Most advanced Allied air forces now have operational fleets of fourth-generation fighters (defined by attributes such as being fly-by-wire, highly unstable, highly agile, net-centric, multi-weapon and multi-role assets).
These Western types include the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen NG. The Boeing F-15E and Lockheed Martin F-16 have an older heritage, but their latest upgrades give them similar multi-role mission capabilities. Of the above group, only the Super Hornet and Rafale M are capable of aircraft-carrier operations.
As these fourth-generation fighters' weapons, sensor systems and net-centric capabilities mature, the likelihood of export orders for such an operationally proven package becomes much more realistic.
On behalf of Flight International, I became the first UK test pilot to evaluate the Rafale in its current F3 production standard, applicable to aircraft for both French air force and French navy frontline squadrons.
© A Jeuland/Sirpa Air
French air force Rafales have already seen action over Afghanistan
The "proof-of-concept" Rafale A first flew in 1986 as an aerodynamic study, leading to the programme's formal launch two years later. The slightly smaller single-seat Rafale C01 and two-seat B01 for the French air force and single-seat M01 and M02 prototypes for the navy flew from 1991.
The first production-standard Rafale flew in 1998, and entered service with the navy's 12F squadron at Landivisiau in 2004 in the F1 (air-to-air) standard. Deliveries of the air force's B- and C-model aircraft started in 2006 in the F2 standard, dubbed "omnirole" by Dassault. Since 2008, all Rafales have been delivered in the F3 standard, which adds reconnaissance pod integration and MBDA's ASMP-A nuclear weapon capability. All aircraft delivered in earlier production standards will be brought up to the F3 configuration over the next two years.
© Véronique Almansa/Dassault
The French forces plan to purchase 294 Rafales: 234 for the air force and 60 for the navy. Their Rafales are set to replace seven legacy fighter types, and will remain as France's principal combat aircraft until at least 2040. To date, about 70 Rafales have been delivered, with a current production rate of 12 a year.
Rafale components and airframe sections are built at various Dassault facilities across France and assembled near Bordeaux, but maintained in design and engineering configuration "lockstep" using the virtual reality, Dassault-patented Catia database also used on the company's Falcon 7X business jet.
Rafale software upgrades are scheduled to take place every two years, a complete set of new-generation sensors is set for 2012 and a full mid-life upgrade is planned for 2020.
The Rafale was always designed as an aircraft capable of any air-to-ground, reconnaissance or nuclear strike mission, but retaining superb air-to-air performance and capabilities. Air force and navy examples have made three fully operational deployments to Afghanistan since 2005, giving the French forces unparalleled combat and logistical experience.
The commitments have also proved the aircraft's net-centric capabilities within the co-ordination required by coalition air forces and the command and control environment when delivering air support services to ground forces. Six Rafale Ms recently carried out a major joint exercise with the US Navy from the deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
© Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jon Dasbach/US Navy
The Rafale M is the only carrier-capable fighter in production in Europe
The air force's B/C fighters have 80% commonality with the navy's Rafale M model, the main differences being the latter's navalised landing gear, arrestor hook and some fuselage longitudinal strengthening. Overall, the M is about 300kg (661lb) heavier than the B, and has 13 hardpoints, against the 14 found on air force examples.
Dassault describes the Rafale as omnirole rather than multirole. This is derived from the wide variety of air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons, sensor pods and fuel tank combinations it can carry; the optimisation of aircraft materials and construction; and the full authority digital FBW controlling a highly agile (very aerodynamically unstable) platform.
This also gives the aircraft a massive centre of gravity range and allows for a huge combination of different mission stores to be carried, including the asymmetric loading of heavy stores, both laterally and longitudinally.
Other attributes include the wide range of smart and discrete sensors developed for the aircraft, and the way that the vast array of received information is "data fused" by a powerful central computer to reduce pilot workload when presented in the head-down, head-level and head-up displays.
The Rafale is designed for day or night covert low-level penetration, and can carry a maximum of 9.5t of external ordinance, equal to the much larger F-15E. With a basic empty weight of 10.3t, an internal fuel capacity of 4.7t and a maximum take-off weight of 24.5t, the Rafale can lift 140% of additional load, above its own empty weight, into combat.
