The French Ministry of Defence’s DGA (Direction Générale de l’Armement), which functions as France’s defense procurement agency, approved the Dassault Rafale's latest F3-R standard on October 31, clearing the new sub-variant for operational service. The F3-R represents the latest step in the process of continuous evolutionary improvement to keep the aircraft upgraded in line with operational requirements. New aircraft on the production line will be delivered to F3-R standards, and in-service Rafales will be upgraded to the same standard, largely via new software releases, but with some hardware changes.
The F3-R standard will be extended to export aircraft in addition to those of the Armée de l’Air and Marine Nationale. It has already been acknowledged that the first three Rafale export deals were concluded on the basis of the capabilities endowed by the F3-R standard. The Rafale is now in full operational service in Egypt, while the first few aircraft for Qatar have flown, and they have now been joined in the air by the first Rafale built for India, which made its first flight on October 30.
Serialled RB008, the first Indian aircraft is a two-seat Rafale B. As the only aircraft from the batch to have its India-specific equipment to be incorporated in France rather than in India after delivery, it will be retained for trials and is slated to be the 36th and final aircraft to be delivered to India.
Launched at the end of 2013 and announced in January 2014, the F3-R standard development contract was placed with Dassault Aviation, MBDA, Thales, and Safran and saw the Rafale gaining a number of significant enhancements, including full integration of the MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) with the AESA RBE-2 AA radar, integration of the Thales Talios (targeting long-range identification optronic system) laser designator pod, and clearance of the laser-guided variant of the Safran AASM air-to-ground missile.
The first guided firing of a Meteor from a Rafale was conducted in April 2015, and qualification firings were performed in April 2017, but the extended reach of the Meteor can only be fully exploited with the AESA version of the RBE-2 radar, which was fitted to aircraft delivered since 2013.
The new Talios pod, originally known as the Pod de Désignation Laser de Nouvelle Génération (PDL-NG), was developed from 2012 as a replacement for the Damocles pod, whose performance lags that of competing laser designation pods. The Talios pod has enhanced target detection, recognition, and identification capabilities, with improved sensors and stabilization techniques and a third optical window to give improved ISR performance.
Work on the F3-R upgrade began in October. All 144 Rafale aircraft in service will be upgraded to the new standard. The first 10 upgraded aircraft, four of which will be delivered before the end of 2018, will be used for operational test and evaluation.
Dassault has completed initial feasibility studies for the next Rafale capability configuration, and will soon begin development of the F4 standard. This has yet to be finally defined but is expected to include integration of the new MICA NG (Missile d’Interception et de Combat Aérien Nouvelle Génération), which is intended to replace the current generation MICA. The DGA recently awarded a development contract to MBDA for the new weapon, which is expected to incorporate a redesigned infrared seeker with a matrix sensor, and a new AESA radio frequency seeker, as well as a double-pulse rocket motor and more propellant, for service from 2026.
Despite this good news for the Rafale program, Dassault announced its withdrawal from Canada’s competition to buy 88 new fighters on November 8, citing interoperability and encryption issues.