The Ministère des Armées is investing heavily to ensure Rafale remains operationally relevant for the foreseeable future. Henri-Pierre Grolleau spoke with the Direction Générale de l’Armement’s Rafale Programme Director to learn more.
Over the past few months, the Rafale programme has reached significant milestones, including the qualification of Standard F3R, the beginning of Standard F3R operational evaluation, signature of the Mica NG missile development and procurement contract, and the announcement of the Standard F4 development contract.
The Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA, the French armament procurement agency) qualified Standard F3R in October 2018.
Several DGA organisations were involved in the F3R programme, alongside Dassault Aviation and its partners. The DGA’s Rafale Programme Director, a general (name withheld by request), says: “F3R development and trials were conducted within budget and on time, qualification being confirmed precisely on the date specified in the contract signed five years ago. It shows how mature this new standard really is.”
On the export market, Egypt (24 aircraft), India (36) and Qatar (36) have so far selected the Rafale omnirole fighter. F3R has now become the common reference for all aircraft due for delivery to India and Qatar, the jets already accepted by Egypt being modernised in the same way as Armée de l’Air (French air force) and Marine Nationale (French navy) Rafales.
The DGA performed extremely complex work with the new Meteor air-to-air missile. “I think the integration of Meteor onto Rafale is the most important step forward under Standard F3R. Meteor achieves its full potential with Rafale and its AESA [active electronically scanned array] radar. I am convinced Rafale is the best European combat aircraft in the air-to-air role, since it is the only fighter currently equipped with both AESA and the long-ranged Meteor.
“We tested innovative firing modes during the trials. With its ramjet motor, the missile can switch from one target to another in flight, for example when a second aircraft becomes more threatening than that initially targeted.
With its outstanding range and resolution, the RBE2 AESA radar can follow the Meteor at extended ranges, enabling target reallocation while the missile is in flight. During a dedicated test we exploited the Rafale’s target designation capability and the missile’s ability to switch targets, scoring a direct hit, while clearly also demonstrating the outstanding performance of the Meteor’s seeker.
“Such performance is rather costly to trial, because we constantly have to buy new targets… Plus, this decisive combat advantage becomes a real challenge during launch trials and weapons training campaigns, because our firing ranges are very tight on space and modern weapon engagement ranges are increasingly long.”
TALIOS targeting pod
The Standard F3R Rafale also introduces the TArgeting Long-Range Identification Optronic System (TALIOS), a newgeneration targeting pod designed and produced by Thales. In all, 45 TALIOS pods have been ordered for the Armée de l’Air (30) and Marine Nationale (15), with deliveries scheduled to conclude in 2023. The order could be expanded, should the decision to equip the Mirage 2000D be made.
Integrating TALIOS onto the Mirage should be straightforward, since a DGA Essais en Vol (DGA flight trials) Mirage 2000D flying test bed was used for pod development and trials.
The TALIOS/Rafale pairing has strong growth potential, and various improvements are already on the agenda. “TALIOS will follow an incremental development, with the appearance of successive variants for the F3R and Standard F4. Several options are being considered, including colour displays, the use of augmented reality and of artificial intelligence/big data.
“Our goal is to have various layers of data presented to the crew, with information drawn from an internal database overlaid on the TALIOS imagery. For example, the display could show the target image, enriched with geographical data. Another likely improvement will be automatic target identification, recognising the shapes and features of a vehicle. These additional functionalities are planned for progressive DGA testing, and introduction to the front line from 2025.”
The future development of Standard F4 comes in response to the predicted evolution of the international geopolitical situation in the 2025–35 time frame. “It is important for the French armed forces that Rafale’s operational capabilities are preserved in the long term, along with its complete interoperability with French and foreign systems, especially in coalition combat operations with fifthgeneration fighters, including the F-35 Lighting II. F4 will help upgrade Rafale’s lethality and connectivity, and its ability to work as part of a much larger data link network will be increased with the adoption of state-of-the-art CONTACT software radios, a whole range of upgraded systems, and updated or new weapons.”
