In the last two years, France’s radar and airborne electronics firm Thales has enjoyed steady progress in the development and integration of new radar and avionic modes for the Dassault Rafale fighter, the latest being the F3 configuration. The French government signed a production order for this configuration in December and it should be fully deployed by 2008. Thales is now set to take another major step that will mean a significant enhancement for the Rafale’s combat capability.
When the company first introduced the RBE2 radar for the Rafale, it became one of the very first radar houses in the world to develop an electronically scanning array (ESA) for a fighter aircraft. While the original RBE2 was only a passive ESA, it still was one of the most capable multimode radars of its time.
RBE2 is officially rated as capable of tracking up to 40 targets and engaging as many as eight of them at once, and it can perform automatic identification friend or foe (IFF) interrogation when in dogfight mode. It employs air-to-surface attack modes for both ground and naval targets, as well as navigation and automatic terrain following modes, and can operate in jamming environments. “The number of targets that it can track simultaneously are limited only by how many the pilot can keep track of,” said a Thales official.
Since the late 1990s, Thales has been working on a updated version of the RBE2 that would use an active electronically scanning array (AESA) in place of the passive array originally developed for the aircraft. This RBE2-AA (active array) variant has been flown both on the Thales Mystère testbed aircraft and then on a Rafale for flight test.
Thales has now been allocated funding by the French ministry of defense to develop the AESA variant of the RBE2, which would enter service with the French air force Rafales in 2012 as part of the next-generation F4 configuration. “What causes some people to ask questions about this F4 AESA version,” explained the Thales representative, “is that we have now demonstrated that taking off the old passive array and replacing it with an active one is a simple plug-and-play exercise. So then they ask us, ‘why do you need funds for development and integration if this is a plug-and-play piece of hardware?’”
The answer is that the RBE2 AESA model that was developed and flown on these testbed aircraft was a technology demonstrator that was built using U.S.-made transmit/receive modules. The AESA model that is now in development will be a prototype of an all-Europe AESA design with no U.S. content. Once it is ready to fly, Thales engineers will maximize the performance of the modes on the radar that already exist on the passive variant, then develop additional modes that would only be feasible with an AESA. One improvement that will be made eventually is to enhance the RBE2’s noncooperative target recognition functionality. This enables a radar to identify an approaching fighter by literally counting the number of turbine blades in that aircraft’s engines or other characteristics when there is no possibility to interrogate the target with IFF.
Thales and its industry partners at Dassault may have to accelerate this development timeline should the Rafale be selected by the Singapore air force this year as the island city state’s new high-end air superiority fighter. Singapore is increasingly nervous about the growing number of sophisticated fighters operated by its neighbors and the possibilities of a slip in deliveries of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Should the latter become the case, “We would be glad to sell Singapore an additional 20 Rafales,” said the French representative.