A Gust from the South

Like the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale made a rare visit to Finland earlier this year. However, a significant difference between the two visits was that while the ‘Super Bugs’ were leased by Boeing to take part in two air shows and a short stay at the Finnish Air Force’s research and evaluation facilities at Tampere-Pirkkala, the French fighters arrived as part of normal Armée de l’air operations when they participated in the international Arctic Challenge Exercise. The French contribution was made up by six single-seat Mirage 2000 and three two-seat Rafale B, all of which were based at Rovaniemi AFB in the northern parts of the country for the duration of the exercise.

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Rafale B from Escadron de chasse 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ at Rovaniemi during the first day of flight operations of ACE17. Source: Ilmavoimat / Minna Piirainen

The decision to send two-seaters was something which raised my curiosity already as the first pictures of the aircraft touching down started to appear. Luckily, while the Dassault did not bring an aircraft to this year’s Finnish air shows, they did have a nicely sized stand in Helsinki, where I got to sit down and have a chat with company representatives.

Dassault was keen to point out that ACE17 was an air force exercise that they as a manufacturer had no real connection to, they did confirm that the decision was made by AdA to send two-seaters in order to provide familiarisation opportunities. The three Rafales seems to have flown most of the time with a foreign pilot as a backseater, providing a “good opportunity” to show off the aircraft, as Dassault put it.

The choice of squadrons were also interesting. ETR 3/4 ‘Aquitaine’ is the operational conversion unit, responsible for training both AdA and Marine Nationale Rafale air crews, while EC 1/4 ‘Gascogne’ is the land-based strike squadron of the Force de Dissuasion, the French nuclear strike force. The third and final aircraft bore the badge of legendary fighter squadron EC 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, which is nominally a single-seat Rafale C squadron (focused on ground-attack) but which is known to have operated a handful of two-seaters to assist in the training of younger pilots. Especially the inclusion of the inclusion of the ‘Gascogne’-fighter is interesting. The nuclear strike role means that the squadron places a high emphasis on operations at low level and high speed (down to 60 meters over land and 30 meter over water, at speeds up to Mach 0.9 / 600 knots). While the Rafale’s automatic terrain following system wasn’t likely pushed quite to these limits during ACE17 (due to having a foreign backseater, lack of terrain data of Lappi, and height restrictions during the exercise), it certainly gave an opportunity to show of one of the strong points of the Rafale.

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A Rafale being cleared while a Finnish F/A-18C Hornet takes off in the background. Note the MICA IR missile on the port wingtip. The data from the seeker head of this can be fused with the onboard sensors of the aircraft. Source: Ilmavoimat

Dassault assured that the fighter operated without issue over the Finnish north, with the most dramatic episode being a bird strike experienced during a sortie with a French pilot and a foreign backseater. Even this wasn’t too much of an story, as it was only noticed once the plane had landed.

Back to Dassault: While they naturally weren’t able to comment on the details of the request for information related to the Finnish HX-program, they did describe it as “very interesting as far as the opposing power goes”, noting the high-end threat environment the HX has to be able to operate in. As discussed at length last summer in a series of posts, Dassault’s solution to the Finnish request is to emphasise the complete package. “It is not a question of just technical capability”, as Dassault explains. “There’s no golden solution, but a mix of capabilities is needed.” In practice, this means that Dassault strives to develop all parts of the aircraft in conjunction with each other. With an eye towards the other eurocanards adopting the Meteor very-long range missile before integrating AESA-radars, Dassault’s representatives pointed out that they first focus on the sensors, and then integrate the weapons which can take advantage of sensor developments. A complete concept, multirole, and flexibility are the keywords when Dassault tries to sell their fighters.

However, all is not unicorns and roses for the French fighter. Early July, Finnish tabloid Iltalehti published a long article on the earlier Finnish fighter program which eventually lead to the choice of the F/A-18C Hornet. While the analysis was rather poor (see Twitter rant), it did for the first time provide access to the secret memo presented to the politicians outlining the reasoning behind the Air Force favouring the Hornet. Dassault’s offering back then was the Mirage 2000-5, which was the only fighter besides the F/A-18C/D Hornet that was deemed to fulfil the requirements of the Air Force. The MiG-29, JAS 39A/B, and F-16 (my understanding is that the C/D was offered, but I am unsure about exact version) failed to meet the mark. The Mirage 2000-5 is described in the brief as follows:

Mirage 2000-5 fulfils the requirements of the Air Force, but the aircraft’s maintenance system is difficult for us, and life-cycle costs are probably in the higher-end owing to the small user base.

At around the same time as the article was published, impeached Brazilian president Rousseff gave her testimony on the choice of JAS 39E/F Gripen for the Brazilian Air Force. At 1:25 and forward in the video below, she describes the Rafale as having “extremely high” maintenance costs (compared to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and JAS 39E Gripen).

The Rafale is significantly easier to maintain compared to the Mirage 2000, mainly thanks to the automated fault detection software and smarter component layout of the Rafale. In practice, maintenance tasks are further in between and each individual task takes roughly half the time they did on the Mirage. Depot-level maintenance has also disappeared altogether. The Finnish comment from 25 years ago puzzles me. It seems this would indicate some kind of major difference in how maintenance was handled between the US Navy (for the Hornet) and the Armée de l’air (for the Mirage). I am unsure what kind of difference this would have been, and whether it still exists and affects the chances of the Rafale in HX.

Dassault is also looking over how the maintainers are trained, bringing something as rare as a maintenance simulator into play. The Oculus Rift-based software was demonstrated in Finland at the Kaviopuisto Air Show. The idea is that an instructor together with up to ten trainees can inspect a complete colour coded Rafale in virtual reality, where it is possible to move around freely and look at the components being discussed, without being restricted by the size of how many pairs of eyes can look through an open maintenance hatch at the same time. Being able to pass through structures and look at how different components connect together to form the complete system is also a significant benefit. The system has been pioneered on the Dassault Falcon-series of business jets, and is currently being rolled out for Rafale training.

For Rousseff, she obviously has an interest in painting the decision to buy Gripen as a clear-cut case. However, together the two reports does create the impression that this might not be the French fighter’s strongest point after all. I tried to contact Dassault for a comment, but have unfortunately not received a reply (possibly due to summer vacations). This will likely be a point that the blog will return to in the future.

© Dassault Aviation - V. Almansa
A Rafale undergoing landing gear tests during maintenance. Picture courtesy of © Dassault Aviation – V. Almansa.

Another point of great interest is the recent carrier-based operations over Syria and Iraq. A great write up on these can be found at the Liveifst-blog by Shiv Aroor who visited the homebase of 11F, one of three Rafale M units, at Landivisiau. An interesting tidbit is the description of a mission by two Rafale M to intercept and record the attack mode of the Su-33’s N001K radar when the carrier-borne fighters were operating of the Admiral Kuznetsov over Syria in 2016. The mission eventually ended in success, with the Rafale’s integrated SPECTRA electronic warfare system now featuring yet another radar mode in it’s library.

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