In a world where the transatlantic link is looking surprisingly shaky, the French charm offensive is continuing. And as some of the competition are fighting delays, cost overruns, and uncertainties, the Rafale is steaming on ahead seamingly without any major hiccups. In the short term, that means rolling out the F3R standard which will sport AGCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System), introduction of the MBDA Meteor long-range missile, and a host of other less noticeable upgrades to the aircraft. The F3R is an intermediate step, building on the current F3 model. The big step will then be the F4, which is expected in the 2023 to 2025 timespan, coinciding with the deliveries of the first HX-fighters in initial operational capability, which is set to happen in 2025.
If Rafale would win HX, it is the F4 standard which would be delivered to the Finnish Air Force. Dassault is expecting that the French baseline will suit Finland just fine, though they leave the door open for the Finnish aircrafts to have unique weapons and external sensors if so required. Dassault is keen to point out the benefits of this model, making sure the Rafale is sporting mature but modern technologies through incremental upgrades according to the roadmap laid forward by the DGA, the French Directorate General of Armaments.
Everyone can improve technology, but you can’t change the concept […] France can’t operate dedicated aircraft
The benefit from a Finnish viewpoint is that besides the Swedish Air Force JAS 39E Gripen, the French offer will be the only one which will be operated by the host country’s single-aircraft air force (though both the JAS 39C/D and Mirage 2000 will linger on for a few years more). The lack of dedicated fast jets for different roles ensures full support for the multirole capability from the host, something which certainly would make the Finnish Logistics Command sleep easier at night.
One point which Dassault brings up when I meet them at this year’s air show which wasn’t discussed last year is the capability per aircraft. While the ‘how much bang can you create for 10 billions?’-approach of the HX-tender might hand an edge to some contenders, the politically motivated decision to acquire exactly 64 aircraft will on the other hand favour more capable aircraft. This is where Dassault see their strengths. The Rafale is largely assumed to be second only to the F-35 when it comes to signature reduction amongst the HX contenders. At the same time the Rafale is from the outset designed to be able to operate with limited support and low maintenance hours, a feature stemming both from the requirement to be able to operate from the relatively small French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle as well as from replacing the sturdy Jaguar and Mirage F1 in operations in austere conditions, often in Africa and in the Middle East. The latter is in marked contrast to some other contenders, and Dassault likes to point out that this is not just a design concept, but something the aircraft does every day.
We have over 30,000 flight hours in combat
When it comes to combat, the keyword is ‘agile’. Rafale is able to adapt to different scenarios and conflict levels, thanks to the multitude of sensors and weapons available to the pilot (and WSO in the case of the Rafale B). These capabilities goes all the way to peacetime, where the Rafale has provided assistance to emergency authorities by documenting natural disasters and floods with their dedicated reconnaissance pods. But while peacetime assistance is a nice bonus, HX will be bought for its combat potential.
And here the Rafale is able to provide serious hours of combat potential, both on a daily basis as well as for prolonged periods of time. The Rafale can do 10 hour CAP-missions, and is able to surge over 150 monthly flight hours per aircraft. The latter has been demonstrated repeatedly during combat operations such as Operation Chammal, the French strikes in Syria and Iraq. The single most high-profile mission in the area is without doubt the strike on Syrian regime chemical warfare installations earlier this year. Here, the Rafale demonstrated the “seamless plug and play” capability of the Rafale to integrate with other NATO-assets to carry out a complex long-range mission. Five Rafales, including two-seaters, flew out of bases in France to strike two facilities at Him Shinshar, one of which was targeted together with US Navy, Royal Air Force, and the French Navy, while the other was struck solely by the Rafales. As was noted in the immediate aftermath of the strikes, they took out all intended targets without interference from neither the Russian nor the Syrian air defences.
Another benefit the Rafale brings to the table is the second engine. While the benefit of twin engines for normal flight safety redundancy is limited these days, in combat the ability to lose an engine and still limp home is an asset. “It’s more comfortable,” as a former Mirage 2000-pilot puts it.
Last time around the Mirage 2000 was the only fighter other than the F/A-18C Hornet to meet the requirements of the Finnish Air Force, but suffered from what the evaluation thought of as a “maintenance system which would be difficult for us”. This is not something Dassault expects will be repeated, as the maintenance requirements for the Rafale is one of the areas which have seen vast improvement. The Rafale feature a fully digital mock-up which has provided the basis for the maintenance studies. These theoretical calculations have then been validated by comparison to an airframe which has been tortured in Dassault’s laboratory. The final outcome is a maintenance program centered around on-condition maintenance rather than the traditional by flight hour system, and a scheduled airframe maintenance which is halved compared to that of the current F/A-18C/D Hornets. While the Rafale is not unique amongst the HX-contenders in taking maintenance to the next level, it is hard to see the aircraft being dropped on what was a weak point for the Mirage 2000.
In the end, talk about the Rafale always comes back to the ‘here and now’. This is an aircraft that is immediately available, ‘fly before you buy’ as Dassault puts it, and keeps balancing nicely on the edge between maturity and cutting edge. The key role it plays in French defence also means that it will continue to be kept updated throughout the lifespan of HX. Like Eurofighter, Dassault is keen to point out that Rafale will also play a part in the Franco-German Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which true to it name is a system and not just a new fighter. The Rafale stands out in many ways from the competition, offering a number of unique solutions and concepts. Time will tell if these will catch the interest of the Finnish Air Force, or if a more conservative solution will be sought.