Added to the "active" elements of the aircraft's design are Rafale's "passive" safety features, which protect the pilot in various ways. These include "carefree handling" and automatic loss of control/airframe overstress protection allowed for by the digital flight control system (DFCS); the visual and audio low speed warning system; the continuously computed "deck awareness/ground watch" system with audio warning and HUD guidance for pull-out; and the pilot-initiated "spatial disorientation" automatic recovery mode from both nose high and nose low situations. Dassault also plans to introduce an automatic "g-loc" recovery mode.
The aircraft has been designed from the outset to take on any role (air, ground, reconnaissance and strike), but still have the flexibility to rapidly switch roles effectively once the sortie is under way if operational requirements change. Dassault calls this concept "fight and forget", which means that the Rafale pilot can concentrate on the tactical situation and weapons delivery, secure in the knowledge that the aircraft's systems are continually guarding his/her back.
Sensors integrated into the Rafale F3 standard include the Thales RBE2 radar, which gives multi-track air-to-air, ship track, terrain following radar (TFR) and synthetic aperture navigation modes. The RBE2 will be upgraded to a fully active electronically scanned array starting in 2012. Dassault's large ownership share of Thales means it can have significant influence on how the radar is tailored to the aircraft and how it can be exported.
The Spectra electronic countermeasures system is fully internal and provides radar warning receiver (RWR), active jamming, infrared missile approach warning, laser detection and chaff/flare. Data from Spectra is also "data fused" and fed into the pilot's tactical display. Additionally, the system can be rapidly reprogrammed by frontline ground technicians, as demonstrated operationally in Afghanistan.
© Véronique Almansa/Dassault
The Rafale's FSO suite provides a passive detection capability
On the aircraft's nose is the front sector optronics (FSO) suite, comprising a high-magnification TV sensor for single-target identification, and an infrared search-and-track sensor for multiple target detection in a "ball type" housing. The Thales Optronique Damocles pod is used for laser designation and can also provide a forward-looking infrared picture into the HUD. The Reco NG/Areos reconnaissance pod, carried centreline, provides long-range optical IR/visual capability by day or night, with datalink transmission of the recorded data to a ground station. The data can also be viewed by the pilot in the cockpit.
Datalinks include NATO's Link 16 standard, the close air support (CAS) Mode M datalink (image) and the CAS Rover datalink (video). The Rafale system enables the pilot to display image or video on either left or right head-down lateral displays, or on the head-level display. The pilot can also choose the cockpit image from whatever sensor source he/she wants, to transmit to a forward air controller, rather than be bound by a single image type fixed to just one sensor pod.
The main air-to-air weapon type is the IR or radar homing Mica missile from MBDA. France is also collaborating on the same firm's beyond-visual-range Meteor missile, planned for 2016. An internal 30mm cannon with 125 shells adds short-range firepower.
For interdiction, the long-range weapons carried include the ASMP-A missile and MBDA's modular Scalp-EG, and the main anti-shipping weapon is the MBDA AM39 Exocet. For ground attack, the Rafale is cleared to carry laser-guided bomb types GBU-12 and GBU-22, with GBU-24 planned from 2010.
Sagem's 113kg AASM bomb is the French equivalent of the USA's Boeing JDAM, but has an aft rocket booster for additional range and features GPS or IR terminal guidance. It allows for a pre-programmed individual ground target engagement per bomb and from a multiple release profile, with three carried per bomb rack. In Afghanistan, the French call the AASM "magic bombs".
The Rafale has five "wet" hardpoints for fuel tanks. All five can accept the 1,250-litre (330USgal) (fully supersonic) tank, and the inner three central hardpoints can accept the larger (up to M0.95) 2,000-litre tank. An enhancing feature is that the Rafale can also carry a buddy-buddy refuelling pod.
The cockpit is fully night vision goggle compatible. Pilot helmet-mounted display and direct voice input are available as customer options.
© Alex Paringaux/Dassault
The aircraft is a close-coupled design with two large canards, four leading-edge slats, four trailing elevons and one rudder to optimise lift/drag and reduce side-slip in all flight phases. The hydraulic system powering the flying controls operates at over 345bar (5,000lb/in2). Its DFCS is Dassault designed and manufactured in-house, and is the digital development of the Mirage 2000's analogue FCS.
