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 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.
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).
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.