SAINT DIZIER, France --- The first French Air Force squadron to operate the Dassault Rafale omnirole fighter attained full operational capability here on June 27, during a ceremony attended by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie and other senior government officials.
This largely symbolic event took place the day after two of the squadron’s deployed aircraft effectively stood up for their first operational air defence mission at Mont de Marsan air base, in southern France.
The unit based here, n° 1/7 “Provence” squadron, previously operated Jaguar fighter-bombers in the ground attack role. It has now taken delivery of ten Rafales, and will receive another ten by the end of the year, when it will attain its full operational strength. A second Rafale squadron, this time tasked with the nuclear strike role, will stand up in 2008 with another 20 aircraft.
In all, the French Air Force will receive 234 Rafales, split between Rafale B two-seat and Rafale C single-seat versions, while the French Navy will operate 60 Rafale M single-seaters. To date, 120 Rafales have been ordered for both services, and 34 have been delivered.
The Air Force order covers a total of 82 aircraft (44 single-seaters and 38 two-seaters) with an additional 38 Rafale Ms – all single-seaters - for the Navy. Under current plans, production is to continue until 2023.
Five years after the French Navy received its first aircraft, Rafale ushers the French Air Force into the era of network-centric warfare, thanks to its unique capabilities in terms of data fusion, tactical connectivity, passive target detection and weapons load. “You can talk about fourth-generation or fifth-generation aircraft all you want, but what really matters is that Rafale is one full generation ahead of all other aircraft,” says Major General (armament corps) Patrick Dufour, Rafale program director at the French defence procurement agency, Delegation Générale pour l’Armement (DGA). “It can perform any mission, anywhere, and that’s what counts.”
In fact, the French Air Force considers that two Rafales will provide commanders with the same mission capabilities as a formation of four Mirage 2000D attack aircraft escorted by two Mirage 2000-5F air superiority fighters. In this sense, says Dufour, it is a true force multiplier.
The “Provence” squadron’s pilots, who spent about two years working up on the Rafale at the operational conversion unit in Mont de Marsan, have logged an average of 120 to 130 flight hours on the aircraft.
“The most noticeable difference compared to other aircraft is that Rafale is a flying computer. It manages its own flight parameters, leaving its pilot free to concentrate on the tactical mission,” says Capt. Nicolas Lyautey, one of the first pilots of n° 1/7 “Provence” squadron to convert to the Rafale. He previously flew Jaguar fighter-bombers, comparable to Rafale in terms of size and weight but clearly outclassed in terms of capabilities. He went solo on the Rafale after only four flights with an instructor, and says that the aircraft is so simple to operate that pilots can undertake their first operational missions after about 50 flight hours.
The Rafale’s central computer monitors all flight, engine and system parameters as background tasks, and they are only brought up on the cockpit’s three LCD screens or head-up display when a decision or an input is required from the pilot. This avoids information overload, reduces workload and creates an uncluttered environment in which aircrew can concentrate exclusively on flying the mission.
“Using the autopilot, auto-throttle and navigation aids, the aircraft can fly a complete high-speed mission at an altitude of 200 feet above sea level without any intervention by its pilot,” says Jean-Marc Gasparini, deputy Rafale program manager for Dassault Aviation.
One of the more challenging aspects of Rafale operations is how to fully exploit its capabilities, and especially its range of passive sensors. Pilots, for example, can use its TV/thermal imaging observation system (dubbed Optronique Secteur Frontal, and similar in principle to infrared scan and track) to visually identify other aircraft at ranges of more than 50 kilometres (approx. 30 nautical miles), and transmit this and other tactical data to other aircraft using their MIDS datalink.
Another unique capability, according to Col. François Moussez, the French Air force’s Rafale program officer is that it can fire missiles at targets detected and designated by its integrated Spectra countermeasures suite, again without any need for active transmissions that can give away its position.
Remarkably, Rafale will continue to offer capabilities in advance of its competitors thanks to an upgrade policy adopted by the French defence ministry. This ensures that in-service aircraft are upgraded as new capabilities are cleared, so that the entire fleet is always maintained at the latest available standard.
The first Rafales to enter Navy service were configured to the F1 standard, optimised for air-to-air operations. The F2 standard is networked-enabled and adds air-to-ground capabilities, allowing Rafale to fire Scalp cruise missiles, made by MBDA, as well as AASM precision-guided bombs made by Sagem Défense & Securité.
Dassault is now working to finalize the improved F3 standard, which will be available from June 2008 and will add additional weapons, including the ASMPA nuclear stand-off missile, the AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missile and the Thales Reco NG reconnaissance pod. All navy and air force aircraft already in service will be retrofitted to F3 standard by uploading a new software package, which will become standard fit for all subsequent production aircraft.
Further improvements are planned as part of the program’s “R&D feeding policy,” although not all have been approved or funded to date. These will ultimately include uprated Snecma M-88 engines each delivering 9 tonnes of thrust (compared to today’s 7.5 tonnes), a new radar with advanced electronically-scanned antenna replacing the current RBE-2 radar with shaped-beam antenna, a new missile warning receiver, an improved Front Sector Optronics system and, beginning in 2012, the Meteor beyond-visual range missile being developed by a European industry team led by MBDA. If approved, these improvements will become standard beginning with the 120th production aircraft, says DGA’s Dufour.
Despite this apparent complexity, Rafale was designed to operate with bare-bones support, and for instance has entirely done away with scheduled maintenance – a premiere for an advanced combat aircraft. Thanks to its permanent auto-testing processing and real-time monitoring airframe fatigue by the aircraft’s own computer, maintenance operations depend on the real condition of individual components. Furthermore, all operational and maintenance paperwork is stored in a single computer database, allowing detailed monitoring of aircraft condition by maintenance crews as well as outside contractors.
“Our design objective was to reduce maintenance man-hours per flight hours by 23% compared to the Mirage 2000,” says Col Moussez, “and on initial experience we in fact achieved better than 25%.”
French officials are also at pains to stress that Rafale, despite its quantum leap in capabilities, remains much more affordable than competing aircraft. DGA’s Dufour says that the total cost of the 294-aircraft program, including development, pre-production, production and integrated logistical support, amounts to 33,273 million euros (inclusive of value-added tax) at 2003 prices. This is an increase of just 4.18 percent, or 1,336 million euros, over the projected cost in 1988, when the original contract was signed. Competing combat aircraft cost at least one-third more, reinforcing Dassault’s belief that the Rafale will eventually score highly on the export market.