CAZAUX, France --- The French defense procurement agency, DGA, is carrying out the final development tests of an upgrade package for the Rafale combat aircraft, including an AESA radar and improved electronics, that should be ordered next year by the French ministry of defense.
The package, designated F3 04T because it is an off-shoot of the aircraft’s latest F3 standard, also includes a new-generation Radar Warning Receiver (DDM-NG) and an improved version of the OSF (Optique Secteur Frontal) electro-optical sensor. Upgraded Rafales will also be able to fire an improved, laser-guided version of the AASM precision-guided bomb developed by Sagem and currently being flight-tested by DGA at its facility at this air base in south-western France.
Major Gen. Stéphane Rebb, the Rafale program manager at DGA, says that with these improvements Rafale’s systems architecture and airframe will remain competitive until about 2025, when it is due for a mid-life upgrade.
Rebb spoke to reporters at the Villacoublay air base near Paris, at the beginning of a two-day press tour which also included Solenzara air base, in Corsica, from where Rafales and Mirage F-1CRs operate to enforce the Libyan No-Fly Zone. The trip was sponsored by DGA and the Rafale industry team.
Development of the upgrade, Rebb said, is “part of a continuous process to maintain Rafale’s performance and interoperability” which will also include additional modes for the AESA radar and the acquisition of a new, low collateral-effect weapon as a more effective substitute for the concrete-filled bombs France has sometimes used in Libya to ensure civilian bystanders are not injured by bomb explosions.
These improvements are part of the “enhanced capability package roadmap” agreed in October 2006, and whose development is funded by reducing the Tranche 3 order by two aircraft, and shifting those funds to pay for the upgrade.
Rafale pilots are already able to measure the distance between their intended target and bystanders thanks to the imagery provided by their Damoclès laser designator pod, and can thus see whether there is a risk of collateral damage before firing. This is not enough, however, and a joint defense staff/DGA working group is looking at alternatives, one of which is the off-the-shelf procurement of the Brimstone guided missile (a much-modified variant of the Hellfire) developed and produced by MBDA.
M-88 Engines: to Uprate or Not to Uprate?
An engine upgrade, however, is not on the cards for the Rafales operated by the French forces, which consider that the Snecma M-88’s current 7.5-tonne power rating is enough.
Given Rafale’s two engines, available power is 15 tonnes, which given the aircraft’s empty of 10 tonnes translates into a power-to-weight ratio of 1:1 with 50% fuel and 2.5 tonnes of weapons. Admittedly, this ratio degrades quickly if the aircraft is loaded to its maximum take-off weight of 25 tonnes, (including 5 tonnes of internal fuel and 10 tonnes of weapons), but then again this is not a typical configuration for air-to-air combat.
French air force pilots interviewed at Solenzara say that the current engine power allows them to fly all of their missions without limitations, and that on a seven-hour mission to Libya they can cruise at Mach 0.9 on a 50% power setting with a full ordnance load. They also say that operations in the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan or other high-temperature areas have not shown a real need for more power, although they all agree that it would be nice to have.
One Rafale pilot at Solenzara who has flown in the UAE remarked that one reason they want a more powerful engine is that its pilots are now used to the latest F-16 Block 60, which is essentially a small airframe built around a very big engine, and so find the Rafale underpowered by comparison.
Another reason for a 9-tonne engine, a source said June 6, is that the UAE want to carry three Black Shahine cruise missiles and three 2,000 liter drop tanks, where the French air force carries only two similar Scalp-ER missiles, each of which weighs 1,300 kg. “It’s clear that, when taking off with such a payload in very hot weather” – and in the Emirates temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius – “it’s better to take off with 18 tonnes of thrust than 15.”
While the 9-tonne engine is mooted for export, DGA’s Rebb said that “no decision has been taken on a more powerful engine for France,” adding that the ultimate decision “will depend in great part on costs.”
Work on an improved M-88-2E4 engine is well advanced at Snecma, but the goal is not to increase power but to lower the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) by extending service life and time between inspections. The -2E4 will also reduce fuel burn by 2 to 4%, Snecma says.
