The Dassault Rafale (Squall) is a French twin-engined delta-wing highly agile multi-role fighter aircraft designed and built by Dassault Aviation. The Rafale is being produced both for land-based use with the French Air Force and for carrier-based naval operations with the French Navy. It has also been marketed for export. While several countries have expressed interest in the Rafale, there have been no foreign sales as of yet.
In the mid 1970s, both the French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) and Navy (Aéronavale) had a requirement (the Navy's being rather more pressing) to find a new generation of fighter (principally to replace AdlA SEPECAT Jaguars and Aéronavale F-8 Crusaders), and their requirements were similar enough to be merged into one project.
The Rafale A technology demonstrator was rolled out in late 1985 and made its maiden flight on 4 July 1986. The SNECMA M88 engines being developed were not considered sufficiently mature for the initial trials programme to be conducted without risk (though their development status has often been underplayed), so the demonstrator flew with General Electric F404-GE-400 afterburning turbofans as used on the F/A-18 Hornet. Production orders were placed in 1988.
Further testing continued, including carrier touch-and-go landings and test-flying early M88 engines, before the Rafale A was retired in 1994. Though the Rafale A and British Aerospace EAP were broadly comparable, when the first Eurofighter made its maiden flight in March 1994, pre-series Rafales had been flight-testing for three years, including carrier trials (Rafale C01, Rafale M01, and Rafale B01 first flew in May 1991, December 1991, and April 1993 respectively). Three versions of Rafale were in the initial production order:
The prototype Rafale C flew in 1991, the first of two Rafale M prototypes flew later that year. The prototype Rafale B flew in early 1993, and the second Rafale M prototype flew later that year. Catapult trials were initially carried out between July 13 and August 23, 1992 at NAS Lakehurst in New Jersey, USA and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, USA, as France had no land-based catapult test facility. The aircraft then undertook trials aboard the carrier Foch.
Initially the Rafale B was to be just a trainer, but Gulf War and Kosovo experience showed that a second crewmember is invaluable on strike and reconnaissance missions, and therefore more Rafale Bs were ordered, replacing some Rafale Cs. 60% of the aircraft will be two seaters. A similar decision was made by the Navy, who initially did not have a two-seat aircraft on order; the program nevertheless was stopped.
Political and economic uncertainty meant that it was not until 1999 that a production Rafale M flew.
At one time the French forces were expected to order 294 Rafales: 232 for the Air Force and 60 for the Navy. But as time passed, these number dropped and to date 120 Rafales have been officially ordered. These are being delivered in three separate batches, the most recent being the December 2004 order for 59 Rafales, though the French Ministry of Defence has revealed that this figure is currently under study and is likely to be reduced to 51 aircraft "for the same overall cost". It was hinted that the sacrifice of 8–12 aircraft would "allow for the introduction of new sensors developed by the French industry on this batch.
The marine version has priority since the aircraft it is replacing are much older Vought F-8 fighters Service deliveries began in 2001 and the type "entered service" on 4 December 2000, though the first squadron, Flotille 12, did not actually reform until 18 May 2001. The unit embarked on the Charles de Gaulle in 2002, becoming fully operational on 25 June 2004, following an extended opeval (operational evaluation) which included flying limited escort and tanker missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan.
The Armee de l'Air received its first three Rafale Bs (to F2 standards) in late December 2004. They went to the Centre d'Expériences Aériennes Militaires (CEAM) at Mont-de-Marsan for operational evaluation and associated pilot conversion training. The first Armée de l'Air frontline unit, Escadron de Chasse 1/7 Provence, will form at Saint-Dizier during 2006, delayed deliveries having forced some delay to the squadron's stand up date. Full Operational Capability (FOC) was until recently still optimistically scheduled for September 2006, but has now slipped back to mid-2007, when the type should be fully operational as an omni-role fighter/fighter-bomber with MICA air-to-air missiles, SCALP EG cruise missiles, GPS-guided bombs, and laser-guided bombs (LGBs) (though the latter will be designated by other platforms or by ground based systems).
The unit system cost is €91 million, or €88 million including development cost per aircraft.
The unit flyaway price as of 2006 is €51.8 million for the Air Force version, and €56.6 million for the Navy version.
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The Rafale features a delta wing combined with an active forward canard to maximize maneuverability (withstanding +9G or -3G) while maintaining stability in flight; the forward canard also reduces landing speed to 115 knots. The aircraft can operate from 400 meter runways.
The Rafale carries, for the first time in aviation history, an integrated electronic survival system named SPECTRA which features a software-based virtual stealth technology. The most important sensor is the Thales RBE2 passive electronically scanned multi-mode radar. Thales claims to have achieved unprecedented levels of situational awareness through the earlier detection and tracking of multiple air targets for close combat and long-range interception, as well as real time generation of three-dimensional maps for terrain-following and the real time generation of high resolution ground maps for navigation and targeting.
However, in those circumstances when signature management is required, the Rafale can use several passive sensor systems.
The front-sector electro-optical system or Optroniques Secteur Frontal (OSF), developed by Thales, is completely integrated within the aircraft and can operate both in the visible and infrared wavelengths.
