March 5, 2014. By Yves Pagot - Defence Watch Guest Writer
Editor’s note: As part of its ongoing coverage of the CF-18 fighter aircraft replacement, Defence Watch has published a number of articles from authors supporting various aircraft. This week Defence Watch will be running a three-part series that looks at the Rafale filling the role as Canada’s next fighter jet. It is written by Yves Pagot, PhD ParisTech Institute, and a reservist in Armée de l’Air. (i.e. reservist with the French Air Force, he is in a parachute unit). Pagot notes that he does not have any connection to Dassault or the firms involved in the Rafale production.
Factor 3 : Compatibility and Weapons Capacity.
As stated above, Rafale can carry any NATO standardized weapon (although some are not integrated yet for the French air force, there is no technical difficulty to it). Considering its “French ecosystem” as a requisite is a false opinion as stated above. It would be much more interesting to evaluate which original weapons Rafale would bring to CAF.
First, the Meteor missile is a Ramjet missile and the most modern, lethal, air-to-air weapon in the NATO arsenal. The upcoming AMRAAM missile latest version will have a near similar range (above 100 Kms), but with a much smaller No Escape Zone (NEZ). Missile manufacturer MBDA is also working on integrating the Meteor on the F-35 so there can be no incompatibility argument. The Rafale is one of the earliest adopters and will have it deployed ahead of the F-35 or Eurofighter Typhoon, which is only beginning testing this year.
Second, the MICA missile (Missile d’Interception et de Combat Aérien or interception and aerial combat missile). This missile has both IR and EM capabilities, and a unique IR Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capabilities which the Sidewinder 9X Blk2 is only trying to match. Its relatively small size and thrust vectoring make it a very agile missile, with a range of 500m to 65+ Km. It is a “fire and forget” missile with LOAL (Lock After Launch) and can be shot “over the shoulder” (rearwards). In 2010, MBDA stated a remarkable 93% successful shots out of 240 trials11. An over the shoulder fire of MICA on a target illuminated by a second Rafale (third party targeting) was demonstrated in 200724. MBDA is presently developing a Mica “NG” missile which, using the same body, that will offer more range, a dual boost engine dramatically increasing NEZ and even more precise seekers25. It should also bring a new datalink capability allowing a buddy plane to guide the missile independently from the shooting plane (presently it is needed to guide the missile via the shooting plane datalink)
Third, the AASM SBU38 (Smart Bomb Unit) “HAMMER.” Probably (although expensive) the most advanced NATO Air-to-Ground weapon-so much so, that it’s amazing capabilities saw NATO dub it “The Magic Weapon” during the Libyan conflict. The HAMMER is a kit added to Mk 82 250 Kg bombs consisting in a rocket propeller and a guiding system. The guidance system comprises INS/GPS, INS/GPS Laser or INS/GPS Infrared options. It has off-boresight capabilities (it can be shot at 50 Km from the target at medium altitude and 15 Km of the target during very low penetration flight). Using it, a Rafale is able to destroy six different ground targets across a wide area simultaneously. The HAMMER is advertised by its manufacturer in 125, 250, 500 and 1,000 Kg versions36.
Fourth, the SCALP/Storm Shadow Long Range Stand Off Munition (LRSOM) “cruise” missile. France’s Rafale is the first of the latest generation fighter jets to qualify and use this long-range cruise missile in combat. It was successfully deployed during the French Air Force’s “first-in” missions in Libya, taking out critical targets. The Typhoon is only commencing initial tests this year and from an interoperability perspective, it is also to be incorporated into the F-35 a number of years from now.51
Rafale can also come with Reco NG dual band reconnaissance pod (known as AEROS for export), allowing extremely sharp images to be transmitted in real time via a highly directional broadband datalink. It is capable of blending images from near IR and visible bands to create very high resolution 3D images, even from very long distances35.
Several other European weapons are qualified for the Rafale: Exocet antiship missile, ASMP-A nuclear ramjet missile (although this won’t be available for export, it demonstrates the capability of the plane to resist nuclear electromagnetic flash). The nuclear mission of the Rafale is a testimony to penetrate heavily defended enemy areas.
Finally, Rafale can be refueled using the “probe and drogue” method already used by RCAF, avoiding a costly adaptation of the CC150 Polaris refuellers. This technique was quoted in a US report to congress as more efficient for fighter refueling as it allows to refuel two planes simultaneously19. It is of note that the Rafale also has a “buddy-to-buddy” refueling capability, allowing it to perform even longer range missions in the absence of a refueller.
Factor 4 : Sensors and Situational Awareness
Apart from stealth (to be discussed further), the sensor suite and data fusion is described by Lockheed as one of the main features of the so called “5th Gen.” aircraft. And they are right – in a US context. Amongst “4th Gen.” US aircrafts, only the future (if ordered, otherwise the production line will shut down in 2016) FA/18 “Advanced” Super Hornet will feature a sensor fused display, as this is more or less a common feature to “Eurocanards”.
