France plays the long game for Dassault Rafale exports

Dubai Air Show » 2009
November 14, 2009, 2:54 AM

The Dassault Rafale combat jet may yet prove to be an export winner, despite no such orders being placed to date. The OEM is negotiating a contract with the United Arab Emirates air force, and Kuwait has formally expressed interest in the aircraft. The all-French jet, marketed by the Rafale team, which is composed of engine-maker Snecma and electronics group Thales as well as Dassault itself, is a front-runner in current competitions in Brazil and Switzerland and is one of six contenders in India.

What are the attractions of the Rafale that make it such a strong contender? It is more operationally mature and versatile than its key European rival, the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon. It is offered for export with fewer restrictions on the transfer and employment of its technology than its U.S. rivals–the F-15, F-16 or F/A-18–and, to meet French requirements alone, it now seems likely to remain in production far longer than any of those jets. Also, despite the low production rate to date, Team Rafale seems able to compete on price, thanks to a lean and experienced organization.

The Rafale was first deployed in support of NATO troops in Afghanistan in 2005. Those aircraft flew from the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle, and among the small initial batch of F1 standard aircraft delivered to the French Navy in 2004 for air-superiority missions. The F2 standard quickly followed, introducing a more capable mission computer and air-ground capability, including the large MBDA Scalp air-to-surface missile. The French air force began dropping GBU-12 laser-guided bombs in close-air-support missions over Afghanistan in March 2007. One year later, the Rafale was back in theater with the new Safran (Sagem) AASM modular “smart” bomb.

“Some people in ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] have described the AASM as ‘the magic bomb,’” said Jean-Marc Gasparini, the Rafale program director at Dassault Aviation. The AASM (air-to-ground modular weapon) is a 550-pound glide bomb that can be launched from high or low altitude at depression angles of more than 90 degrees, and can reach targets more than 30 miles from the launch platform. Initial production versions were guided by GPS/INS alone, but an infrared seeker is now being added to provide accuracy down to one meter. The AASM can also be equipped with a laser seeker, making it the only weapon of its kind.

F3 “Omnirole” Version
Gasparini told AIN that the next deployment of Rafales to Afghanistan will be to the F3 standard, which entered service in France last year. The F3 is the “omnirole” version, which by 2011 is to be additionally capable of firing AM-39 Exocet Block 2 anti-ship missiles and the ASMP-A nuclear strike missile. The Thales Damocles IR/laser navigation and targeting pod and the Thales Areos reconnaissance pod (previously known as Reco-NG) are also part of the F3 upgrade. All previously delivered French Rafales are being upgraded to the F3 standard, including the 10 Navy F1s, for which a contract is imminent, according to Gasparini.

The F3 standard also introduced improvements to the Rafale’s electronic warfare system called Spectra and designed jointly by MBDA and Thales. These improvements include the ability to cue the aircraft’s Front Sector Optronics (FSO) sensor to potential targets, thereby providing a fully passive means of detection. The full functionality of the Rafale’s Thales RBE2 fire-control radar system was also achieved with F3, including submeter resolution in the synthetic aperture model.

Gasparini noted that the F3 was originally the “ultimate” version of the Rafale, as far as the French government was concerned. But technology moves on, and France is now funding the development of an “F3-Plus” standard, which will include an active-array version of the RBE2; a new missile warning system from MBDA; further improvements to the FSO; integration of MBDA’s new Meteor air-to-air missile and the GBU-24 Paveway III “smart” bomb; and a new-generation version of the Snecma M88-2 powerplant that will deliver lower life-cycle costs. This new package of improvements is to be available from 2012.

Electronically Scanned Array
The RBE2 was designed from the outset with an electronically scanned array (ESA). For years, the Rafale team touted the technical advantages for a multirole combat jet of an ESA versus a mechanically scanned array, such as the ability to switch seamlessly between air-to-air and air-to-ground tasks. The French air force and navy were finally convinced. Team Rafale is now emphasizing to export customers the additional performance and redundancy offered by the active array and the relative ease of upgrading the RBE2 with the new technology.

The Rafale’s two M88-2 turbofans deliver a maximum 17,000 pounds of thrust each. Competitors have claimed that the Rafale is underpowered. But the French air force and navy are evidently happy with the aircraft’s performance and they have declined to fund development of an increase in the thrust of the M88. Instead, it seems that the UAE will pick up the tab, boosting the M88 to 20,000 pounds to improve the aircraft’s hot-and-high performance. However, Gasparini told AIN that the Rafale’s ability to take off with the existing powerplants in a “heavy” configuration comprising two Scalp anti-ship missiles and three fuel tanks had already been demonstrated in Abu Dhabi under the hottest conditions.

Interoperability is a key selling point for any modern combat jet. Does the Rafale’s French nationality confer a disadvantage here? Gasparini noted that the jet has already been equipped with Link 16 to receive and transmit tactical information, and the improved data modem to transmit images to the ground. The Rafale squadrons of the French air force and navy have fully participated in various NATO exercises, but the ability to downlink target video to U.S.-supplied Rover laptops held by forward air controllers has become the de facto standard in Afghanistan this year, he admitted. There is no problem adding this capability to the Rafale, but there were bureaucratic delays in achieving the necessary transatlantic agreement, Gasparini said. “Now that we have the ‘ticket’ for ROVER, we can quickly integrate,” he added.

Service Support
No one buys an expensive warplane these days without understanding how much more it might cost to support the jet in service. French warplanes have not enjoyed the best of reputations in this regard. Last June, however, Dassault announced the signing of an in-service support contract with the French defense ministry. It is a 10-year “by-the-hour” deal whereby the French air force and navy will pay for only the number of hours actually flown. However, the new style agreement covers only those aspects of the Rafale for which Dassault is responsible; the French government is still negotiating similar flat-rate deals for support of the Rafale with Snecma and Thales. Similar support contracts are on offer to export customers, Gasparini told AIN.

No one in the French camp expects the UAE to close a deal for the Rafale at this Dubai Airshow. Indeed, caution is the watchword in Paris after some previous disappointments. Dassault officials are convinced that the Rafale was a clear winner of the new fighter evaluations in both Korea and Singapore–until superpower politics intervened. Both countries selected the F-15 Strike Eagle instead. As Dassault chairman and CEO Charles Edelstenne noted at the last Paris Air Show: “Our teams are in discussion with a lot of countries, and enjoy the full support of the President of the Republic. However, we must be wary of crying victory too soon.”

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