The new system is better able to map the allowable flight envelope and give the aircraft even higher flying qualities than those of the Mirage 2000. The DFCS has three independent digital channels, with the fourth back-up channel being one of main analogue channels from the Mirage 2000.
The DFCS is a "g" demand system with +9.0g/29° angle of attack (AoA) limit in air-to-air mode and +5.5g/20° AoA limit in both of the two air-to-ground/heavy stores modes (ST1 and ST2) to cater for forward or aft centre of gravity. The aircraft continuously "recognises" the load it carries, but indicates and leaves the final DFCS mode selection to the pilot. Minus g limit in all modes is -3.2.
Engines are two Snecma M88-2E4s generating a combined 22,500lb (100kN) of thrust dry and 34,000lb in full afterburner. Time from idle to full afterburner is just 4s at any altitude. The aircraft has a fixed flight refuelling probe and its canards and elevons operate in conjunction to act as a fully variable airbrake, with both features intended to save weight. Maximum speed is M1.8/750kt (1,390km/h), service ceiling 55,000ft (16,800m), and typical approach speed at mid-weight (15t) and 16° AoA an indicated 125kt.
Powerful carbon brakes allow for landing distances as short as 450m without the need for a brake parachute.
My evaluation aircraft was two-seat Rafale B number B301, the first production model to be delivered, which Dassault retains for test purposes. The cockpit was to full F3 standard, with just a small additional test control panel (telemetry) fitted in the front cockpit. The sortie was flown from Istres, near Marseilles.
I did not have time for any simulator, avionics bench or groundschool training. I received a 1.5h cockpit familiarisation on the ground in a Rafale at Dassault's Istres facility on the day before the evaluation. Other than this, I would fly the complete evaluation myself from the front cockpit. The ease and success with which I could fly and cope with such a massively capable fighter would be a clear indication of the Rafale's "fight and forget" design concept.
My evaluation objectives were threefold. Could the Rafale properly be termed "omnirole" with the range of its on-board sensors and weapons? Was the aircraft truly a fourth-generation fighter in terms of performance? And would its safety features keep me safe in such a demanding flight evaluation profile having had no time for any familiarisation in the simulator?
My safety pilot for the evaluation was Dassault Rafale project test pilot Olivier "Nino" Ferrer, an ex-French navy fighter pilot and highly experienced on Vought F-8 Crusaders and Dassault Super Etendards. A chase Mirage 2000 was used to provide close formation, air-to-air refuelling and tail-chase evaluation, and was flown by Philippe Duchateau, another Dassault project test pilot.
Pre-mission planning was carried out on a standard commercial computer laptop with access to the loaded program (confidential) protected by a security dongle inserted into the laptop USB. The mission plan was then downloaded onto a solid-state mil-spec memory card and loaded by the pilot via a panel on the left side of the aircraft.
I thought this straightforward but simple planning system was a very enhancing design feature, especially when the aircraft would be detached on operations or away from its main base on land-away.
I wore standard French flying clothing, including life preserver and g-suit. With the Rafale's Martin-Baker Mk16 ejection seat raked back at nearly 30°, the French have found there is no operational need for an upper-body pressure suit. Entry and exit to the B/C models is via a ground crew-positioned vertical ladder, but the M model has an integral drop-down step. Seat height and rudder pedal adjustment is electric, and the cockpit is a classic fighter "snug" fit, but with all the required flight switches forward of the 3-9 body line, it fitted me like a glove.
The single throttle and sidestick controller contain over 34 separate switches, many with multifunctions, but the main switches such as airbrake, radio telecommunications, auto pilot and auto throttle were "chunky" and easy to differentiate.
© Véronique Almansa/Dassault
The left and right lateral head-down display screens were touch sensitive with additional L/R rotary and L/R finger switches to designate and control display modes. It is here, for some routine tasks, that a future direct voice input upgrade could be useful.
The head-level display (HLD) allowed for a wide-angle view of the tactical situation and is focused at infinity, so there is no need to refocus your eyes when scanning rapidly between head-up and head-level. Advances in display technology may enable a future HLD to retain the same advantages in a more flat panel display and give more cockpit space.