The improvements included in the -2E4 engine will form “a large part” of the future 9-tonne engine. However, notes a Dassault Aviation executive, there’s a big stumbling block: “we need an order and a signature to launch the 9-tonne engine.”
Meanwhile, the M-88-2E4 is due to complete its flight test program this month and to be delivered for production aircraft from next November. Main improvements include a new high-pressure turbine and a new three-stage HP compressor, with the goal of improving HP turbine life by 30%.
The approach selected for the -2E4 development means that new parts can be added to existing engines, independently of each other, as old ones need replacing, so implementing the TCO upgrade will be a gradual and low-cost process.
AESA Radar Ready for Production
Separately, DGA is flight-testing further improvements to the Rafale, says Lt. Col. Olivier Bordes, director of Rafale flight testing at the agency’s facility at Cazaux air base. “Now, we are focusing on the Link 16 and AESA radar integration, and their test and evaluation phase is being carried out in June and July.” Final qualification of the RBE-2 AESA radar will be the major development milestone for this year, Bordes said.
This radar will equip all 60 aircraft of the 4th production batch, ordered in December 2009 and comprising 10 Rafale M carrier fighters and 25 Rafale C single-seaters and 25 Rafale B two-seaters for the air force. Deliveries are scheduled from mid-2013 to end 2019. The current production rate is of 11 aircraft per year, a remarkably low figure that nonetheless allows the program to remain economically viable, and Dassault Aviation to turn a profit, despite the lack of export orders.
The AESA radar will improve detection range and the ability to detect targets with small radar cross-section, and will be compatible with the future Meteor air-to-air missile of which France ordered an initial batch in December 2010 for delivery in 2018. Flight-testing is carried out with a modified Falcon 20 business jet and a hybrid test-bed which combines a Mirage 2000B two-seat airframe fitted with the Rafale’s nose and AESA radar. The aircraft sports DGA markings and a ghost-grey color scheme.
Weapons, Avionics Also to Be Upgraded
In addition to engine and radar, the Rafale upgrade package also includes a new missile launch detector, the DDM-NG developed by MBDA, which features a new passive infrared detector array with two fish-eye sensors providing spherical fields of view around the aircraft. It improves detection range, reduces false alarm rate and provides an angular discrimination capability compatible with future directional IR countermeasures (DIRCM). DDG-NG has also been ordered for, and will be fitted to, aircraft of the 4th production batch.
Finally, DGA is also completing in-flight evaluation of the latest, laser-guided version of the Armement Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM, or “Hammer”) developed by Sagem. Integration onto the Rafale has been completed, and three test firings, including one against a target moving at a speed of 80 km/h (50 mph), have successfully completed the development phase. In this case, the AASM was fired at an off-axis angle of 90 degrees against a fast-moving laser spot generated by a ground-based illuminator, but DGA has scheduled another three test firings against representative targets in 2012 before the weapon enters service. Full-scale production of the laser-guided AASM is due to begin in late 2012.
The ROVER (Remotely-Operated Video Enhanced Receiver) real-time video system will be fitted to all F3-04T aircraft, and also will be retrofitted to 30 aircraft already in service. The F3-04T upgrade package also includes improvements to the OSF electro-optical IRST sensor, but neither DGA nor the manufacturers involved were willing to provide details of any significance.
Other points that emerged during the Rafale press tour include:
-- New capabilities that might be incorporated into the Rafale’s mid-life update in around 2025 could include operating unmanned aerial vehicles, thrust vectoring for improved maneuverability, and conformal radar antenna arrays located all around the airframe.
-- In September, France will take delivery of its 100th Rafale, out of the 294 that it plans to buy. The aircraft has logged over 64,000 flight hours since it entered service in June 2004. The 94 aircraft delivered as of May 2011 include 36 two-seaters and 27 single-seaters for the French air force, and 31 single-seaters for the navy, in addition to four development aircraft.
-- The French navy air arm, Aéronavale, will stand up its second operational Rafale squadron this month, seven years after the first was formed in 2004.
-- Replacement of a Rafale’s wing and vertical fin requires “half a day,” while an engine can be replaced in about 90 minutes and, once replaced, does not require any tests or bench checks before resuming flight.