The French Air Force operates two-seat Rafale Bs and single-seat Rafale Cs

Dassault Rafale

France’s World-Class Multirole Fighter

Dassault Rafale Multirole Fighter

France’s electrifying Dassault Rafale is among the world’s leading modern-day multirole fighters. Of the same generation as the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Saab JAS-39 Gripen and embodying similar design features, it’s fast, capable and exceptionally agile.

Produced in three main versions, the Rafale is operationally proven and equips the French Air Force and French Navy in strength. Long-awaited international orders for it are also now starting to be placed, with Egypt and Qatar leading the way. Current plans see French Air Force/Navy Rafales serving on until at least 2040.

Dassault Rafale Development

France was originally part of the multinational European consortium that would go on to develop the Typhoon but, owing to unresolvable design and role issues, broke away to develop its own new jet fighter. Rafale construction work began in March 1984. In December 1985, the prototype Rafale A technology demonstrator was rolled-out. On 4 July 1986, in the hands of test pilot Guy Mitaux-Maurouard, it made its first flight. That first flight lasted one hour and saw it reach a speed of Mach 1.3 (997 miles per hour – 1,605 kilometres per hour) and an altitude of 36,000 feet (10,973 metres). Subsequent Rafale A test flights saw these speed and flight envelopes progressively nudged.

In September 1986, the Rafale A and the EAP (Typhoon’s predecessor) took part in that year’s Farnborough Airshow. With the defence world’s eyes keenly watching on, both gave extremely impressive flying displays. The Rafale A was retired in January 2004, after having carried out 865 test flights. Meantime, more developed Rafale airframes had been leaving the Dassault production line. 21 April 1988 saw the French Government order four Rafale prototypes: one ‘B’ (two-seat), one ‘C’ (single-seat) and two ‘Ms’ (naval versions). General entry-into-service was at point expected by the mid-1990s but the Cold War’s end would see timescales slip after France’s defence budget got reigned-in.

French Navy Rafales

The first Rafale C’s maiden flight occurred on 19 May 1991. Later that year – on 12 December - the first M model joined it in the sky. By the end of 1993, a second Rafale M plus the Rafale B prototype were all flying but the first production airframe wouldn’t get airborne until 1999. The 2000s proved a happier decade for the Rafale as, relatively quickly, deliveries to the French Navy and French Air Force finally got underway.

Dassault Rafale Versions

The French Air Force operates two Rafale versions – the single-seat Rafale C and the two-seat Rafale – while the French Navy is equipped with Rafale Ms which deploy aboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. Compared to the Rafale B and C, the M model has a strengthened airframe and undercarriage, a longer nosewheel leg and an arrestor hook. These and other modifications make it about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) heavier but, otherwise, the three Rafale versions are very similar, commonality between them reaching about 95 per cent.

Rafale M

Dassault Rafale Features

The Rafale features heavy use of composite materials within its construction. Design-wise, it has both a delta wing and canard foreplanes in place. Positioned close together, these provide a supreme blend of agility and extended strike mission capability. Stealth features are present, too, although the Rafale isn’t a full-blown stealth aircraft. Nonetheless, serrated patterns on its wings’ and canards’ trailing (rear-facing) edges are just one of its RCS (radar cross section)-reducing aspects.

What Dassault terms ‘superior handling’ arises from the aircraft’s quadruple-redundant fly-by-wire system, while the pilot’s seat is reclined 29 degrees, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon-style. This helps Rafale pilots tolerate G forces that can range from plus-9G to minus-3.2G. The Rafale’s digital cockpit includes ‘data fusion’ technology that optimises what data pilots see. This technology’s part of the jet’s IMA (Integrated Modular Avionics) avionics hub. Also on the avionics side, the SPECTRA defensive aids package acts to safeguard the Rafale against ground and air-based threats.

Rafale Features

Dassault Rafale Capabilities

The Rafale’s capabilities have been evolved over time. Operational in 2004, initial F1 standard airframes were only able to perform air-to-air missions. Air-to-air and air-to-ground-capable F2 standard Rafales were introduced two years later and the F3 standard was reached two years after that. F3 standard Rafales have anti-shipping, reconnaissance and nuclear capabilities added to the mix, making them true multirole fighters or, as Dassault terms them, ‘omnirole’. Looking ahead, the next major Rafale capability upgrade will see F3R standard models emerge. Set to become operational later this decade, these Rafale F3Rs will be Meteor missile-compatible.

Fitted with two digitally-controlled Snecma M88-2 turbofan engines, the Rafale has a top speed of 1,188 miles per hour (1,912 kilometres per hour) and a maximum range of 1,266 miles (2,037 kilometres). Fitted with 14 hardpoints (13 in the Rafale M’s case), it can carry up to 21,000 pounds (9,500 kilograms) of weapons and perform air-to-air, air-to-ground and interception engagements within a single sortie. These weapons can include MICA, SCALP and Exocet missiles, plus Paveway laser-guided bombs. The aircraft is also fitted with a NEXTER 30M791 30mm internal cannon that can carry 2,500 rounds.

Rafale Operations

Rafale Operations

So far, only France has used Rafales operationally. French Navy M models were deployed in 2002 to participate in Operation Enduring Freedom but didn’t fly any combat missions. Instead, the type’s full operational debut occurred in March 2007, with both French Air Force and French Navy Rafales involved. Rafales have subsequently taken part in Operations Harmattan (France’s contribution to the March 2011 Libyan no-fly zone campaign), Serval (Mali) and Chammal (contributing towards the multinational IS/Islamic State containment effort).

Rafale Operators

To date, 228 Rafales have been ordered, with the French Air Force’s order of 132 (63 Rafale Bs and 69 Rafale Cs) by far the largest so far placed. The French Air Force right now has four Rafale squadrons along with an operational conversion unit while the French Navy, which ordered 48 Rafale Ms, has two squadrons equipped with the type plus one in waiting.

Egypt became the first international Rafale customer on 16 February 2015. 24 examples were ordered - the Egyptian Air Force getting its first three six months later. In Egyptian Air Force service, they’ll be known as Rafale EMs (single-seaters) and Rafale 16 DMs (two-seaters). Qatar is the most recent Rafale-ordering nation. It, too, ordered 24 via a contract announced in May 2015. Will India join these nations? That’s still not known but a 36-aircraft order is in prospect and could be announced in late Spring 2016.

Key Facts:

Role: Multirole fighter 
Length:  50 ft 1 in (15.27 m)
Wing span: 35 feet 5 in (10.8 m)
Engines: Two Snecma M88-2 turbofans, producing 17,000 pounds thrust each (with afterburner)
Maximum speed: 1,188 mph (1,912 km/h)
Maximum range:  1,266 miles (2,037 km)
Maximum height: 55,000 ft (16,764 m)
Crew: One pilot
Weapons: MICA and Exocet missiles, Storm Shadow cruise missiles, Paveway II bombs 
First flown: 4 July 1986 (Dassault A Demonstrator)

Rafale B/C air-to-air images copyright USAF – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Rafale M carrier launch image copyright US Navy – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Other Rafale images copyright Paul Fiddian

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