Paris - With a new round of Rafale upgrades nearing completion, the French military and defense industry are starting to look at the long-term future of the twin-engine fighter.
Although much of the focus is on a potential mid-life upgrade (MLU) that is still several years away, development activities to prepare the technology would have to start significantly sooner. Potential radar cross-section (RCS) improvements are under consideration, as are equipping the fighter with additional radar arrays for greater spherical coverage and adding thrust vector control to the two M88 turbojets. The MLU configuration is not expected to emerge until around 2025.
Long-range planning is possible because many of the core capabilities deemed necessary for the domestic user and potential export customers are now nearing the end of development. With the F3-04T standard, which is due for delivery in 2013, the Dassault Aviation Rafale will receive its active, electronically scanned array RBE2 radar, developed by Thales; an improved missile-warning system (the DDM-NG); and upgraded forward-sight optronics. Qualification of those elements is due for completion in mid-2012 with delivery anticipated in 2013, says Stephane Reb, program manager for French defense procurement agency DGA.
Another near-term activity is the potential launch of a major upgrade of Rafale’s Damocles laser targeting pod, which would introduce video capability to the system. The effort is slated to be put on contract this year.
Damocles uses an infrared sensor, but the French military has also identified a need for a TV channel, which could prove particularly useful in urban operations. That addition would provide a crisper picture to more clearly identify targets. Both IR and TV feeds can be downlinked to ground troops via the Rover system.
As a result of the changes, the pod will require a major redesign, Reb says. Because the outer shell of the pod will change slightly, some regression flight testing will be needed.
If current plans hold, technology prototypes could be flying next year; the system could be fielded around 2016, depending on funding.
The existing processing architecture should allow Rafale to receive needed improvements in the near term without any significant hardware or software changes until the MLU emerges, Reb says. He notes that ideas such as RCS improvement and thrust vector control are just that, ideas. The exact road map “has still to be built.”
But that’s not to say that elements such as the radar cross section are not already being considered as design changes are implemented. To support a 9-ton thrust version of the M88 turbojet—sought by potential export customer United Arab Emirates—Rafale’s engine intakes would have to be increased by about 1.5 cm. To help mitigate any negative impact on the fighter’s RCS, some material changes may be made as part of the modification if it goes into production.
Many of the modifications would be on the systems side, though. For instance, the side arrays would be used to increase radar coverage. A Thales official notes that, long term, those additions make more sense than fitting the RBE2 active, electronically scanned ar-ay (AESA) radar with a repositioner;· the latter is being considered for the Saab Gripen NG and Eurofighter Typhoon to increase the field of view of their future AESAs.
Furthermore, Rafale’s Specter electronic-warfare suite also is set for more iterations. One effort would be to add a single-ship precision emitter geolocation capability to the fighter. And, government and industry officials are saying that the eventual retirement of the Mirage 2000s Astac electronic intelligence pod means Rafale will take on that role.
Another improvement being considered for the electronic warfare system involves enhanced jamming techniques. However, the DDM‑NG missile-warning upgrade now being developed for Rafale would support use of a directed infrared countermeasures subsystem.
Research and development studies to equip the fighter with satellite communications and software-defined radios are also being considered.
A more far out MLU idea involves integrating the ability to control unmanned aircraft into Rafale.
Meanwhile, the French navy next month expects to inaugurate its second operational unit, 11F, to be collocated with 12F at Landisvisiau near Brest, France.
The move comes as the inventory of single-seat Dassault Aviation Rafale Ms is starting to grow.