The Latest Member of the French Delta Wing Family DASSAULT RAFALE

Date: Issue 103 - January 2021

In the late 1970s, the French Air Force and Navy required a new generation fighter jet to replace their aging Jaguar, Mirage F1, Crusader, and Super Etendard combat aircraft. In those years, the Air Force and Navy operated different types of warplanes. Since they have similar needs, the two Forces decide to use the same aircraft to reduce cost. In 1979, aircraft manufacturer Dassault joined the European Combat Aircraft (ECA) project; however, the project collapsed in 1981 as the participating countries had different operational requirements. Then, in 1983, France, West Germany, Spain, Italy, and the UK started the Future European Fighter Aircraft (FEFA) project. France insisted on a carrier-based multi-role aircraft for its Navy and consequently left the project in 1985 as the other participants did not have such a need. The rest of the participants continued the project, and thus the Eurofighter Typhoon was born. After leaving the project, France decided to develop a national fighter jet in line with the needs of the French Navy. In this context, Dassault company was selected to create an indigenous design under the Avion de Combat eXpérimental (ACX - Experimental Combat Airplane) project, and France began to produce its own prototype in 1984 before leaving FEFA. The ACX prototype, Rafale A, made its maiden flight on July 4, 1986. In this flight, the prototype aircraft used General Electric F404-GE-400 Turbofan engines as the Snecma M88 Turbofan engine was still under development. Rafale A flew with the Snecma M88-2 engines for the first time on February 27, 1990, and following the completion of tests on December 31, 1992, the first order was placed for the production of the M88 engines.

On April 21, 1988, the French government ordered Dassault for four Rafale prototypes. These orders consisted of one Rafale C (Chasseur/Fighter) and Rafale B (Biplace/Two-seat) for the Air Force and two Rafale M (Marin/Naval) for the Navy. The C prototype made its maiden flight on May 19, 1991, the M prototype on December 11, 1991, and finally the B prototype on April 30, 1993. Since there is no land-based catapult facility in France, Rafale M goes to test centers in Lakehurst (New Jersey, USA) and Patuxent River (Maryland, USA) between July 8 and August 23, 1992, for USC1 verification tests. Several Ship Suitability Tests were conducted with the prototype, including 39 catapult launch tests and 69 arrested landing tests. The USC2 tests were carried out between January 15 - February 18, 1993, and the aircraft carrier compatibility program (PA1) began on April 19, 1993. 31 landing and take-off tests were performed with the Foch aircraft carrier. These tests continued until May 7, and they were followed by the PA2 and USC3 tests. After the successful completion of the tests, all three models received orders for serial production on February 17, 1994. Rafale M achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 1997. Initially, 250 Rafale aircraft were planned to be produced for France; however, 180 aircraft were produced due to budget cuts (63 Rafale B and 69 Rafale C for the Air Force and 48 Rafale M for the Navy). Despite being a superior aircraft in terms of capability compared to its rivals, Rafale has never achieved the desired commercial success. We can say that France's lack of former political power certainly had an effect on this as well as economic reasons. 

On February 16, 2015, Egypt ordered 24 Rafale jets and became the first international customer of the aircraft (8 single-seat Rafale EM and 16 two-seat Rafale DM). This was followed by Qatar's order for 24 Rafale DQ/EQ aircraft on April 30, 2015. The Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF) ordered 12 additional Rafale fighters in December 2017. On September 23, 2016, India ordered 36 Rafale DH/EH aircraft. Lastly, due to the increasing political and military tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent months, Greece ordered 18 Rafale fighter jets from France. Under the agreement, which is defined as urgent, 12 second-hand Rafale fighter jets currently in French Air Force service will be transferred to the Greek Air Force, and Dassault Aviation will newly produce six aircraft.

After taking a brief look at Rafale's development-manufacturing and production processes, let's touch upon the design and capabilities of the aircraft. 

Rafale is a twin-engine, canard delta wing, multi-role fighter aircraft with a high power-to-weight ratio. This design allows it to fly without losing its agility even at high angles of attack. Rafale's air intakes are specially designed to reduce the radar cross-section (RCS). Additionally, composite materials are used extensively during the production process, and the canopy is covered with a special material. As in the F-16, the ejection seat is tilted 29° backward to increase the pilot's G resistance by reducing the height difference between the pilot's heart and brain. Like the F-16, Rafale also has a fly-by-wire side-stick controller (SSC) placed on the right side of the cockpit, not between the pilot's legs. The Hands-on Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) system is located on the left side of the cockpit. Thanks to this system, which also functions as a throttle controller, the pilot can control all the avionics and weapon systems on the aircraft with the help of the buttons on it without taking his hand off the handle. Great emphasis has been placed on the cockpit design to reduce the pilot's workload during flight. The highly digitized cockpit also features an integrated DVI (Direct Voice Input) system that simplifies the pilot's access to various controls and allows a range of functions to be controlled by voice commands. The DVI system can handle radio communications, countermeasures, weapons, radar mode selection, and navigational functions. The cockpit has a wide-angle (30° x 20°) Head-Up Display (HUD) and a Head-Level Display (HLD, located just below the HUD). The pilot can look at both screens by only moving his eyes without tilting his head. Moreover, the pilot can control all aircraft systems and view sensor information via two Multi-Functional Displays (MFD). 

