident processing power, a solid-state recorder, and a high-speed datalink.

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) 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 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)" eliminates 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 also provides "direct voice input (DVI)" capabilities, allowing the pilot to perform actions through spoken commands. The DVI system has a vocabulary of 90 to 300 words, with first-time recognition 95% of the time. DVI was not 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 wear special silk-lined leather gloves with no seams on the fingertips to use the touch overlays, and the gloves also have chamois pads for cleaning the screens. In addition, the pilot has a Sagem Gerfaut helmet-mounted sight, though this was also not included in initial production.

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.

Dassault Rafale B

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 AA that strike and reconnaissance missions often required two aircrew, and so the service then 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 hook 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.



* Although the Rafale development program went well, the program did not go quite so smoothly politically. The somewhat 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 AA, since the Aeronavale's "first line" air combat fighter was the honored but antiquated Vought Crusader, while the AA had the perfectly modern Mirage 2000.

Dassault Rafale M

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 went into service in a phased fashion:

A new "Pod de Designation Laser de Nouvelle Generation (PDL NG)" targeting pod is now in development by Thales for Rafale service, intended to replace the Damocles pod. Similarly, operations of AA combat assets in Afghanistan have encouraged development of smaller guided munitions, such as unguided rockets fitted with laser guidance heads or 20 kilogram (44 pound) class guided glide bombs. Current munitions are costly and overkill for fighting insurgents, particularly in urban areas where heavier munitions can result in severe "collateral damage".

A Rafale F4 standard is being considered but has not yet been defined, and there's thought of working towards a "mid-life upgrade" in the post-2025 timeframe.

All 60 Aeronavale machines are expected to be delivered by 2012. Although the Aeronavale had planned that 35 of the 60 would be Rafale BM two-seaters, the Rafale BM was canceled in late 2004 as an economy measure. Ironically, the planned uses of the money released by the cancellation included updates to Rafale systems that had become obsolete during the extended development cycle, as well as funding for the next Rafale production batch.

Initial delivery to the AA, of a two-seat Rafale B, was in December 2000. Introduction to operational AA squadron service, with aircraft to F2 standard, was in the summer of 2006. Some of the aircraft were placed on "quick reaction alert" to help defend against terrorist actions, and by the spring of 2007 six were in combat operations in Afghanistan, supporting NATO troops fighting Taliban insurgents. They were F2 standard machines, hastily upgraded to provide LGB and improved self-defense capability. They were not initially capable of carrying the Damocles pod and had to rely on other ground forces or Mirage 2000Ds for targeting.

The Rafale introduced the AASM to combat in Afghanistan in 2008. A deployment there in 2010 featured F3-standard machines that could carry the Damocles and the Reco NG pod, with full qualification of weaponry. Rafales participated in the NATO air campaign in support of the Libyan revolution in 2011, the Rafales being kitted up with Damocles and AASM.

The AA expects to obtain 212 Rafales. Originally the plan had been for 60% of them to be two-seaters, but along with the cancellation of the Rafale BM in late 2004, the service did another about-face, deciding to only acquire two-seaters for conversion training and the nuclear strike mission, reducing the proportion of two-seaters to about 40%. Dassault officials believe that the improved software provided by the F3 standard actually will allow the single-seaters to perform complex missions without overburdening the pilot.

Dassault Rafale B

* Dassault officials are considering next-generation improvements to the Rafale, with features such as thrust-vectoring and uprated M88 engines; improved stealth; and enlarged AESA arrays to provide greater spherical coverage. A high-profile future option is next-generation computing systems and data links to allow a two-seat Rafale B to control drones for reconnaissance and strike support. Reconnaissance drone 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 drone could perform the attacks directly. Communications between the Rafale and the drones 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.

Dassault has also been working along with the French space agency CNES on a very interesting new scheme for the Rafale, the "Airborne Micro-Launcher (AML)", which would be a spacelift booster carried by the Rafale to put small satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). The initial concept envisioned a launcher carried on the aircraft's centerline pylon that could put a 50 kilogram (110 pound) satellite into LEO, but new thinking has led to a launcher carried on the centerline pylon augmented by twin solid-rocket boosters, connected by standoffs and fitted to the Rafale's main wing pylons. This configuration could put a very capable 150 kilogram (330 pound) satellite into LEO.

The main potential client is the French military, which would like to have a "quick response" space launch capability. There is also interest in the potential use of the AML as an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon, but that is controversial. The Americans and Soviets worked on ASATs as far back as the 1960s, but never did more than perform test shots with them: once one side started nailing the other's satellites, retaliation would be certain to follow. The intercepts would not merely wipe out the military space assets of both sides, but also strew near-Earth space with debris that would render operations of any satellite very difficult. However, so far the AML doesn't appear to have gone any farther than the concept stage.

* 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.

The Rafale was slow to win 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. Dassault was similarly scooped by the F-15 in a deal for Singapore; the company seemingly scored a win in the summer of 2009 with Brazil indicating interest in ordering 36 Rafales -- but then the Brazilian requirement went on hold. The first actual win was with India, with the Indian government indicating that the Rafale won a requirement for 126 aircraft, though the deal was still subject to further negotiation. Given that the Indian government has a reputation for inefficiency, no doubt nerves are frayed at Dassault until deliveries start.



* Sources include:

* Revision history:

   v1.0.0 / 01 dec 02 
   v1.0.1 / 01 nov 04 / Review & polish.
   v1.0.2 / 01 nov 06 / Review & polish.
   v1.0.3 / 01 apr 07 / Rafale in Afghanistan.
   v1.0.4 / 01 mar 09 / Review & polish.
   v1.0.5 / 01 jun 09 / Review & polish.
   v1.0.6 / 01 may 10 / Review & polish.
   v1.0.7 / 01 apr 12 / India sales win.
   v1.0.8 / 01 mar 14 / F3+ deliveries.