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How France’s Rafale fighter evolved into an export champion

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After more than 20 years of operational duty, Dassault Aviation’s Rafale has matured into a highly capable combat asset, and one which – after a decidedly slow start – is now enjoying strong international sales success.

Cirium fleets data shows that there were 243 Rafales in active use as of 25 April, with these operated by five nations: Egypt, France, Greece, India and Qatar.

Source: US Air Force
Qatar operates 36 examples, with options to double fleet

During a bumper 12 months that the French manufacturer referred to as “a historic year”, it in 2022 announced that contracts had come into effect with a trio of buyers for a combined 92 Rafales. This total includes 80 for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first six of a planned 42 for Indonesia, and a further batch of six new-build examples for Greece.

MULTIPLE CUSTOMERS

The company also delivered a combined 13 export aircraft to Greece, India and Qatar last year, along with the first French air force example since November 2018. A twin-seat variant, B359 is drawn from Paris’s 60-aircraft fourth tranche production order, deliveries under which are due to conclude in 2025.

At the end of 2022, the Rafale’s order backlog stood at 164 aircraft, of which 125 are for export customers and 39 for domestic use.

Production output for 2023 is expected to total 13 units, all for the French air force, but Dassault is planning to boost this to a record rate of three per month by the middle of this decade, in order to keep pace with soaring demand.

Source: Dassault Aviation
Aircraft B359 was the first Rafale to be handed over to the French air force since late 2018

Developed to meet French requirements, the twin-Snecma M88-engined Rafale is produced in three variants: the single-seat C and twin-seat B for air force use, and the aircraft carrier-compatible single-seat M. It was first flown as a technology demonstrator in July 1986, and in production guise from May 1991.

The French navy took its first M-model jets in December 2000, and placed the type into squadron use the following year. It today has 41 in active service, with two more on contract and another 10 the subject of potential future acquisition.

Some 93 of the type are in French air force service currently, according to Cirium: 53 Bs and 40 Cs, with another 37 (6 Bs and 31 Cs) on order. Another two C-model fighters are recorded as stored.

To support the nation’s frontline fleet, the DGA defence procurement agency’s Essais en vol flight-test unit also operates a further five Rafales: three Bs, and single examples of the C and M.

And in a pending further boost for its already healthy backlog, Dassault expects to later this year sign a fifth tranche production order with France. To cover a total of 42 aircraft, these will help to keep the nation’s industry busy until Paris begins purchasing the New Generation Fighter (NGF) being designed for France, Germany and Spain, with Dassault as the platform development lead. Operations with the new model are expected to commence from 2040.

Meanwhile, the Rafale’s new F4.1 operating standard achieved qualification by the DGA in mid-March.

SYSTEM UPDATES

Capability updates include the ability to carry three Safran Electronics & Defense AASM 1,000kg (2,200lb) laser/GPS-guided bombs, sensor enhancements, and updated communications and cyber-protection. It also Thales’s Scorpion helmet-mounted sight, plus fire control system enhancements which enable another Rafale to manage MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles after launch.

“Operational experimentation by the [French] Air and Space Force and the French Navy began on 3 March,” the DGA says, ahead of trials “during the spring” aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

France’s entire in-service Rafale fleet will be retrofitted to the new standard, which also will be used on new-build examples.

For many years following its introduction to domestic service – including participating in successful combat operations over Afghanistan, Libya and Mali – Dassault was unsuccessful in its efforts to sell the Rafale to overseas customers. But that situation changed dramatically during the first few months of 2015.

In February of that year, Egypt announced a 24-aircraft purchase, with this first international success followed only two months later by a commitment from Qatar for the same number of jets.

RAPID DELIVERY

Cairo’s initial acquisition was split between 16 Bs and eight Cs. Deliveries rapidly commenced to the north African nation from July 2015, with Dassault diverting aircraft that had already been in production for France. Another 30 examples were ordered in 2021 for the Egyptian air force, in a mix between the two variants.

In March 2023, Dassault announced that Rafales had completed their first 10,000h in Egyptian air force service – the most accumulated so far by an export customer for the type.

Source: Dassault Aviation
Egypt became first export customer with an initial order for 24 Rafales in February 2015

“This important milestone confirms the Rafale’s technological and operational excellence, and attests to the quality of the training Egyptian crews received in France,” Dassault says.

Also citing the importance of its provision of in-service support, the manufacturer points to “the great skill of the Egyptian air force, which has carried out the transformation of its pilots and mechanics to the Rafale with ease and fluidity”.

Dassault’s second export buyer, Qatar, has now fielded 36 Rafales, having increased the scope of its original order via a 2017 deal for 12 more.