The most important of these sensors is undoubtedly the RBE2-AA AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar. The current RBE2-AA radar uses Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) T/R (Transducer) modules. The radar can scan an area of 140° and has a range of over 200 km. The high output power and long-range of the radar allows Rafale to use long-range air-to-air missiles like Meteor. Instead of a mechanically rotating antenna, the T/R modules on the radar array are electronically directed, independently of each other. Thus, the radar can operate in more than one mode at the same time. While searching and tracking air targets, it can simultaneously create a terrain profile for low-altitude flight and generate high-resolution maps for navigation and targeting. Another feature of AESA radars is the ability to work integrated with the aircraft's internal Electronic Warfare (EW) system, SPECTRA (Self-Protection Equipment to Counter Threats for Aircraft). 

SPECTRA provide Rafale with exceptional survivability against the latest air and land threats. It is fully integrated with other systems onboard and provides multi-spectral threat warning capability against enemy radars, missiles, and lasers. It detects and identifies long-range threats, allowing the pilot to take early action against these threats. SPECTRA can also locate the angular position of hostile elements with high precision thanks to its sensors. This feature is highly critical for two reasons. First, it can passively detect and identify enemy threats from great distances when the aircraft's active sensors (such as radar) are turned off. This capability reduces the possibility of Rafale being detected by the enemy sensors. The second advantage is that it offers the pilot a completely passive situational awareness capability. It significantly contributes to maintaining the aircraft's tactical status and provides an operational advantage to the crew by notifying the correct threat location. Thanks to its powerful electronic receivers, the system not only works as an RWR (Radar Warning Receiver), but it also provides ESM (Electronic Support Measure) capability to the aircraft. Depending on the signal strength, SPECTRA can detect enemy sensors' position from 250 km with 1° accuracy. The system provides Rafale with ELINT/SIGINT (Electronic Intelligence/Signal Intelligence) capability without carrying an additional pod. Rafale is also equipped with three AESA antennas (one at the tail and two at the canard roots), each with a 120°coverage, to jam detected signals. SPECTRA provides highly effective jamming capability thanks to its DRFM (Digital Radio Frequency Memory) feature. Additionally, the system incorporates two IR missile warning receivers in the tail to detect incoming missiles. The system also includes an onboard laser warning system. By combining the data from different onboard sensors, the weapon system creates threat records that can be viewed in the cockpit, and they can be used to target hostile threats in Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions. Data and signals from all sensors are compared with data from the onboard threat library, and the central computer automatically activates appropriate countermeasures based on this comparison. To jam and deceive hostile radar frequencies, the system sends jamming signals through active phased array antennas. Using this advanced technology ensures that jamming signals are concentrated in the sector where they are needed most. This capability increases the effectiveness of jamming and reduces the possibility of being detected by enemy sensors.

The FSO (Front Sector Optronics) system is fully integrated into the aircraft. The system allows Rafale to passively detect and identify air, sea, and ground targets from long ranges and measure distances using high-resolution angular tracking and laser. FSO does not emit any radiation and is entirely resistant to electronic jamming. Fully integrated into the aircraft's navigation and weapon systems, it provides tactical information and target engagement capabilities. FSO consists of two different optronics, including an IRST (Infrared Search and Track) and TV-Laser Rangefinder. The IRST system can identify and track air targets over more than 100 km. 

Rafale’s Advanced Weapon Systems

Rafale has 14 hardpoints (13 in Rafale M), five of which can carry heavy payloads and fuel tanks. The aircraft's external payload capacity is more than nine metric tons (20,000 lb.). Initial deliveries of the Rafale M were in the F1 (France 1) standard. These could be equipped for only air-to-air interceptor missions but lacked any armament for air-to-ground operations. The F1 standard became operational in 2004. Later deliveries were in the F2 standard, which added the capability for conducting air-to-ground operations; the first F2 standard Rafale M was delivered to the French Navy in May 2006. From 2008 onwards, Rafale deliveries were in the nuclear-capable F3 standard. All previous aircraft in the earlier F1 and F2 standards were later upgraded to the F3 standard. With the F3 standard, Rafale has evolved into a fully multi-role plane, while Dassault defines it as "Omni-Role." Today, all aircraft have been upgraded to the F3-R standard, which added the ASMP-A (Air-Sol Moyenne Portée) nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile, Thales Reco-NG Aerial Reconnaissance (AREOS) pod, and Exocet Anti-ship Missile (AShM) capabilities. With the evolution of the Rafale F3 standard, the versatility of the aircraft has been further strengthened. 

If we closely examine the munitions, missiles, and payloads carried by Rafale aircraft in the French Air Force and Navy, we can better understand the capabilities that prove their versatility.

MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). Guided by an advanced active radar seeker, Meteor can defeat various targets, from nimble jets to small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and cruise missiles. This high-performance missile can be used to its maximum potential thanks to the AESA radar of Rafale aircraft. 

The laser-guided version of the Safran AASM Air-to-Ground Modular Munition. In addition to the INS/GPS guidance system, the laser and IR guidance kits enable precise engagement of even moving targets from long distances.

Thales Talios next generation targeting pod. It offers new capabilities such as operating day or night from higher altitudes and ranges, theater mapping, and automatic moving target detection and tracking. 

The F3-R also includes upgraded subsystems and software that ensure the interoperability of onboard sensors. It also incorporates a different and more advanced human-machine interface compared to the current standards.

Another significant feature is the AGCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System). If the pilot loses his situational awareness or experiences spatial disorientation, it will be sufficient to press the "panic button" on the plane. If Auto GCAS determines that a ground collision is imminent, it initiates a fly up maneuver to automatically align Rafale's wings to the horizon, saving both pilot and plane.

With the current F3-R standard, Rafale is also capable of attacking from extended distances without getting closer to enemy air defenses or air elements. Thanks to its RBE2-AA AESA radar and passive sensors, it can engage hostiles with a Meteor beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile from a range of over 100 km before its opponents can detect it. Rafale can also carry IR-guided short-range Magic II missiles, and medium-range MICA missiles that are available in both IR and Radar guided versions. It can carry 500 lb. GBU-12 Paveway II, 2,000 lb. GBU-24 Paveway III, and AASM-GPS (SBU-38), AASM-Laser (SBU-54), and AASM-Infrared (SBU-64) variants of the AASM (Armement Air Sol Modulaire) smart munition family against ground targets. Rafale can execute deep strike missions on enemy targets with its 560 km range SCALP EG cruise missile, and it can attack enemy ships with AM39 Exocet anti-ship missiles without being detected by them using its advanced ESM capability. Last but not least, it can also carry out a nuclear attack from a range of more than 500 km with the ASMP-A (Air-Sol Moyenne Portée/Medium-range air to surface missile) cruise missile, which is part of France's Nuclear Arsenal. 

In addition to all these capabilities, a €2 billion contract was signed on January 14, 2019, to upgrade existing aircraft to the new F4 standard. The F4 standard will include improved radar capacity, a new helmet-mounted targeting system, a new control system for the Safran Snecma M88 engine (16,680 lbf thrust), updated versions of ASMP-A, advanced SCALP and MICA NG missiles, and a new generation of 1,000 kg (2,200 lb.) AASM precision-guided munitions. The F4 standard will be fully operational from 2024 onwards, while some of its components will start to be used actively in 2022.


Rafale stands out with its advanced radar, electronic warfare, and self-protection systems. Considering its greater combat radius and advanced weapons, it emerges as one of the most successful 4th generation aircraft. Rafale, which has not been used outside of France until recently, has suddenly become a very tough competitor we face in the Eastern Mediterranean after Egypt and Greece's procurement decisions. Although both countries purchased small numbers, Rafale could be a game-changer in the region with their current capabilities. We should not forget the role of the Iranian F-14A fighter jets assumed in the Iran-Iraq war. They inflicted severe losses on the Iraqi Air Force with their powerful AWG-9 radars and long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. With their jam-resistant, long-range radars and long-range missiles, they allowed the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) jets to attack Iraqi aircraft before they even realized they were targets. They were escorting and protecting the Iranian strike wings.  A similar situation can be experienced with Rafale as well. Combined with the power of the aircraft's electronic warfare system and passive sensors, the RBE2-AA and Meteor duo can provide a tremendous capability increase against their foes, despite their small numbers. It will be quite vital to control the air picture against this threat. After the data from the Airborne Early Warning and Command Control (AEW&C) Aircraft and land-based long-range 3D radars are processed, it should be transferred to jets in the air via Link-16, and friendly aircraft should be informed about the threats outside their radar range. The competitor's strong radar capability will increase the need for stand-off jammer aircraft accompanying friendly fighter jets as well as increasing the own EW capabilities. Nationally developed air-to-air munitions will be even more critical. The flight and attack parameters of the indigenous missile, as well as its seeker, will be unknown to the opponent, making it difficult for them to counter. While increasing our current fleet capabilities, we must continue to develop new practices that will surprise and challenge adversaries. We should not forget that modern combat vehicles alone do not matter without competent and experienced users…