France Launches Rafale F4 Upgrade

 - January 24, 2019, 12:11 PM
Two Rafales fly with a Phénix tanker/transport during the trio's visit to Réunion. The aircraft arrived at the Inidan Ocean island after a stop at the French air force's detachment in Djibouti, but returned to France in a non-stop flight. (Photo: French defense ministry)

On a visit to Dassault Aviation’s facility at Bordeaux-Mérignac earlier this month, France’s armed forces minister, Florence Parly, announced a €1.9 billion ($2.16 billion) development and integration contract that launches the F4 Standard of the Rafale multi-role fighter. The new version has been agreed upon as part of France’s 2019-2025 military programming law, and comes shortly after the F3-R standard was qualified.

With work being performed by Dassault (as lead integrator), Thales, Safran, and MBDA, Standard F4 introduces a number of new features, the most important of which is an improvement in the aircraft’s connectivity in both national and allied contexts, through software-defined radio, new links, and satellite communications. Attention is being paid to cross-platform connectivity and collaboration and, as such, the F4 is seen as an important step in the development of the Système de Combat Aérien du Futur (SCAF, future air combat system) sixth-generation fighter being jointly developed with Germany.

Further system enhancements will be made to the Rafale’s sensor suite, including the RBE2 AESA radar, Talios targeting pod, and the OSF frontal sector optronics system. Likewise, the Spectra electronic warfare system will also receive improvements to maintain its ability to deter emerging threats. Weapons enhancements will be made through future developments of the ASMP-A nuclear missile, Scalp stand-off attack missile, MICA NG air-to-air missile, and a 1000-kg version of the AASM precision-guided weapon. In-service support and readiness will be improved through the adoption of processes such as fault diagnosis assistance, preventative maintenance, and the upgrading of the M88 engine’s computer. Overall, the aircraft’s architecture is to be made more capable of accepting new technology insertions as they become available.

Under current plans Standard F4 will be implemented in two increments, the first in 2023 and the second in 2025. This allows the program to adopt new technologies as they become available rather than waiting for the full system to be ready. The first batch of F4.1 Rafales will comprise 28 aircraft, already contracted for, while the later F4.2 batch will comprise 30 machines that are due for delivery by 2030. These are expected to be ordered in 2023 and will bring expected French Rafale procurement to 210. Qualification of F4 is slated for 2024, but Dassault reports that some elements could become available by 2022, and some elements could be retrofitted to current in-service aircraft. The Rafale is planned to serve until at least 2050, with SCAF scheduled to enter service from around 2040.

In the meantime, two EC 2/4 “La Fayette” Rafale Bs left the airfield at Réunion in the southern Indian Ocean on January 17 on the type’s longest flight to date. Accompanied by one of the French air force’s new A330 MRTT Phénix tanker/transports, the pair covered the more than 9,000 km (5,600 miles) to their base at Saint-Dizier, France, in just under 12 hours. The Phénix carried cargo and passengers and refueled the Rafales twice along the way. Three other top-ups were provided by two Boeing C-135FR tankers. On their return to France, the Rafales conducted a practice ASMP-A missile launch profile while evading interceptors before they landed.

Dassault is currently building Rafales for Qatar, which expects to establish a training unit in France in the coming months. The company is also hopeful of receiving a follow-on order for 12 more Rafales from Egypt in the next few weeks when Président Macron visits the North African country.