The SPECTRA electronic warfare system, jointly developed by Thales and EADS France, provides the aircraft with the highest survivability assets against airborne and ground threats. The real-time data link allows communication not only with other aircraft, but also with fixed and mobile command and control centres. For those missions requiring it, the Rafale will also eventually use the DAMOCLES electro-optical/laser designation pod that brings full day and night LGB capability, though the Armée de l'Air's current plans call for Rafale to use stand off weapons, and for the LGB role to be handled by Mirage 2000s.
The Rafale core systems employ an Integrated Modular Avionics (IMA), called MDPU (Modular Data Processing Unit). This architecture hosts all the core functions of the aircraft as Flight management system, Data Fusion, Fire Control, Man-Machine Interface, etc...
The cockpit includes a wide-angle holographic Head Up Display (HUD) and two head-down flat-panel colour multifunction displays ( MFDs). Display interaction is by means of touch input for which the pilot wears silk-lined leather gloves. In addition, in full development, the pilot will have a Helmet-Mounted Display ( HMD).
The pilot flies the aircraft with a side-stick controller mounted on his right and a throttle on his left. These incorporate multiple `hands on throttle and stick’ (HOTAS) controls. The Rafale cockpit is also planned to include Direct Voice Input (DVI), allowing for pilot action by voice commands.
The first Rafale C delivered to the Armée de l'Air, in June 2005, was to the "F2" standard, and it is anticipated that upgrades similar to those of the navy will take place in the future. The Rafale replaces the SEPECAT Jaguar, Mirage F1 and the Mirage 2000 in the Armée de l'Air.
The Rafale is now in service in the trials and training role with the French Air Force (CEAM/EC 5/330) and EC 1/7 at Saint-Dizier is expected to receive a nucleus of 8–10 Rafale F2s during the Summer of 2006, and it looks set to enter full operational service (with robust air-to-air and stand off air-to-ground precision attack capabilities) during mid-2007 (when EC 1/7 will have about 20 aircraft, 15 two-seaters and 5 single-seaters). The aircraft is already in limited operational service with the French Navy (Flotille 12F) in the air-to-air role, and has undertaken a great deal of air-to-ground trials and evaluation work.
The Rafale is fully compatible with US Navy aircraft carriers and some French Navy pilots have qualified to fly the aircraft from US Navy flight decks.
The first Rafale deployed in a combat zone were those of the French Navy during Opération Héraclès, the French participation in Operation Enduring Freedom. They flew from the Charles de Gaulle over Afghanistan as soon as 2002, but the F1 standard precluded air-to-ground missions and the Rafale did not see any action.
In 2007, after a "crash program" enhancement some six Rafale were given the ability to drop laser-guided bombs, in view of engaging them in Afghanistan. Three of these aircraft belonging to the Air Force were deployed to Dushanbe in Tadjikistan, while the three others were Rafale Marine of the Navy on board the Charles De Gaulle. The first mission occurred on March 12, and the first GBU-12 was launched on March 28 in support of embattled Dutch troops in Southern Afghanistan, marking the operational début of the Rafale. However, they still have to rely on Mirage 2000Ds and Super Étendards carrying laser designation pods to illuminate their targets.
On 6 December 2007 a French Air Force twin-seat aircraft with a single occupant, on a training flight from the Saint-Dizier base, crashed in an uninhabited part of the Neuvic parish in the Correze area, with the loss of its pilot. This was the first loss of a Rafale. On 10 January 2008, on RTL, Minister of Defence Hervé Morin stated that the cause of the crash was "pilot disorientation".
In January 2006, the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche reported that Libya wanted to order 13–18 Rafales "in a deal worth as much as $3.24 billion". In December 2007, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi openly declared the Libyan interest in the Rafale.
In September 2007, La Tribune reported that a sale to Morocco had fallen through, the government selecting Lockheed Martin's F-16 instead. In October 2007, La Tribune's earlier report appeared to have been confirmed that the Rafale would not be bought.
In January 2008, O Estado de São Paulo reported that the Brazilian Defence Minister visited France to discuss the possibility of acquiring Rafale fighters for the F-X2 program. In June 2008, the Brazilian Air Force divulged a Request For Information to the following companies and their aircraft: Boeing (F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet) and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, Dassault Rafale, Rosoboronexport Sukhoi Su-35, Saab Gripen NG and Eurofighter Typhoon. In October 2008, it was reported that Brazilian Air Force had selected three finalists for F-X2; Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen NG and Boeing F/A-18E/F. The decision should be made in early 2009.
In October 2008, Switzerland started the 1 month evaluation of the Rafale at Emmen Airforce Base consisting of approx. 30 evaluation flights. The Rafale is one of three candidates (together with the Saab Gripen and the EADS Eurofighter) as a possible raplacement of the F-5 Tiger II fleet. (Neue Zuercher Zeitung, 09 October 2008)
Rafale A: A technology demonstrator that first flew in 1986. It has now been retired.Rafale D: Dassault used this designation (D for discret or stealthy) in the early 1990s for the production versions for the Armée de l'Air, to emphasise the new semi-stealthy features they had added to the design. Rafale B:This is the two-seater version for the Armée de l'Air; delivered to EC 330 in 2004.Rafale C:This is the single-seat version for the Armée de l'Air; delivered to EC 330 in June 2004.Rafale M:This is the carrier-borne version for the Aéronavale, which entered service in 2002. The Rafale M weighs about 500 kg (1,100 lb) more than the Rafale C. Very similar to the Rafale C in appearance, the M differs in the following respects: