The Rafale Genesis

The Rafale Genesis
A detailed history of the Rafale fighter aircraft program

The very first origins of the Rafale program came from the disappointment of the French Air Force at not being able to acquire the Super Mirage 4000, extremely efficient but heavy and therefore expensive, and which had to be content with the Mirage 2000 (Dassault hoped to finance and build the Super Mirage 4000 for the air force, while self-financing the Mirage 2000 for export needs. The President of the French Republic at the time decided otherwise. Dassault was unable to find an export customers for Super Mirage 4000, a competitor to the American F15, and the program remained a technological demonstrator).


When the time came to think about replacing the old Mirage 3 and 5 and the Jaguar, Dassault and the French official services had the idea of designing a completely versatile aircraft so that it could replace all the jets in line: The Mirage 4 of reconnaissance and deterrence, the air defense Mirage 2000 the tactical and air defense Mirage F1, the Jaguar, the latest Mirage 3 and 5 and even the Crusaders and Super standard of naval aviation.

It must be said that the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s saw French aero industry made great progress in order to make up for the short lead of American aircraft : FBW on Mirage 2000, rapid development of composites, mastery of design software (Catia soft), engines with mono crystalline blades, versatile radars (RDY).

These advances were added to the excellent skills already acquired by Dassault in aerodynamics, his specialization in delta wings and his mastery of complex programs, and the skills of French electronics engineers in electronic warfare systems (heritage of the aerial branch of the French nuclear deterrence).
During this new program, currently called ACX, the Air Force insisted on obtaining a twin-engine aircraft. Formula which also had the support of naval aviation in terms of safety.

The ACX was going to rely on:
  • A light, compact and very aerodynamically efficient airframe in order to obtain a light aircraft compared to its performance (Marcel Dassault explaining that an airplane is sold by kilogramme ! The experience of the very powerful but heavy Super Mirage 4000 had passed over there)
  • Two versatile and compact engines, technologically at least at the level of American achievements at the time (the M88 had a world record turbine inlet temperature for a while), capable of allowing the aircraft to fly as well at very low altitudes maintaining good performance at high altitude
  • Digital electric flight controls
  • A very unstable aerodynamic formula based on closed coupled delta wings, allowing exceptional manoeuvrability, a high load capacity and the low take-off and landing speed essential for an aircraft on board an aircraft carrier (Americans will always doubt you can make a good on board plane with a delta wing)
  • A new type of air inlets ensuring excellent reactor power up to mach 2 and more than 30 ° AoA, without a mobile device, and contributing to the overall stealth
  • An electronic scanning radar alone capable of ensuring the versatility of the desired missions
  • Passive discretion of the frame (a quantified, but confidential, RCS objective was given to Dassault when ordering the standard Rafale), thanks to its geometry (air inlets for example) and its materials
  • A very advanced active self-protection system, which alone will consume 25% of the R&D costs of the entire program
  • A modern cabin and a high level plane-pilot interface
  • An architecture designed from the outset to facilitate future developments
  • The ease of maintenance and high availability are taken into account from the design stage
Exploratory developments, already launched for some, were accelerated. The reactor in particular was very ambitious, since it had to have more thrust than the F404 while being smaller and lighter.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Europe sought to acquire a medium aircraft to replace a good part of the French, English and German (Phantom), Italian & Spanish fighters… Dassault and British Aerospace competed for the leadership of the project.

The Europeans could not agree on the characteristics of the plane (versatile and lighter for France, oriented air-air and heavier for the others, mainly the English) nor on the industrial assembly.

At the 1986 Farnborough Air Show, the ACX demonstrator, renamed Rafale A in the meantime, proved to be more efficient than its competitor, the EAP.

France, certain of the advantages of its aeronautical industry, decided in 1988 to make its own plane, against a consortium which developed the Eurofighter.

Rafale was born


Rafale A prototype

Rafale was scheduled to enter service in 1996, and an initial quantity of 326 aircraft for the Air Force and Naval Aviation was planned.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent drop in defense budgets decided otherwise. It was postponed for several years and the quantities reduced, like all of the major weapons programs of the moment (nuclear aircraft carrier delayed, Leclerc MBT delayed and cut, etc.).

From the beginning, three aircraft standards were provided :
  1. F1 only air air, and intended for the urgent replacement of the Naval Aviation Crusaders. This standard was only applied to the first 10 naval airplanes which have since been retrofitted.
  2. F2 integrating the first air-to-ground capabilities, a mature Spectra electronic support measure system and in particular the ability to fire the SCALP cruise missile.
  3. F3 totally versatile : air to air, air to ground, anti ship, nuclear deterrence, refueling


F1 Rafale with Magic 2 AAM.

The modularity of the aircraft and its very open architecture make it easy to upgrade from one standard to another easily.

This same modularity has made it possible to reduce to 2 hours the time necessary to replace a PESA antenna with an AESA antenna on the same radar.

The 2020’ Rafale

Rafale is a mature aircraft, which offers very high performance:
  • Better weapon + gas load than that of the Super Hornet while being 40% lighter,
  • Agility comparable to that of the F22,
  • Very high availability (almost 100% on the Rafales on board the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier),
  • First European on-board AESA radar which is based on the PESA software library (now 20 years of experience in electronic scanning). In 2020 this radar remains unique in Europe, and this for 7 years… (cheers Eurofighter)
  • Very complete SPECTRA self-protection system. It is rumored that it has active cancellation modes… ,
  • Controlled stealth. Not comparing with performance of F22 while F35 imposes constraints on agility.
  • Extreme versatility since the same aircraft can deliver nuclear weapons, fire a long-range air air missile, refuel another aircraft, do reconnaissance, fire an anti-ship missile, fire a cruise missile, fire diversified air-to-ground weapons , make air-to-ground canon support while protecting itself alone. And often several of these missions at the same time.

The future ?

From the very beginning, there is a strong road map for Rafale.

Beyond the F3 Standard, imagined from the beginning of the program in the late 1980s, a F3R standard has just been put into service. It adds to the complete F3 standard the ability to fire the Meteor missile, the reconnaissance capability thanks to the TALIOS pod, improvements to the radar and electronic warfare system and, for export, an integrated HCMS.

Note: for Indian and Qatar market, some new equipments are (or are to be) integrated : US laser pod, Israelis guided bombs, Indian AAM

F3R Rafale with MICA IR and EM, Meteor, Hammer bombs.

The F4 standard has just been ordered for delivery in 2024. It will add capabilities to radar, optronics, electronic warfare system, A new guided and powered bomb of 1000Kg, a new medium-range air air missile, data links higher bandwidth and satellite data link to become a communication node like the F35.

Beyond F5 and F6 are already the subject of R&D, with work on the improvement of stealth (maybe with frame modifications), the generalisation of GaN for the radar antenna (with probably side antennas) and Spectra, the remote management of drones, collaboration with the future Franco-German SCAF aircraft (which will be much heavier), stealth cargo for weaponry, conformal tanks, etc.

The future of the Rafale is written until at least 2060.

The rapid and easy scalability of the Rafale is exceptional (you only have to see the slowness and limitations of Eurofighter). It is clear that the teams that defined this weapon system in the 1980s were proof of a remarkable spirit of anticipation.
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'Gamechanger': France carries out Rafale sortie with Meteor war-grade missiles

The French Air and Space Army has completed its first operational flight with a Rafale jet equipped with Meteor war-grade missiles as part of the ramp-up of the Rafale F3-R


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