In order to have the new systems available as early as possible and provide sufficient time for industry to develop the more technically ambitious functionalities, Standard F4 has been divided into increments F4.1 and F4.2.
The former should be qualified in late 2022, with first deliveries to the Armée de l’Air and Aéronautique Navale (French Naval Aviation), for operational evaluation, in early 2023.
The introduction of a helmet-mounted display will be among the main advances of F4.1. “As part of a roadmap approach, initial studies have been launched to determine which technical solution better fulfils the requirement. To reduce costs, an off-the-shelf system is likely to be chosen, with a full-colour display.”
The Rafale F4.1’s cockpit will remain largely unchanged, but will receive new, larger, touchscreen digital lateral displays capable of showing high-resolution colour TALIOS imagery.
Survivability is slated for enhancement via improvements to the Spectra self-defence/ electronic warfare suite: threats will be detected, identified and very accurately localised in three dimensions, almost instantaneously. New jamming waveforms will become available and the ability to detect hostile emitters operating in very high wavebands improved.
A modern infrared search and track (IRST) system will be installed in the Rafale’s Front Sector Optronics (FSO) system, for passive detection, tracking and identification of hostile targets at stand-off ranges, without employing the radar. The IRST will also allow the tracking of stealthy targets, unless they are flying in cloud.
The RBE2 radar will gain a ground moving-target indicator (GMTI) mode for the detection and tracking of ground targets.
Another major radar improvement will be the provision of a sharper synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mode for radar mapping at stand-off ranges, in all weathers. The IFF system will also be further improved. A new carrier landing aid will be developed for the Marine Nationale, in some ways similar to the Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies (MAGIC CARPET) system the US Navy recently introduced for its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
“When a pilot is ‘in the groove’ for landing, cues will be presented in the HUD to decrease their workload and reduce short/ long landings when catching the wire. In the longer term, we aim to introduce new, advanced autopilot modes. These are required to satisfy our own requirements and ensure full interoperability with the systems in service on US Navy aircraft carriers.”
A considerably heavier and more powerful HAMMER variant will be adopted for Increment F4.1, replacing the GBU-24 Paveway III and offering expanded capabilities. As with HAMMER 250 (a 250kg-class weapon), operational on Rafale for more than a decade, HAMMER 1000 (1,000kg-class) will enable strikes with outstanding accuracy in all weathers.
Employing the same bomb body as GBU-24, HAMMER 1000 will be equipped with a rocket motor. Destructive power and penetration will be identical, but with a much longer launch range. The weapon will be carried on the centreline pylon, as with GBU-24, but also under the wings of Armée de l’Air aircraft, although not on Marine Nationale Rafales for carrier operations, owing to bring-back weight considerations should the aircraft have to return to the ship with unexpended ordnance.
An updated variant of the Scalp cruise missile will also accompany Increment F4.1. Released from higher altitudes, it will fully exploit the Rafale’s ability to cruise at very high levels, even in heavy weapon configurations. Its ability to accurately navigate under conditions of GPS jamming, a major concern for all NATO nations, will also be improved.
Finally, the intention is also to upgrade and adapt the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée-Amélioré (ASMP-A, Improved Air-to-Surface Medium Range) nuclear missile for F4.1, although the details are a well-kept secret. The only information revealed is that the upgrade has been approved to maintain the credibility of the French airborne nuclear force in the long term.
Very ambitious F4.2
Increment F4.2 will go even further, modernising Rafale in a more radical and extremely ambitious manner. The main objective is to further advance the fighter’s ability to connect with its wingmen and other players on the battlefield (AWACS, Hawkeye, warships, command posts, and so on) as part of a network-enabled warfare concept pushed to unprecedented levels.
