March 7, 2014. David Pugliese - Defence Watch
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 has been running a three-part series that looks at the Rafale filling the role as Canada’s next fighter jet. Below is the third and final part. 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.
By Yves Pagot
Defence Watch Guest Writer
Factor 6 Battle Proven
Quite understandably, Air Force operators tend to prefer aircraft that have shown their capabilities during war operations.
The Rafale was engaged in three main war theaters: Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. During Afghanistan, it operated numerous Reconnaissance or CAS (Close Air Support) missions within the coalition, demonstrating its excellent capability to co-operate with other NATO nations.
During the Libyan conflict, it was the “first in” plane, several days before suppression of Libyan defenses using massive tomahawk strikes, and used a large array of ammunition. During the first three months, Rafales accumulated 700 sorties for 3,800 flight hours, shot 182 AASM, 116 GBU and 10 SCALP. Some planes reached 35 hours of flight per week. The average availability during the conflict was 95%, with only three mechanics per plane26. In Libya, the Rafale demonstrated its versatility performing a whole range of missions – air interdiction, strike, reconnaissance, air dominance within a single mission.
Mali demonstrated another capability of the Rafale very relevant to Canada: Its capability to perform extremely long missions. The first mission (four Rafales) flew no less than 9h41mins over more than 6,000 km. Twenty Four bombs were delivered. There’s a very interesting report (in French) of this mission described by one of the pilots 28. The planes took off from St Dizier (North of France), bypassed Algeria, flew over Morocco and Mauritania, delivered their weapons over Mali and finally landed in Chad.
During these three operations, the Rafale demonstrated an excellent reliability in war operations, its versatility during a single mission (reconnaissance, air-to-air and air-to-ground) and full interoperability with other NATO nation aircrafts. It is noticeable that the Rafale is the only foreign fighter qualified to operate from US carriers29.
Another critical importance is understanding Canada’s needs which include, both an all-altitude air-to-air superiority aircraft and a very flexible air-to-ground fighter, with a complete EW, IRST and C4ISR capability in a networked environment. What is not mentioned in Canada is most of other nations looking at the F-35 are not buying it as their sole aircraft – why? They have determined the F-35 is not one-size fits all and they are maintaining a mixed fleet, mostly to ensure they have air-superiority because this was not an intended role for the F-35 as its name implies. It is a Joint Strike Fighter – a ground attack fighter. The U.S. has the F-22 as its air superiority aircraft and without it, “the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22,” said Gen. Michael Hostage, Chief of U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command.52 Both the UK Royal Air Force and Italian Air Force while acknowledging the air to ground capabilities of the F-35, are still keeping their Typhoons for the foreseeable future. “The JSF does not have a high-end air-to-air capability,” according to Col. Vito Cracas, commander of the air force’s 36th Fighter Wing We need to have both aircraft.” 49 Canada obviously doesn’t have another aircraft to complement the F-35, so the question remains as to why would we want to buy an expensive aircraft that can only do half the job, when a Rafale, with its advanced sensor and EW technology, agility and outstanding weapons capability can do all the missions?
Factor 7 : Growth Factor
The Rafale is a constantly evolving weapon system. Since the induction of the purely air-to-air first software standard F1 (a pre-series aimed at filling the gap caused by Marine Nationale retirement of antiquated Crusaders) in 2001 (operational in 2004), the program was much developed, and in a fully retrofitable way. The French air force received its F2 Rafales, with air to ground capabilities. The induction of F3 standard in 2009 brought nuclear and anti-ship capabilities.
The present standard is F3.3′, with some minor updates to come in 2015 for a F3.4 standard (terrain-following system improvement, crash-avoidance system, emergency-braking power management, MICA release)37. The contract for the next standard F3R was officially awarded the Jan 10th buy French MoD Jean-Yves Le Drian. F3R standard will see in 2018 the induction of METEOR missile and the full integration of laser guided HAMMER version, developments of the AESA radar, of the SPECTRA suite as well as a new designation pod, IFF mode 5/S and a new buddy-to-buddy refueling device. Again, the coherence of the evolutions should be noted, for example the AESA radar, with an extended range allowing the use of the METEOR missile full capabilities was inducted in a compatible time frame with the development of the missile38.
Several studies, known as “Plan d’ Etude Amont” are currently underway to further improve the Rafale capabilities in a F4 standard scheduled around 2023. Although the exact contour of this future evolution isn’t defined, known PEAs give a good idea of how the Rafale will evolve, ranging from enhancing radar and sensor performance even further, advancing the SPECTRA EW system ahead of new anticipated threats, and continued efforts to ensure the lowest possible RCS of the Rafale.
Hardly a futureless fighter as some tried to describe it. In fact, only now is the U.S. waking up to the fact that the evolutionary nature of the Rafale is a far better route than the lock-in path of physical stealth, according to Raytheon executive Michael Garcia, who recently said much of the U.S. defense community “has lost sight of reality” as to what stealth means. The “essence of stealth is that the Blue circles [for detection and weapon range] impact Red before Red can detect,” and that jamming, sensors and weapons affect that calculation … The level of RCS has not been improving … It is time-stamped with whatever date it came out of the factory.” 50
The most important lesson for prospective buyers of the Rafale, is in the ability of Rafale International (Dassault-Aviation, Thales and Snecma) to deliver these new capabilities throughout the aircraft’s life. Through the first three tranches (or blocks), all promised capabilities have been delivered on time and on budget, from the date of contracting by the French government. That is a record unmatched by any other fighter jet manufacturer.
All odds are that Canada may choose the Lockheed F-35 in a near future. However, cost escalation led the Canadian government to set up for a new, fair competition. The competitors are the F-35, a new advanced version of the F-18, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the SAAB Gripen (presently resigned) and the Dassault Rafale.
Canada needs on one side, a fighter able to defend its sovereignty in Air, Land and Sea. On the other hand, as recent history showed it, the chosen aircraft must be able to perform Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground missions within a coalition.
In other words, the variety of missions the plane will have to perform point at a truly multirole airplane.
The huge size of the country and the limited number of aircrafts to be procured point at a long range and fast fighter, with a good payload and able to perform in cold conditions.
The possible crisis theaters point at good Air-to-Ground capabilities and ability to operate in hot environment, with a limited logistic footprint.
In every cases, it must be able to operate in a highly networked environment (be it NORAD or a coalition).
The aircraft is supposed to be used for 40 years, so it must have a good evolution potential. It must be affordable, with reasonable acquisition cost and furthermore controlled ownership costs. It is preferable for Canada to select an operational and combat proven aircraft.
In my sincere opinion, only the Rafale complies with all of these requirements.
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 »