The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Our Next Fighter?

Having looked at a number of different aspects of the Rafale in detail, one question remains: should it be the fighter that replaces the Hornets?

To begin with, the aircraft would be suitable for dispersed operations of the kind envisioned by the air force, and the advanced electronic warfare systems coupled with signature reducing features and excellent performance down amongst the treetops means that it might have a shot at operating in the Finnish airspace even after Russian very-long range surface-to-air missile systems have extended their cover here.

The long-range development plan is solid, and the aircraft will stay as France’s main fighter for the foreseeable future, which guarantees that it will receive focus from a major backer. The upgrade path include the F3R currently in testing to become operational in 2018, main features of which are the integration of the Meteor, full integration of the AASM, adding the new TALIOS targeting pod, and a host of upgrades to the AESA radar and Spectra suite. This will also provide the baseline for the Rafale offered to Finland under HX.

The RBE2 AESA Radar, one of the core sensors of the Rafale. Picture courtesy of Y. Kervel/I3M ©Thales

The F3R will then be followed by F4, which should reach operational service around 2023, and is set to include new air-to-air missiles in place of the Mica, significant improvements to the datalink as well as making the Spectra of different aircraft communicate directly with each other. Improvements to the radar are also planned, potentially including electronic attack modes. Further out are the MLU, to become operational post-2030, where focus is placed upon close co-operation with UCAV’s and radical additions to the sensors (including conformal mutli-band antennas), and the Rafale NG post-2035 which might include a larger and stealthier fuselage coupled with bigger engines.

Looking closer at the Rafale as it stands, there are a host of benefits it would provide already from day one. These include excellent short-field performance and a proven ability of operating in austere conditions. A large and proven array of sensors and weapons are also available, including the Exocet anti-ship missile which would add a significant new capability currently lacking in the Finnish Air Force. The Spectra together with the AEROS recce pod would provide a very interesting combination of IMINT and ELINT capabilities which would be extremely useful already during peacetime for policing the movements of troops and equipment in the areas adjacent to the Finnish border.

The traditional way of providing longer loitering time for fighters, here in the form of a USAF KC-10. For the Finnish Air Force, large dedicated tankers have never been an option. Picture courtesy of Jussi Seppälä –

Another role in which the Rafale is regularly used by the French Navy is for buddy-buddy air refuelling. Fitted with a refuelling pod and lifting 6,500 litres of fuel in external tanks (in addition to the normal internal load) it can provide extended range for the aircrafts carrying combat loads or out on long patrol missions. For Finland, operating a dedicated tanker aircraft has always been considered prohibitively expensive, but there are still cases where the capability would come in handy (not at least as air-refuelling proficiency is a pre-requisite for long deployments and/or international missions which require tanker support).

© Alex Paringaux

For the question as to which version would be the one to buy, the single-seat C would be the logical choice. The B might add some benefits on complex attack missions, such as long-range interdiction or SEAD, and naturally for providing operational conversion. However, it should be noted that the Armée de l’Air wing currently tasked as centre of excellence for precision ground attack and reconnaissance (with both the Damoclès and AEROS) is the legendary EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, operating the single-seat C-variant.

Another perhaps more boring but still important feature is the fact that the Rafale is sold, and largely built, in euros.When Finland bought the Hornets, they were budgeted for in Finnish marks, while the contract was in US dollars. An unfortunate drop in exchange rates meant that the Hornets came in significantly over budget (in FIM). The euro is significantly more stable than the mark ever was, but the currency risk is still there (coupled with a Finnish purchasing power risk inside the euro zone).

Studying the Rafale further in detail was in many ways an eye-opener, with many of the features presented here being new to me. While I still consider the Rafale an underdog in the HX-evaluation, I would not count it out either. In the end, all five contenders are extremely competent, and regardless of the outcome, the air force is set to receive a great aircraft.


3 thoughts on “The Real Joint Strike Fighter – Our Next Fighter?

  1. Silver Dart

    This set of posts was very interesting and informative.
    I am particularly happy you discovered some qualities in the aircraft. I frequently read comments dismissing Rafale as a failed airplane and I find this unfair giving its capabilities. So its always nice to see a balanced description. Thank you for that.

    Like you, I consider Rafale an underdog in HX evaluation. An aircraft can’t be a good fit for every nation. In my opinion, Rafale selling points include the capability to do any mission with a single aircraft, independence (especially regarding US) and a demonstrated efficiency and maturity in war operations.
    For the first one, all the contenders have similar capabilities, except maybe for air-to-sea or recce mission (Gripen and Typhoon a bit behind on these…). The second is not of particular interest for Finland I guess : to my knowledge, you have no serious issue with the US and you can most likely count on their full support to hold Russia on his side of the border. And the third seems not convincing either : you don’t seem to prepare some war in the few years coming 🙂

    On the other hand, you have a american weapon system you probably like and you know well, as well as an existing stock of weapon like AMRAAM for example.
    If you have time and money, F-35 could be a good choice in the long run, with a lack in air-to-air capabilities.
    If you have money but no time, Typhoon will most likely be a very good contender in 2020.
    If you have no money nor time, Gripen seems a good choice, especially if you join with some political engagement with Sweden.
    Super Hornet is also interesting… if it’s still in the picture by the time Finland makes its choice.

    I’m a european believer (Yeah, eternal optimism) so I would say : take the Gripen of your neighbour, and save money for other weapons/ships/vehicles.

  2. Joe

    The Rafale is a great plane, but incredibly expensive.

    Plus, on top of being very expensive relative to its rivals, you also have to but into the French weapons suite, which weapon-for-weapon are much more expensive than competing munitions.

    The Rafale really suffers for having no economy of scale, but they are in essence corporate welfare & a jobs programme for the Paris government so it doesn’t matter.

    The Fins would be better served either going with the the Super Hornet (ASAP before production ceases) or the ‘real real’JSF.

    1. Gallium

      From official released info on effective prices (French and British parliaments), the Rafale is cheaper than the Typhoon and way cheaper than the F-35 if you look at the US reports (GAO and DoD).
      About the weapons, the AASM is actually an american dumb bomb with a French guiding kit. I guess Finnish Air Force has a stockpile of mk82or something similar. Anyway, the Rafale is 100% compatible with the Nato stanag requirements.
      Every else weapon found under that plane is available from MBDA wich is a european company owned by BAE, Leonardo and Airbus (respectively 37.5%, 25%, 37,5%).

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