Operating a fleet of seven different tactical jets is a daunting task when it comes to logistics and the cost of keeping all of them relevant and up to date in an ever changing combat environment. The answer is, on paper, simple: design a single fighter that will replace all seven, being able to perform a host of different missions, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, and reconnaissance. This aircraft would be a joint design operated by both the Navy and the Air Force, from land bases as well as carriers, and used for both the strike and fighter mission by both. A real joint strike-fighter.
There has been a few aircraft capable of this feat, mainly the legendary F-4 Phantom II and the F/A-18 Hornet currently in Finnish service, and as is well known the F-35 is set out to be the next fighter built according to this concept. However, for the F-35 the differences between the versions are so large they only share 20-25 percent commonality, leading to critique that the basic idea is flawed.
Enter the Dassault Rafale, an aircraft actually able to replace seven different tactical aircraft with a single airframe, featuring only small modifications to create single- and two-seater land based versions as well as a single-seat carrier based fighter. “They are all the same,” Dassault Aviation explained. “It’s the same aircraft, same engines, same wing. The only differences are the strengthened landing gear and tail hook, as well as the integrated boarding ladder in the Rafale M, as the navy don’t want to have ladders standing on the flight deck.” Crucially, many of the particularities that the Finnish Air Force is looking for in HX are found in the Rafale as a consequence of the design decision to create a minimal-change navalised version:
- The compact size of the aircraft, which allows straightforward operations on crowded carrier decks or narrow taxiways
- Ease of maintenance, all service can be done without fixed installations and “in the shadow of the aircraft”
- Low approach speed and good short field performance
The maintenance need should be discussed a bit further in detail. The engine can be swapped in under an hour, and requires no further testing before the aircraft is ready to go. The aircraft can also stand on the deck of a carrier or parked out in the open for prolonged times without any external connections (such as power supplies or A/C).
France has a long history of interventions in the former colonies in Africa, often including operations with minimal support in arid conditions. Earlier the rugged Jaguar and Mirage F1 had been the tools of choice for these missions, and questions were raised if the much more complex Rafale would be able to continue their legacy. However, the fighter proved the doubters wrong, with e.g. Operation Serval showing their ability to operate from austere conditions, where nothing but tents were available to protect the aircraft during maintenance. Similarly, the aircrafts have operated in harsh conditions from a number of bases, including during the recent campaigns in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Djibouti and Afghanistan. However, it is one thing that the aircraft can keep up a high tempo of operations in the dry and dusty Sahel, it is another thing to do so in the Finnish winter. Dassault Aviation readily admits they have “less experience in very cold [conditions]”, but Rafale was successfully evaluated in the Swiss winter, and have deployed to Kandahar in sub-zero conditions for combat operations. Overall, the company seems confident that the proven durability of the aircraft during long deployments on carrier decks and from austere field bases will add up to excellent availability also in the sub-arctic.
 For those counting, I am referring to the F-8 Crusader, Jaguar, Super Etendard, Mirage F1, Mirage IV, Mirage 2000 in the fighter versions (C/RDI, and -5), as well as the Mirage 2000D/N strike versions. The exact number of different aircraft replaced can be anything between six and nine depending on how you count.