The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Weaponry

The arsenal available to the Rafale is naturally one of the talking points when discussing the fighter. To begin with, it should be pointed out that there is nothing that blocks the integration of non-French weapons onto the aircraft, something which the French themselves have shown with the rapid integration of different members of the US Paveway-series of laser-guided bombs. “Everything is possible,” was Dassault Aviation’s answer when asked the question of integrating weapons such as the AGM-158 JASSM. Still, the main weapons of the Rafale are French, and Dassault likes to emphasize self-reliance as a selling point. I am not quite convinced the Finnish authorities will see things the same way, but regardless, there are some really interesting options currently featured. A key note is that of the aircraft’s fourteen hardpoints, five are of the ‘wet/heavy’ type (meaning they can carry external fuel tanks and/or heavy loads such as air-to-ground weapons). An interesting thing for long-term readers of the blog is that a surprising number of the missiles mentioned here have also featured in my earlier post on the weapons alternatives available for the Squadron 2020 corvettes.

AASM

SR_NKC5373
© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

The AASM (fr. Armement Air-Sol Modulaire), also marketed as ‘Hammer’, is a modular French guidance kit that is fitted to different sizes of normal ‘dumb’ bombs, to give them greater accuracy. The AASM is highly modular, and can include either laser- or electro-optical tracking, as well as a GPS-receiver, and is available in powered or unpowered versions. With all the bells and whistles, the weapon is closer to a guided missile than a traditional ‘smart bomb’. The issue is obviously that with the increase in capability comes a higher price, but that is a cost the French have been happy to pay for the ability to employ the weapon against high-priority targets. The AASM proved its worth when it allowed Rafales to fly the SEAD/DEAD mission over Libya and hunt down and destroy air defence assets. After full integration, which is set to become operational within the next few years, the ability to use the AASM for long-range high-off boresight attacks will become available to the Rafale.

Paveway

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Randé

A number of laser-guided Paveways are integrated onto the Rafale, including the 227 kg GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-22 Paveway III, and GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway, as well as the 454 kg GBU-16 Paveway II and the 908 kg Paveway III. Some of these very integrated at a very short notice, due to combat needs in Afghanistan and Mali.

Exocet

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© Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa

A weapon currently only used by Aéronavale is the latest version of the legendary AM 39 Exocet. The latest Block 2 Mod 2 is a far cry from the weapons that wreaked havoc on the Royal Navy in the Falklands War, and the ability to employ Link 16 for targeting data allows the aircraft to acquire the target ‘silently’. Currently a single missile is carried on the centre-line, but the ability to carry up to three missiles is there.

SCALP

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© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The joint French-British SCALP, called Storm Shadow in the UK, is a stealthy long-range cruise missile. The missile is in many aspects similar to the JASSM currently employed by the Finnish Air Force, and it is not unlikely that the SCALP would replace the JASSM in the case either the Rafale or the Eurofighter would be chosen as our next fighter. A high-resolution IIR-seeker provides terminal guidance, and a number of different modes of operation can be set, including fusing (air burst, impact, or penetration) and dive angle. The weapon has also been successfully used in both Libya and Iraq. Navigation is via inertial, GPS, or terrain reference. The missile is designed to feature a very high level of automation on the part of the pilot, meaning that it is suitable for single-seat fighters as well as twin-seaters. It does currently lack a data-link, though future versions might include this feature.

Mica IR

033AFA_070522_0014.jpg
© Dassault Aviation – K. Tokunaga

The Mica IR is the current standard heat-seeking missile of the Rafale, and as mentioned in the earlier post it is moonlighting as an IR-sensor fused with the rest of the fighter’s sensor suite. As an IR-missile, the MICA is something of an in-between, not being quite as manoeuvrable as ‘proper’ high-off boresight missiles such as the IRIS-T, and not featuring quite the range that the ASRAAM has. Still, it is able to perform lock-on after launch, and over-the-shoulder firings at targets behind the firing aircraft has been demonstrated, with the targeting data being provided by datalink.

Mica RF

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© Dassault Aviation – S. Fort

The single major weak spot in the arsenal of the Rafale is the current beyond visual range missile, which is simply a Mica with an active radar seeker. The missile lacks the range and punching power of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, and as a matter of fact the above mentioned ASRAAM also has a higher kinetic energy at longer ranges. The sole benefit it has over the AMRAAM is that the US missile is something of a victim of its own success, with any potential adversary having spent serious resources studying how to defeat the AMRAAM, something which isn’t necessarily true for the Mica.

Meteor

B301_1384_GoPro_Vent_1r
© Dassault Aviation – DR

The Meteor is the most advanced very-long range air-to-air missile available today. Having only entered operational service (with the 39C Gripen) this spring. The Eurofighter and Rafale are next in line to be armed with this exceptional ramjet-powered weapon, which promises to become the new ‘gold standard’ of its class. In particular for the Rafale, the Meteor promises to solve the lack of a ‘proper’ BVR-missile, and will mean that the pilots are able to take full benefit of the aircrafts powerful AESA radar. The initial load will be limited to two Meteors, but two more can be cleared if an export customer so requires. To note is that, as the Meteor will employ the same datalink as the MICA does, it will feature only one-way communication with the Rafale. This is unlike the integration on the Eurofighter and Gripen, which both will feature full two-way datalinks. It remains to be seen how large of a deficit this is.