Increment F4.2 qualification is expected in late 2024, with the operational evaluation to begin in early 2025. “Navy and air force aircraft will first be brought to F4.1 standard, then upgraded to F4.2. However, trade-offs may have to be done; some aircraft may not be fully modified for all the F4.2 capabilities, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis, depending on each airframe. Every aircraft of the fifth production tranche will be fitted with the complete F4.2 suite, and possibly with even more advanced systems.”
As the civilian world begins switching to 5G mobile networks, so warfighters are also preparing for the future, with the Rafale heading towards a technological revolution.
“Interconnectivity will be one of the main pillars of the F4.2 increment. We are going to install a communications server on the fighter, a secure, military equivalent of a civilian router.
“Hardened against cyberattack, the system will ensure smooth data flow. All information coming from outside, via the data link, will quickly be transferred to the aircraft’s systems, and all data generated by an internal system will be shared with other internal equipment in the shortest time possible. I think it will be the first time such a server has been introduced on a combat aircraft anywhere.
The last Rafale of the first lot of the fourth production tranche (4T-1) was delivered to the French armed forces In 2018. In all, the Armée de l’Air and Marine Nationale have so far accepted 152 aircraft, as 58 Rafale B two-seaters and 48 Rafale C single-seaters for the Armée de l’Air, and 46 Rafale M singleseat naval fighters for the Marine Nationale.
Production is now focusing on export contracts. Deliveries to France will begin again in 2022, encompassing the final 28 aircraft of the second lot of the fourth production tranche (4T-2). The DGA’s Rafale Programme Director explains: “The split between air force single-seat and two-seat variants is currently being reassessed and discussions are being held between the DGA, the Armée de l’Air and industry, because the requirement has changed. Tranche 4T-2 also includes a Rafale M for the Navy.
“Deliveries will end in 2024, bringing the number of aircraft supplied to the French armed forces to 180. Minister of Defence Florence Parly recently announced that a fifth tranche of around 30 Rafales will be ordered in 2023. Negotiations with industry regarding aircraft configurations, financial aspects and production/delivery terms should begin in 2020. Deliveries are forecast between January 2027 and 2030.”
“Adding a secure broadband server has required in-depth risk reduction analysis to ensure there are no issues in terms of weight and volume. Thankfully, the Rafale has ample growth potential, including space for cooling and electrical generation. In the same time frame, what we call the ‘additional weapons and navigation system’ will become a permanent modification, with an even more robust integration that will guarantee even greater resilience to attack.
“This additional weapons and navigation system is, in fact, an innovative technical solution involving a tablet device used as a digital kneepad, allowing aircrew to more easily access specific data. It gives the Armée de l’Air and Marine Nationale the possibility of adding apps at short notice, without having to modify the aircraft’s weapon system architecture. For instance, end users will be able to quickly switch to a modern communication tool, or protocol, to ‘talk’ to a new system recently introduced in theatre when operating in a coalition.”
A satcom (satellite communications) antenna will be installed on the Rafale’s upper fuselage, behind the cockpit.
According to the Rafale Programme Director, Dassault’s engineers had to be imaginative to find the necessary volume to install the secure, sovereign satcom system. Under a development programme known as Oméga, Rafale F4.2 will also be capable of dualconstellation navigation, using ultra-precise data transmitted by the European Galileo constellation, as well as the latest GPS Code M navigation signal.
The intraflight Forme d’Ondes Trois Dimensions (FO3D, three-dimensional waveform) data link is also scheduled to be introduced on increment F4.2. “FO3D will be a secure, encrypted link relying on the dedicated transmit/receive modes of the new VHF CONTACT software radios introduced across the French armed forces. The next step will be developing it as a directional data link employing a very narrow, near undetectable beam, in the Ku-band. Allied countries are still discussing the future NATO standard agreement and we have to wait for that to be finalised before pushing any further for such a data link on the Rafale.”