The wide-angle (30° x 20°) holographic HUD meant the displayed symbology was delightfully uncluttered and sharply focused and could be viewed completely without any head movement away from a design eye point position.
After the sideways-hinged canopy (designed to allow for unrestricted ejection seat removal if required) was closed electrically and with a rapid engine start using the auxiliary power unit completed, we were ready to taxi about 90s after engine stabilisation.
Taxi speed is easily controlled, because the residual ground thrust is limited by keeping both "mini-throttles" (acting as low-pressure cocks) in the "idle" position before setting them to "normal" for take-off. Ground steering was highly accurate and responsive, and the brakes were very smooth and progressive.
Our take-off mass was 16.1t (10.8t basic and 5.3t fuel) carrying one supersonic fuel tank centreline. Take-off was in full afterburner from the brakes and with a rotate of 125kt that came about 9s after brake release. Gear was retracted immediately after lift-off and afterburner cancelled at 250kt.
Both images © Véronique Almansa/Dassault
I was immediately aware after take-off of the sensitivity of the flight controls to any demand I made. The aircraft felt alive in my hands. I have never flown any aircraft that responded so instantly and so powerfully to stick input. The Mirage 2000 had previously been my favourite FBW aircraft in terms of handling qualities, but the Rafale with its DFCS betters it in every aspect of handling by a significant margin.
Climbing to 15,000ft into the test area was flown at 350kt, full afterburner and 35° nose-up. In air-to-ground DFCS Stores Position 1 (ST1) at 350kt, mild buffet was encountered at +4.5g with 4t of fuel. In full dry power, a wind-up turn showed that the aircraft could maintain 350kt at +5.0g with just 10° of nose-down pitch.
Later in the sortie at the lower fuel weight of 2t and 500kt, with the DFCS Stores Position set to air-to-air, the aircraft was pulled rapidly and effortlessly through to +9g and could be held there over a significant speed range. A final level acceleration from 200-500kt in full afterburner at 5,000ft and 1.8t fuel weight can only be described as brutal, with the aircraft increasing speed at about 30kt/s and the force of acceleration hurting my spine as I was pressed backwards against the ejection seat.
The steady state roll rate at 350kt was 270°/s and the roll onset felt rapid but comfortable. At 450kt, the same steady-state roll rate was achieved, but the rate of roll onset was simply staggering. I have never experienced any fighter aircraft start or stop to roll so quickly.
The low-speed warning system was assessed by putting the aircraft into a 35° climb at 200kt at 15,000ft and closing the throttle. The HUD showed a "low speed" visual caution and the audio sounded "recover" as we went through about 100kt and flopped out.
The aircraft does feature an "anti-spin" switch but, to date, it has never been used, and even during the "spin phase" during development it proved resistant to spin even with the HUD indicated airspeed (shown in a video recording) falling to below 50kt in pro-spin manoeuvres.
The auto recovery button was evaluated and I activated it in nose-low and nose-high situations. The auto pilot and auto throttle instantly engaged to very positively roll and pull the aircraft (as required) to re-establish it in a 5° climb at 350kt. The system engagement was an impressive safety feature to recover from pilot disorientation.
Re-climbing to 25,000ft, the aircraft was put supersonic up to M1.2 in a shallow dive and then pulled back subsonic to M0.8 in a 4g turn with the throttle slammed closed. The manoeuvre was completely benign and with the canard/elevon airbrake function proving highly effective.
The formation and tail chase evaluation was initiated by locking up the Mirage 2000 chase aircraft on the RBE2 at over 55km (30nm) and identifying him visually using the FSO TV presented on the right lateral head-down display.
In close formation, I initially found the Rafale over-sensitive in pitch, but telemetry informed me that I was holding the sidestick too high up, and after changing my grip, I could hold echelon position without problem. However, it was another clear indication of just how agile the aircraft is.
In line astern, the refuel "RFL" DFCS switch was activated, which reduced the flight-control sensitivity and made the aircraft "feel" much more stable and conventional in response, much like a BAE Systems Hawk. With "RFL" selected, a pilot would find an in-flight refuelling probe contact to a tanker drogue to be routine.
