The legacy of the Mirage IV has vast implications for the design of the Rafale. When the Mirage IVP was retired in 2005, it meant the end of one of the very few strategic reconnaissance aircraft operated by any European air force. To fill this gap, the Rafale has been wired to carry not only the Damoclès targeting/intelligence gathering pod (to be replaced by the Talios in the upcoming years), but also the impressive one-tonne AREOS (or Thales Pod Reco NG) stand-off reconnaissance observation pod. The later features a dual infrared/visible light sensor mounted in a swivel mount, providing what Dassault Aviation describe as “stand-off pre-strategic reconnaissance capability”. The intelligence gathering capability was shown in action during the operations against Libya, where the first wave of Rafales linked live images to the carrier Charles de Gaulle (‘R91’), which then relayed the information back to the aircrafts’ home base in France. The second wave of Rafales then launched with the updated info.
However, the original purpose of the Mirage IV was as a single-role strategic bomber to deliver French nuclear weapons deep behind the iron curtain. The nuclear deterrence mission was then transferred first to the dedicated Mirage 2000N (Nucléaire), with the Rafale also destined from the outset to become part of the Force de dissuasion (literally Deterring Force). This means that the Rafale is designed to be “Entry first-capable” as Dassault Aviation puts it, meaning it should be able to operate far behind enemy lines, to carry out strikes in the face of the strong air defences, including both fighters and ground based-systems, that can be expected to protect high-value targets, and that this ability is a French national strategic interest.
The obvious question that comes to mind is how they plan to do this with a non-stealthy aircraft. The answer is the larger concept of survivability. The value of stealth stems from the fact that not being seen dramatically increases your survivability. However, as Dassault Aviation likes to point out, “Survivability is more than just stealth”. In the case of the Rafale, it features a combination of a number of things to increase its survivability:
- Low-observability features such as radar absorbent material and shielding the engine intakes
- Relying on passive sensors instead of active ones
- Hands-off low-level flight providing terrain masking. This can be done either by using the radar for altitude data or by relying on the inbuilt terrain database, which makes it possible to fly at extremely low-level and high speed without any emission
- Two engines provide added redundancy in case of battle damage or a bird strike
- Carefree handling, to the extent that “everybody can fly the Rafale” according to Dassault Aviation
- The integrated electronic warfare suite SPECTRA
The SPECTRA received a near-mythical reputation in Libya, where it was a key component in allowing the French Air Force to perform some of the first strikes launched while the Libyan air defence network was still largely intact. These missions included hunting Libyan air defence assets with the French AASM powered glide bomb, more on which in the next part.
The SPECTRA is far from just an advanced jammer and automated chaff/flare popper. Instead, it combines the self-defence jamming and electronic countermeasures with missile and laser warning systems, and also functions as one of the sensors integrated to provide the pilot with a single tactical picture. In this role, it relies on a comprehensive threat library, one which the users are free to update according to their needs and available information on enemy dispositions.
Besides the SPECTRA, the other sensors integrated are the AESA radar, the internal Front Sector Optronics (which include not only a tele-lens camera but a laser range-finder as well), data links (Link 16 or national links), as well as the IR seeker heads on any MICA IR air-to-air missiles carried. These are then presented on one large tactical display placed high for easy reference. This can either show a single large map of the tactical picture, or be split between individual sensor pictures. There are also two somewhat smaller multi-function displays on the sides of the main screen. While Dassault Aviation are very proud of this setup, it is hard to not feel that, while a significant improvement compared to current fourth generation fighters, the setup isn’t quite up to par with the single large displays offered in the F-35 and JAS 39E Gripen.
All in all, Dassault Aviation was confident that the aircraft will be able to operate in the face of the modern Russian air defences set to cover most of the Finnish air space by the time HX enters service.
The long-range interdiction requirement is also evident in the huge carrying capacity of the Rafale. The aircraft is relatively small for being a twin-engined fighter, at 10 ton its empty weight is only 2/3 that of a Super Hornet, but on top of internal fuel it can bring an impressive 9.5 tonnes of external stores with it, for a maximum take-off weight of 24.5 tonnes. The Super Hornet can carry “only” 8 tonnes of external stores, which interestingly enough is the same amount that the considerably larger Russian Sukhoi Su-30 can carry as well. However, the empty weight of the mighty Su-30 is close to 18 tonnes, and if aiming for a full external load, it isn’t able to carry the full internal amount of fuel available to it.
While it might be argued that lifting your own weight in external stores is more of a gimmick than an actual combat load, the huge amount of lift is not without benefits. It makes it possible to lift normal combat loads with ease, and is a key point in giving the aircraft the margins that makes it excel in carrying out missions at high speed and extremely low level. It is also an important feature in providing the short field performance that is critical around carriers, or makeshift road bases for that matter.