Paris Air Show

Rafale comes battle hardened

 - June 18, 2007, 7:26 AM

In the fighter aircraft business, there’s no substitute for combat experience, if you want to impress potential customers. The Dassault Rafale has now dropped bombs in anger as part of NATO’s stabilization effort in Afghanistan. Here at the show, the Rafale team (which also includes Snecma and Thales) and the French government are briefing several export delegations about this, as well as the aircraft’s steady progress toward full operational capability.

Rafales from the French air force and navy have flown 150 sorties and 640 hours over Afghanistan since March. Tasked with close air support (CAS), the air force has been flying two-ship sorties comprising one Rafale and one Mirage 2000D out of Dushanbe airbase in Tajikistan. The navy has similarly flown mixed sorties–Rafale plus Super Etendard–from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, located in the Arabian Sea. It has been a 500-mile transit from each location to the area of interest and each sortie has required three air-to-air refuelings.

GBU-12 bombs have been dropped on six occasions. Because the Rafales have not yet achieved a self-designation capability, their targets are being laser-illuminated by pods on the Mirages and Super Etendards. The Thales Damocles pod is not due to enter service on the Rafale until February 2009. The Sagem AASM GPS-guided bomb is now in final flight tests on the Rafale and will be available for operations later this year.

The Rafales that have flown over Afghanistan are F2 standard jets, with a more capable mission computer than on the first 13 aircraft that went into service with the navy back in 2004. The Rafale team is now working on the F3 upgrade, which adds the Reco-NG reconnaissance pod, the ASMP-A nuclear strike missile and the AM39 Exocet antiship missile.

Since last October, the Rafale team has also been working on an F3-Plus version, also known as the Roadmap contract. This will add a new-generation missile-warning system, a more complete laser-guided bomb capability to include GBU-24 and a new-generation Forward Sector Optronics (FSO) system (the EO/IR system that gives pilots visual identification of targets). But the most important part of F3+ is the addition of an active-array antenna to the aircraft’s Thales RBE2 radar. (For more detail on the RBE2 AA, see page 6 of tomorrow’s edition.)

To pay for this contract, the French government stretched delivery of some of the 120 Rafales that are already on order, of which nearly 50 have been delivered. Dassault said that the ultimate French objective is still to acquire 294 of these warplanes. All of them, except possibly those first 13 aircraft, will eventually be upgraded to F3 standard.

The first French air force Rafale squadron was declared operational exactly one year ago, at St. Dizier airbase. Before the deployment to Tajikistan, the squadron participated in a NATO Tiger Meet last October and a NATO Tactical Leadership Program (TLP) exercise early this year. The second Air Force squadron is due to start working-up this summer.

The Rafale has yet to attract an export order, though it came close in Korea and Singapore. Earlier this year, Dassault made a pitch to India for the sale of 40 Rafales to the F3+ standard. India is expected to issue a formal RFP for 120 new fighters.

Operational Impressions

Aviation International News spoke with two French military staff officers who have also been Rafale pilots, one from the air force, one from the navy, about the aircraft’s recent operational experience. Here’s what they said:

“We tested our swing role during the Tiger Meet, with good results. We could play in the air-to-ground role, while still monitoring air-to-air. We flew fighter sweep missions, then switched to strike and force protection. The strike missions included supersonic dash, and took place in a dense adversary environment.

“At the Tiger Meet, our two aircraft achieved 100-percent availability for the entire week. On the ramp, we demonstrated how the aircraft can be turned around by just one ground crew. The other teams were very impressed by that.

 “The FSO also worked very well. It allowed us to identify our opponents at longer ranges than they could see us, while still complying with the RoE [rules of engagement]. So we won all our air-to-air battles, which were against
F-16 MLUs and Tornado F3s.

“We think that our Link 16 [NATO-standard secure data communications system] is the key to interoperability. Using it, we were able to keep very quiet in combat. Lots of air forces say they are compliant with it, but some of their aircraft don’t have the data keys.

“We were surprised by the efficiency of the Spectra electronic warfare system. It gave us a DEAD [destruction of enemy air defenses] capability that we had not envisaged. Spectra gave us a bearing on a [simulated] SAM site, despite our having been deliberately given the wrong location by intelligence. Then the FSO slewed to confirm the location.

“At Dushanbe, we’ve achieved 12 maintenance man-hours per flying hour with three Rafales. That’s the same rate as our Mirage 2000Ds–which is a mature weapons system.

“I have flown foreign evaluation pilots in our two-seaters, who have also flown the Eurofighter and the Gripen. They told me that our man-machine interface and data fusion is better than those aircraft.”

Rafales for Saudi Arabia? The Facts

There has been some speculation that Saudi Arabia has evaluated the Rafale as an alternative to the Eurofighter Typhoon, because of the row in the UK over alleged corrupt dealings between the UK and the Kingdom in the previous Al Yamamah contracts. In particular, the recent BBC-TV Panorama program suggested that Prince Bandar, the son of the Saudi defense minister, flew to Paris for a meeting with then-President Jacques Chirac late last year, thereby prompting the UK government to call off a government investigation into the dealings.

AIN has learned that although Chirac hoped that Prince Bandar would express interest in the Rafale, he did not. Instead, Bandar discussed other French defense kit that could go to Saudi Arabia.

A couple of Saudi pilots have flown in a two-seat Rafale. But “there have never been any real negotiations, and certainly no discussions on price or standards,” a well-placed source told AIN.