Aboard Rafale, data from all sensors, Radar, Front sector optronics (FSO), Electronic Warfare suite (SPECTRA), IFF (identify friend or foe), IR MICA missiles and datalinks are merged into a clear unified visual symbolism on situational awareness display9. This capability was highly praised in a recent test evaluation by Vianney Riller Jr, who has also flown latest versions of F-18 E/F and SAAB Gripen9. Besides all subsystems are virtualized and independent, the heart of the system is the MDPU (Modular Data Processing Unit), composed of 19 LRUs (line replacement units), each of them 50 times more powerful than previous generation aircraft computers. The architecture of the system allows flawless upgrade of processors, and a second bay is provisioned to receive another MDPU. This type of architecture also eases maintenance and upgrades of the whole combat system. The system is able to “create” tracks using fragmented data from several sensors.
Visualization can be integrated into the tactical head level display, an original feature with its screen collimated to infinite in order to prevent vision accommodation delays between the screen and the HUD/pilot outer vision. Virtually every sensor including “plugged ones” like a reconnaissance pod or Data sent from JTACs (Joint Tactical Air Controllers) will be fused in the tactical presentation given to the pilot.
On the subject of displays, Rafale is available with a fully-integrated helmet-mounted display developed by Thales, although the French forces have not ordered it as yet.53
Rafale’s sensor suite includes:
· RBE2 AA radar. It is a state-of-the-art AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar composed of roughly 1,000 GaAs modules 12. It incorporates an original “cloud concept” architecture allowing future GaN made modules and conformal antennas to be added without changing the overall architecture of the radar14. With an average input power of 10 kW, it s described as very similar to F-18 E/F AN/APG 79 radar in terms of technology and maturity22. Although its exact range is classified, the “Centre d’Expériences Aériennes Militaires” (CEAM, the unit qualifying new materials), stated several times that the range was “doubled” as compared to the previous PESA radar. Dassault’s CEO, Eric Trappier, once stated “more than 200 Km.” It is able to track 40 planes or other targets and engage eight of them simultaneously within a 140° angular domain15. It features a “non cooperative” identification system and can generate high resolution Synthetic Aperture maps40 and comes with an automated supplementary follow-ground terrain mode.
· OSF-IT Front sensor optronics. The OSF posseses a powerful TV channel allowing the pilot to identify a target at more than 50 Km. This function is particularly useful, with very restrictive engagement rules. The system also features a laser telemeter.
· IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) the proposed version of Rafale (F3R) features latest IFF (mode 5/S);
· Three Laser Warning Receivers covering 360° around the plane, with angular location of laser emitter capabilities;
· Infrared Search and Track (IRST). This is accomplished through a combination of systems. Détecteur de Départ de Missiles Nouvelle Génération (“DDM NG” or new generation missile departure detector) comprises two “fish eye” passive imaging infrared detectors. These are more than just a missile approach warning system (MAWS). Their high level of accuracy for IR threat detection contributes to comprehensive situation awareness in a similar manner to F-35 EODAS9,16 with a 360-degree spherical coverage. In fact they are precise enough to be compatible with the future use of DIRCMs (Direct Infrared Counter Measures). The infrared versions of the MICA missiles are also integrated into the situational awareness picture providing a far IR channel together with or independent of the targeting pod. The MICA IR sensors provide full IR capability throughout the duration of the mission as the sensors do not rely on short-duration nitrogen canisters for cooling, as do most U.S. infrared missiles.
· Three Radar Warning Receivers. These three antennas (120° coverage each) are located on the tail fin base and canard roots. These systems use interferometry calculation methods in order to locate threats allowing a less than 1° accuracy and over a 200 Km range 15,17. This precision allows them to passively (without using active sensors) give firing solutions. During ATLC 2009, they were able to locate radars that had stayed unnoticed to a specialized aircraft configuration, F16 CJ20.
· The three latter sensors are part of the famous “SPECTRA” EW suite, which is also capable of self learning (and real time deeding its own threat databank) and ELINT/SIGINT tasks using recorders.
Factor 5 : Stealth and SPECTRA.
In the early’80 s, the DGA (French procurement agency) and Armée de l’Air started studied the self protection system of the future combat aircraft.
Future threat analysis as well as cost considerations (acquisition and maintenance) led to a compromise between high kinematic abilities and the different parries to theses threats.
· Preventive avoidance led to full spectrum signature reduction features, automatic very low altitude and very high-speed terrain following ground system and adaptation of pathways using a sophisticated mission preparation system.
· In-flight detection of threats and adapted course change, allowing real time adaptation of preventive avoidance.