© A Jeuland/Sirpa Air
The digital flight control system makes in-flight refuelling routine
Resetting the DFCS and with the warning system ensuring I had gone from ST1 to air-to-air mode, I dropped back to about 500m line astern on the Mirage for a short tail-chase. This just re-emphasised the power of the Rafale and the accuracy of its controls. The aircraft can be flown in a "bang-bang" manner between axes, rather than requiring "rolling pulls". The Rafale is an outstanding close-in dogfighter whenever it wants to be.
The final handling manoeuvre was to complete a low-speed loop in full afterburner starting from 170kt and maintaining 16° AoA. The loop was simple to fly and control and I used just over 2,000ft vertically to complete it: don't try that in a Panavia Tornado. Dassault says it may re-evaluate the fast jet format pitch ladder format to reduce pitch ladder "blur" at commanded high pitch rates.
I could not fault the carefree handling characteristics or the throttle response of the Rafale in any regime, and the only limit I ever had to remember in the flight was the gear limit (230kt). The Rafale was an absolute pleasure to fly, while remaining almost unbelievably responsive.
From medium level, I descended to low level and engaged the autopilot and autothrottle into covert terrain-following mode along our pre-planned mission route at 450kt/500ft above ground level (for noise abatement), first over the sea and then over the rugged terrain south-west of Arles.
© Philippe Duchateau/Dassault
The covert mode used a GPS database, but it can also use TF Radalt or the RBE2 TFR mode as back-up. Low-level ride was excellent in the gusty Mistral conditions, as was the accuracy of the TF profile followed by the aircraft over the semi-mountainous terrain, including flying towards sharply rising cliffs. The "ground watch" system painted a constantly updated escape profile floor in the HUD. With the TF engaged, Nino explained to me some more of the "data fused" symbology in the tactical HLD and altered the flight planned route and the time over target, which was then followed by the autopilot and autothrottle in speed mode.
At the same time, with both of us completely head-in and on TF autopilot, Nino locked up and the FSO TV identified airliners 10,000ft above us, and used the Spectra RWR to cue the FSO TV to do the same against a passing Mirage 2000 on a low-level mission.
Approaching the target, the release envelope ground "bubble" for the AASM was displayed in the tactical HLD, and "shoot" in the HUD. When within the AASM envelope, target bomb track is largely immaterial and, with the weapon button depressed and held, the five simulated programmed AASMs released to individual targets in a 0.5s separated salvo.
Breaking off from the attack run, I rejoined Istres for three visual circuits. The first two were "carrier" type and used the AT mode to hold 16° AOA around the final turn and which I found to be an excellent aid to reduce carrier pilot workload. The landing attitude in the flare from about 18° AoA while sitting on a seat raked back at 30° takes a little getting used to, because you tend to touch earlier than you expect.
The third circuit was flown aggressively at low level with manual throttle used around finals to a maximum braking effort landing using about 500m of runway to stop. The HUD approach symbology and especially the very rapid engine response made circuit flying simple. We shut down after a sortie of 1h 25min with 470kg of fuel.
It is worth remembering that stealth-optimised, or fifth-generation fighters such as the Lockheed F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are not only likely to be hugely expensive, but they can only preserve their stealth characteristics by carrying a very limited weapons load in their internal weapon bays.
Therefore, in the current and predicted financial defence climate, it could well be that so-called fourth-generation fighters will remain the aircraft of choice for most nations - perhaps even including the UK.
Moreover, the fact that the Rafale is the only European fighter in production that is carrier-capable gives it, in my opinion, a distinct advantage in any future export "fly-off" competition as a single combat type that can equip a country's air force and naval air arm.
In answer to my own evaluation objectives, it was obvious the Rafale has earned its omnirole definition, even though I barely scratched the surface of its sensor and weapon capabilities. The aircraft has an incredible level of performance befitting a fourth-generation type, and despite flying a highly complex and demanding evaluation sortie, I felt completely at home in the aircraft and retained full situational awareness. If it could keep me safe, it would also do the same for young first-tourist pilots coping with tactical operations.
The classic definitions of aircraft combat roles really do not do justice to this aircraft; the Rafale is Europe's force-multiplying "war-fighter" par excellence. It is simply the best and most complete combat aircraft that I have ever flown. Its operational deployments speak for themselves. If I had to go into combat, on any mission, against anyone, I would, without question, choose the Rafale.