Paris Air Show

Rafales continue to bolster French services

 - December 15, 2006, 11:14 AM

With one carrier-borne squadron already operational, deliveries to the French air force well under way, an impressive range of weapons already qualified and significant upgrades now funded, the Rafale program comes to the 2005 Paris Air Show in very good shape. Together with partners Snecma and Thales, Dassault has produced another warplane that is the pride of all France. The only problem is–can the country really afford to buy 294 of them, as planned?

Ten days ago, the first operational single-seat Rafale C for the French air force (C102) was handed over. It followed four two-seat Rafale Bs that have already been delivered to the air force’s work-up base (Mont de Marsan), and all these airplanes are to the improved F2 standard, with multirole capability. A total of 48 Rafale F2s are due to be delivered by 2008. Previously, 10 Rafales Ms to the F1 standard were delivered to the first French navy squadron, which was declared fully operational in the air-to-air role in June last year. A further six B/C aircraft will be delivered to the air force this year, so that the 1/7 squadron can move to its home base at St. Dizier, where it is due to be declared fully operational in September next year.

C102 will make only a brief appearance here this week in the Dassault static park. The daily flight demonstration by Dassault test pilot Eric Gerard uses B301, an earlier two-seater that has been employed for development and customer demonstrations. A second early two-seater (B302) has been converted to F2 standard, along with M02, a naval single-seat prototype. Dassault also retains the first air force single-seater, C101, for development, along with two more Rafales, M1 and B01.

This fleet of development aircraft has accomplished much over the past few years, including:

• Flight envelope expansion to Mach 1.8 at 60,000 feet, 100 to 700 knots and 29.5 degrees angle-of-attack;

• Roll rates of 270 degrees/second and max 9g loads in the air-to-air configuration and 150 degrees/5.5g with heavy air-ground weapons;

• Terrain-following clearance to 100 feet (oversea) and 300 feet (overland) at 500 knots using digital data input, and to 500 feet using radar (with 300 feet to come soon);

• NATO Link 16 integration;

• Heavy weapons release including laser-guided bombs, Sagem AASM air-surface missiles and the MBDA Scalp cruise missile in two configurations;

• Subsonic flights with conformal tanks;

• First trials of direct voice input (DVI);

• Radar cross-section reduction and close-field measurement;

• New mission computer integration.

The new Thales mission data-processing unit (MDPU) for the F2 standard uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology and substitutes for six line replaceable units in the original computer was used in the F1 version. This earlier computer proved much less reliable than expected. By the time the F1 version entered service, it was also becoming obsolete–a problem common to other modern warplanes, since the pace of computing development has outstripped that of the airframes.

With the new MDPU, Dassault has been able to demonstrate fully synthesized system tracks on the Rafale, where target inputs from the radar, the Spectra electronic warfare system, the front sector optronics sensor and offboard sources are filtered and fused.  

Dassault and Thales have laid much emphasis on the capability of the Rafale’s RBE2 radar, which has an electronically scanned array (ESA). Unlike a mechanically steered antenna, they say, the radar beam can be steered to maintain scan on say, all elements of a four-ship enemy formation after it has split. It also provides enhanced multirole capability–for instance, the maps produced in Doppler beam sharpening mode are good enough to measure heights and shadows and to provide geolocation to a GPS-guided weapon.

Radar Upgrades

Being an ESA, it is easier for Thales to upgrade the RBE2 to an active array. A prototype flew on the Rafale in 2003, and in July last year Thales was awarded a contract to fully develop the active array using all-European components. It could form part of the F3 standard to be introduced in 2008, for which development and production contracts were awarded in February and December last year respectively. The software for this standard is already on the integration rig and will be flight-tested early next year.

There will be 59 F3 versions of the Rafale, bringing the total French order book to date to 120. F3 is also likely to include DVI and will certainly include a helmet-mounted display (Sagem’s Gerfaut was recently chosen in preference to the Thales offering). Although laser-guided bombs have already been flown on Rafale, the French air force deferred full integration of these until F3, since it already has a very capable platform in service–the Mirage 2000D.

The next batch of 12 airplanes for the French navy will be to F3 standard, as Super Etendard replacements in the strike role. The navy’s 10 F1s will also be brought to F3 standard via retrofit.

Looking further ahead, the Rafale team is planning an F4 version for service from 2012.

Higher performance M88 powerplants are in prospect, for F4 if not the later F3 production. Snecma has already carried out the first tests of a technology demonstrator, cofunded by the French ministry of defense, to lower the operating cost and improve reliability. The current M88-2 version offers 75kN (16,860 pounds) thrust in afterburner, but Snecma said this can be boosted to 90kN while reducing fuel burn and weight. Such an improvement would put the M88 on a par with the EJ200 engine powering the Eurofighter, which already achieves 90kN.

The question of whether the Rafale should be a single- or a two-seat warplane has been quite a saga in France. The navy was originally convinced of Dassault’s argument that one pilot could perform even the most demanding strike missions, thanks to such advanced features as data fusion and auto-terrain-following. The air force took a different view, especially since the Rafale was eventually due to replace the Mirage 2000N in the nuclear strike role. It insisted that two-thirds of its Rafales be (fully operational) two-seat Rafale Bs. Then the navy bought this argument, and work began on a Rafale N two-seater. Within a year, though, the navy had reverted to its original plan, having realized the extra life-cycle cost of the second crew member.

Dassault now says that customers can make up their own minds. The acquisition cost of the two-seat Rafale is only six percent more and, the company concedes, there are some roles that may best be performed by two crew, such as strike package leader.

The airframer is currently producing just one Rafale per month, when three would be a more economic rate. The truth is, the French government has not wanted to increase the pace of Rafale deliveries because of the cost–and also because the Mirage 2000 is still good for many years of service.

At the handover ceremony for C102 on June 3, French armaments director Francois Laureau noted that the cost of acquiring all 294 Rafales had now risen to €26.4 billion ($32.2 billion at the present exchange rate). That total includes design and development, and the Rafale is probably no more expensive than the Eurofighter or the F/A-18E/F on a unit production cost basis. Still, it’s a heavy burden for one country alone to pay. For France, though, the Rafale represents independence, as well as technical excellence.