· Avoidance by neutralization – jamming, decoying and ultimately destroying threats.
Whole Spectrum Signature reduction measures are obtained by several means, mostly classified, some documented. In the IR spectrum for example (heat detection), there is a supplementary cool air channel around the engine exhaust. In the radar spectrum, extensive use of composites (1/3rd of the plane mass, 70% of the wet surface (that is roughly to the same extent as the future Pak-Fa Russian fighter)), and RAM coatings, presence of serrated “saw-tooth” patterns on canards and wing trailing edges, as well as inside air intakes. Instead of deflecting incoming radar waves to an angle away from the emitter, they are channeled towards “spike” points heavily treated against reflection. Dassault engineers do not claim their plane to be “stealthy”, but very discreet or “sneaky.” All in all, the Rafale has a radar cross section reduction by 20 times compared to the Mirage 200015.
Avoidance of known threats is obtained either by mission planning (and the data will appear on the tactical display) or in real time, via Link 16 or detection by any of the plane sensors. In the latter cases, SPECTRA is able to propose actions vs. emerging threat, be it bypassing via recommending a new route to the pilot in order to avoid lethal areas (sophisticated enough to take into account the characteristics of the threat and topography), jamming, decoying or destroying the threat.
Here lies the origin of the SPECTRA concept, which most modern EW suites are only now emulating. Far from being a simple “situation Awareness” suite, SPECTRA is capable of offensive actions. It has 3 AESA highly directional jamming antennas allowing deception jamming. The possible types of jamming involved have been extensively discussed on the net and are highly classified. We know it uses a DRFM (Digital Radio Frequency Memory) chain and “intelligent” jamming instead of “brutal jamming”. False range targets, velocity gate pull-off, and narrow band Doppler noise created by using digital RF memory (DRFM) are the common coherent EA techniques which can be used effectively against LPI radars23. Simply put, it is able to feed enemy radar with wrong data about presence, location and number of planes. It acts as an illusionist instead of using noisy, blinding “projectors” (“broadband white noise jammers”). Furthermore, depending on conditions, SPECTRA is able to detect and localize potential threats accurately enough to allow a shooting without using active (detectable) sensors. Some interesting results nevertheless leaked to specialized press, here are some:
· While flying over Libyan air defenses (before the Libyan air defense system was suppressed by tomahawk salvo), Rafales planes “poofed” from enemy radars31.
· During NATO Mace XIII exercise in Slovakia, a Rafale B flew unmolested over a S300 radar (and was the only type engaged in the exercise able to do it)21
· During Joint warrior 2013-1 exercise, rumours say SPECTRA literally gave headaches to Eurofighter’s Captor M radar, preventing it from tracking visible and detectable Rafales.
· During his test flights in 2012, DefesaNet test pilot Vianney Riller Jr. could shoot, entirely relying on aircraft passive sensors, a plane attacking him in his 6 o’clock position from way over 10 NM. At the moment, as far as I know, Rafale is the only operational plane able to perform such a shot.
· In a 2011 technical presentation brochure at Le Bourget, “virtual stealth technology” is stated27.
SPECTRA is completely integrated to the airplane (and will react differently according to the plane configuration). This is a very important feature as the suite wasn’t added to the plane like a jamming pod would, but was designed for the plane as a coherent system (with exact radar behavious, IR signatures and loads in mind).
This advanced, integrated EW capability is another area where the Americans are actually playing catch-up. The Rafale is the only aircraft delivering this advanced combat capability on the market today. The Boeing EA-18G Growler, the electronic warfare variant of the F-18 Super Hornet, will only be getting this capability in a next generation external jamming pod from Raytheon on 2020. In order to have the air-to-air, air-to-ground AND EW capabilities at once, you need to fly both the SuperHornet and Growlers – two jets compared to one Rafale.48
In conclusion, instead of relying completely on a stealthy shape, Rafale relies on a smart avoidance system and highly sophisticated sensor suite, real time mission planning and top end AESA jammers. It is noticeable that in 2014, a Rafale demonstrator will fly with gallium-nitride (GaN) made SPECTRA antennas, a world first, demonstration the involvement of French state in constantly upgrading the aircraft. Again, this will be six years ahead of the Growler getting that capability and only promised on the F-35.48
Part 3 runs Friday morning.
15- AWST 7/5/1999 ; Vol 151 issue 1 p48
22- Air&Cosmos 2150, Dec 5th , 2008
25- Air et Cosmos 2355, April 19th , 2013 p. 28
31- http://www.dassault-aviation.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2012/08/FoxThree_Fox15.pdf p.9.
37- AWST Jan 20th, 2014, p29
48- AWST February 17, 2014, p42 « Fast and Furious : Pivot to Pacific propels the need for upgraded and agile electronic-warfare systems »