Deliveries to the Qatar Emiri Air Force began in February 2019, with the service now having 27 locally-designated EQ single-seaters and nine two-seat DQs. Doha – which has pursued an ambitious fighter expansion programme by also acquiring Boeing F-15QAs and Eurofighter Typhoons – has an option to eventually double the size of its French-supplied fleet.

Following the collapse of its keenly contested Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) programme, through which it had selected the Rafale for a planned 126-aircraft acquisition, India in 2016 opted to buy 36 in a so-called “flyaway” condition. The original plan for MMRCA had been for Dassault to produce the first 18 in France, with a local partner to be responsible for assembling the remaining 108 in India.

Source: AirTeamImages
India’s air force has 36 B/C-model fighters, flown by two squadrons

“Following the Rafale contract, Dassault Aviation and its partners are also contributing to the ‘Make in India’ policy, through a vast procurement, training and industrial subcontracting network involving dozens of companies, in accordance with our offset obligations,” the company says.

The Indian air force’s first five examples arrived at Ambala air base in July 2020, and the type was formally inducted to service late the same year. It now fields 28 Rafale Cs and eight Bs, with these assigned to two squadrons.

In a potential further opportunity for Dassault, the Indian air force retains a need to acquire additional new western fighters, but New Delhi has yet to advance this to a formal request for proposals. Other potential candidates include the F-15, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin’s F-21 – an Indian-optimised version of the F-16, and the Saab Gripen.

NAVAL REQUIREMENT

Dassault also is pursuing an Indian navy requirement to acquire 57 carrier-based fighters. At the Aero India show in Bengaluru in February 2023, it exhibited a Rafale M mock-up, as it eyes the potential to land its first international buyer for the ‘Marine’ model.

Boeing’s F/A-18F is also in contention for an order, which could potentially represent the last success for the type before its manufacturer halts production. The US airframer earlier this year announced that it will deliver its final Super Hornets in 2025, but noted that success with an international customer could extend this schedule by up to a further two years.

Dassault’s rival is pointing to several claimed advantages with its Super Hornet design. These include its two-seat configuration – a stated requirement for the Indian customer – and an ability to fit on lifts on current Indian navy vessels. Both the Rafale M and US type have already demonstrated ski-jump ramp take-offs during trials at a land-based facility in Goa.

“We will do everything in our power to develop our industrial presence in this great country and meet its military needs, both today and for the future,” Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier said ahead of the Aero India show.

Another export buyer, Greece, in September 2020 sealed a rapid acquisition of 18 Rafales, with its purchase divided between a dozen used jets drawn from French air force stocks and six new jets. Its first six of the second-hand assets – to be replaced in the French air force with new-build examples – were transferred to Tanagra air base in January 2022, and it has now received a total of 13: nine Cs and four Bs.

Source: Dassault Aviation
Athens will eventuatlly operate two-dozen Rafales: its first examples are ex-French air force jets

Athens in March 2022 signed for another six new-build Rafales, with these due for delivery from mid-2024.

Another transfer deal had been signed in November 2021, meanwhile, with Croatia also to acquire a dozen ex-French air force fighters.

Zagreb will take eight aircraft next year, with the remainder to follow during 2025. The type will replace the NATO nation’s remaining Mikoyan MiG-21s.

But Dassault’s biggest success to date with the Rafale came in December 2021, when the UAE announced a shock 80-unit order. Its commitment was revealed one month after a Dubai air show that had been dominated by talk of the Lockheed F-35 and developmental RAC MiG-75 Checkmate.

Valued by Paris at €16 billion ($17.5 billion), the UAE deal came into effect in April 2022, on the receipt of an initial contractual payment from Abu Dhabi. Deliveries of its F4-standard aircraft are scheduled to run between 2027 and 2031.

The UAE’s acquisition includes an extensive armaments package worth an estimated €2 billion, with Europe’s MBDA to be the main provider.

Source: Dassault Aviation
The United Arab Emirates’ 80-aircraft deal marks biggest international win for the French-built type

Last year also brought confirmation of a planned Indonesian air force acquisition of 42 Rafales, with the first six aircraft having been placed under contract in February 2022. This saw Jakarta confirmed as the first Asia-Pacific buyer, becoming Dassault’s seventh export customer for the type.

Indonesia is currently spending big on new-generation fighters, with its shopping list also including the F-15IQ and Korea Aerospace Industries KF-21 designs.

LONG HERITAGE

While Dassault’s international successes to date have in some instances formed part of broader defence equipment packages promoted by the French government, the company is quick to point out that it has a decades-long heritage in providing equipment to multiple customers that are now moving to the Rafale.