 

All in all, the Rafale already in its current configuration provides weapons alternatives not only corresponding to but surpassing those currently available to the Finnish Air Force’s Hornets. The addition of AASM and Exocet would also mean that the possibility of new missions would be opened up, such as close air support and anti-ship missions.

16 thoughts on “The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Weaponry

  1. Kristian

    From what I have read French weapons are often quite expensive. In fact the main reason for the rapid integration of US laser/GPS guided Paveway bombs was, as far as I understand it, that the equivalent French weapons cost 10-12 times more which became unsustainable in prolonged use in Afghanistan.

    1. 1-vs-1 comparisons are naturally difficult to make, though smaller production runs usually does equal higher prices. However, with the comparison in guided bombs, while it is true that AASM is way more expensive than Paveways, the latter are (with the exception of the dual GPS/laser guided Enhanced Paveway-series), unpowered laser guidance-only bombs while the French offer a GPS/EO-seeker as well as a propulsion kit. The closest comparable weapon is probably the Israeli Spice, which likewise has been criticised for its high cost.

  2. Karl Rieder

    What needs to be done for a higher Meteor load? Additional cables to the hard points? Software update to the mission computer?
    I’d like to carry 6 (or10) Meteors and no Mica RF. Is this possible?

    1. I assume it shouldn’t be a big issue to wire the two wingstations normally used for fuel tanks, which would give a total load of six Meteors. For the two stations furthest out (wingtip and just inboard of wingtip), it might be that the dimensions doesn’t allow for a Meteor.

    2. Silver Dart

      You? Here? Such a small world 😉

      I agree with Corporal Frisk answer : that doesn’t seem a hard task. Much work needed for the two first hardpoints would not need to be done again, especially regarding software and aircraft-missile datalink. I would think any compatible hardpoint for MICA RF could be compatible for Meteor but this would need test flights for aerodynamic compatibility.

  3. Silver Dart

    Another interesting post Corporal Frisk.

    Interesting comments about the MICA, a frequently misconsidered weapon. But the main surprise come from the ASRAAM : this missile really has a 50+ km range? For a weight under 90kg, that’s impressive.

    1. Kristian

      The Sea Ceptor (CAMM) surface-to-air missile use ASRAAM parts and is in the same size (it’s basically an evolved ASRAAM with a radar seeker) and it is quoted with a 25+ km range even though it starts from a resting position. I have no problem seeing a fighter plane going 600-800 knots at 12 000 m altitude fire such a missile 50+ km.

  4. AZ

    Unfortunately the lack of smart small weapons such as SDB II, SPEAR 3, Brimstone II and Marte-ER anti-ship missile is something very obvious when it comes to the Rafale .A big issue in the future 😦

    1. The lack of a light anti-vehicle and/or low-collateral weapon is probably the most significant issue in the current arsenal, though it is partly covered by the (unnecessary large) 227 kg AASM, which in reality with propulsion and EO-seeker is a potent anti-vehicle weapon as was demonstrated during ‘tank-plinking’ in Libya. The Marte-ER isn’t really missed in my opinion, especially if the Rafale gets all three available stations cleared for the Exocet.

      1. AZ

        What is really strange is why we don’t see the Rafale with 3\2 Exocet instead of the usual 1 Exocet carried in the rafale centre fuselage ? weight limitation? I don’t think so.

      2. Apparently it’s a decision on the part of the French Navy to only use the centreline, as Dassault is offering the ability to clear the Rafale for up to three Exocets. What I feel is even stranger is the decision to start Meteor integration with a max load of only two Meteors per aircraft, despite at least four stations being available according to Dassault.

      3. Silver Dart

        It’s all about money guys 😉

        It’s probably why Meteor will be cleared with only 2 stations at first.
        Same reason for the lack of low-collateral damage weapon with a pending decision probably in favour of 125kg AASM or Brimstone.
        There were already a lot of work to get the current arsenal working. Not many aircraft enjoy such anti-air, anti-ship and air to ground capabilities! But there’s probably more to come. However, it’s very unlikely Marte-ER, SDB or SPEAR 3 will get their way under Rafale wings…

  5. Silver Dart

    Indeed. It’s four meteor for Typhoon and Gripen, I guess? or maybe 6 (for Typhoon)?
    I may be wrong but I feel that a lot of energy was spent in France to achieve a carefully thought budget allocation strategy. Resulting in some surprising moves, like this somewhat incomplete Meteor integration, the lack of helmet mounted display or even the lack of AMRAAM (which probably contribute in some lost competition…).
    The French procurement agency (DGA) had to make some hard choices because of a tough budgetary context and it seems the agency have focused on short term capability needs while maintaining industrial base and some long term objectives.
    For example, given current operations, air-air capabilities aren’t top priority and that’s maybe an explanation for this Meteor case : clearing 2 hard points is a way to get the long range capability at the lowest cost, while the few millions saved can be of better use elsewhere. The difference between a Rafale with 6 Meteor and a Rafale with 2 Meteor and 4 Mica was maybe perceived as too thin. On the other hand, Talios program was funded to develop a (much awaited) new laser designation pod and save industrial skills several years after the end of Damocles pod production.

    Good news is there are now export customers so fewer Rafale will be acquired by France every year. This could leave more space to fund new capabilities without counting every euros.

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