Notably, Egypt, Greece, India, Qatar and the UAE all are current users of its Mirage 2000-series fighter, while the Egyptian air force also still flies the older Mirage 5.

Dassault notes that the Indian air force has operated its aircraft since 1953, making the service its “longest standing export customer”.

Croatia and Indonesia are the only buyers to date for the Rafale to have not previously relied on a Dassault product for their combat air power.

Other current sales targets include Colombia, Trappier confirmed earlier this year.

Source: US Air Force
There are 90 Rafale Bs currently in service, representing 37% of the total inventory

Analysis of the current in-service fleet shows that there are 90 Rafale Bs in service, representing 37% of the 243-unit total. The single-seat C is the most widely employed variant, with 112 aircraft, or 46%. The maritime M-model – operated only by the French navy – accounts for the remaining 17%, with 41 aircraft in use.

A total of five Rafales have been lost to accidents since its operational introduction: four French navy Ms and one French air force-operated B.

With its seventh export customer now in formation, a new operating standard to deliver enhanced capability for the French military and international operators, and an already healthy backlog that is set to grow further this year, Dassault’s Rafale programme will remain fighting fit until its successor NGF enters use.

NGF project gaining momentum after faltering start

Four years ago, France, Germany and Spain used the opening day of the Paris air show to formally launch their joint Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme, with Dassault Aviation also unveiling a conceptual full-size model of a New Generation Fighter (NGF).

The “sixth-generation” combat asset is planned to enter frontline use from 2040, replacing the partner nations’ oldest Dassault Rafales and Eurofighter Typhoons.

With the aerospace industry set to return to Le Bourget from 19-25 June – for the first time since the 2019 event, due to the pandemic’s disruption – the collaborative effort will again be a high-profile talking point, after what has been a somewhat faltering start.

Source: VanderWolf Images/Shutterstock
New Generation Fighter design was unveiled at 2019’s Paris air show

An initial 18-month Phase 1A study activity kicked off in February 2020, but wrangling swiftly began with partner Airbus Defence & Space over Dassault’s status as development lead for the NGF. This contributed to a significant delay of almost one year, until a Phase 1B agreement was finally reached last December.

Working in collaboration with Airbus’s defence unit, Dassault will build the project’s lone NGF prototype as part of the latest €3.2 billion ($3.5 billion) phase of work. The aircraft is expected to make its first flight towards the end of this decade.

LEAD ROLE

Speaking to FlightGlobal earlier this year, Dassault chief executive Eric Trappier outlined the critical importance of his company securing the lead role on the manned fighter’s development.

“The key question when you are developing a new product like this is that you need an architect, an organiser,” he says. “If you have some kind of co-development, it doesn’t mean anything. At the end, it is not about how many jobs can be created in one country, but the ability to deliver on time, and on budget.”

Source: Dassault Aviation
New Generation Fighter effort can only work with Dassault in lead role, Trappier argues

However, with such discussions to be required in the future around issues such as workshare during series production, Trappier on 9 March cautioned: “The question of who is in charge has been resolved – but the question of whether it will work is still not resolved.”

A contract for the programme’s next, Phase 2 stage should be finalised during 2025.

The European FCAS endeavour also involves Indra as Spain’s national industry lead, and EUMET propulsion system partners ITP Aero, MTU, and Safran.

Welcoming the official launch of Phase 1B, the partners said the project will deliver “a powerful, innovative and fully European weapon system to meet the operational needs of the countries’ armed forces”.

The NGF activity is just one of a swathe of new fighter projects under way around the globe.

A joint programme between Italy, Japan and the UK, the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) aims to deliver a manned Tempest fighter to enter frontline use in 2035.

Both GCAP and NGF will be accompanied by a range of complementary capabilities, including accompanying unmanned remote carrier or ‘loyal wingman’ vehicles, sophisticated precision-strike weapons and underpinning communication networks dubbed combat clouds.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the US Air Force’s secretive Next-Generation Air Dominance effort will deliver a sixth-generation successor for its Lockheed Martin F-22 air superiority fighter – and the US Navy also is looking beyond the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet – production of which will end for the service in late 2025 – as it works to define its future F/A-XX requirement.

Other high-profile national fighter development projects are currently under way in both South Korea and Turkey.

Korea Aerospace Industries has made rapid progress with its KF-21 since a first flight in July 2022. Five of an eventual six prototypes are now involved in a test campaign which has already achieved supersonic flight and the release of inert air-to-air missiles.

Turkish Aerospace, meanwhile, has been working for several years on its TF-X project, and formally unveiled the result of its efforts on 1 May, also naming the fighter Kaan.

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