”I am convinced Rafale is the best European combat aircraft in the air-toair role, since it is the only fighter currently equipped with both AESA and the longranged Meteor”
DGA F3R Programme Involvement
The following DGA organisations were involved in the F3R programme, alongside Dassault Aviation and its partners:
• DGA Ingénierie des Projets (DGA Project Management), at Balard, Paris. Its experts supervise the Rafale project, among many others
• DGA Essais en Vol (DGA flight trials), at Istres and Cazaux. Oversees all industry flight trials and conducts DGA test flying in close co-operation with the air force and navy operational evaluation centres
• DGA Maîtrise de l’Information (DGA, control of information) at Bruz, near Rennes, Brittany, overseeing sensor, missile seeker and electronic warfare aspects
• DGA Essais de Missiles (DGA missile trials), at the Levant and Biscarosse test ranges, managing missile/precision-guided munition launch tests and operational trials
• DGA Techniques Aéronautiques (DGA aeronautical techniques), at Toulouse, manages and performs trials relating to qualifying the electromagnetic compatibility of payloads, software certification and airframe/fatigue structural studies and testing
In order to guarantee the Rafale’s survivability, various other improvements, including an electronic attack capability, are planned. The FSO will be fitted with a new infrared sensor for the identification of targets by day and night, at stand-off ranges, replacing the current, daylight-only TV sensor.
The Spectra self-defence suite will receive a new digital jammer capable of reacting more rapidly against radars operating over a wider bandwidth. And the ability of the RBE2 radar to track slow and low radar cross-section targets in difficult conditions will be reinforced, thus taking into account the appearance of growing numbers of micro-UAVs.
’Stand-in’ electronic attack
Confronted with a proliferation of anti-access systems dispersed over huge areas, military decision-makers launched a study aimed at improving the Rafale’s electronic attack capabilities. “The rise of very long-range surface-to-air missile systems within networked air defences, and the appearance of pop-up threats that very rapidly switch their radars on and off, has obliged us to develop new solutions to protect our force packages.
“We’ve chosen a ‘stand-in’ system, as opposed to ‘stand-off’ jammers, which operate at a safe distance from enemy defences. The new system will comprise a powered payload, a type of mini-UAV, ejected from one of Rafale’s current chaff dispensers, to fly off and position itself between the jet and the threat. It’s an entirely new concept designed to stimulate hostile air defences, forcing them to transmit and reveal their position so the SAM systems can be mapped in detail, saturated and forced to malfunction. We aim for service entry around 2025.”
Rafale F4 will also be capable of ejecting active radar decoys for self-defence. These are self-contained low-cost jammers, programmed to defeat the latest missile seekers.
From 2026, the Missile d’Interception, de Combat et d’Autodéfense de Nouvelle Génération (Mica NG, New-Generation Interception, Dogfight and Self-defence Missile) will enter service on Rafale. The DGA announced a development and acquisition contract for the weapon in late 2018. It covers the procurement of 567 missiles, plus upgrade of the pyrotechnics of a further 300 rounds already in service with the Armée de l’Air and Marine Nationale.
“The time required for Mica NG development and trials means it will arrive after Increment F4.2 enters service. The challenge for the designers and engineers will be to create an entirely new missile while keeping the Mica’s current external shape, reducing the need for flight envelope expansion testing and firing-envelope trials.
As with the current Mica family, two Mica NG variants are planned, with infrared and activeradar seekers. The new radar seeker will rely on solutions derived from AESA technology, but adapted to the missile’s small diameter.”
A dual-pulse rocket motor, with a second stage that may be ignited in the terminal phase of an engagement, will optimise Mica NG’s end-game agility against aggressively manoeuvring targets.
Rafale is an extremely sound design with huge growth potential, and further upgrades are envisaged in the long-term. “The DGA and French armed forces have a vision of the successor to Standard F4, tentatively designated Standard F5, which could enter service after 2030. The main technical decisions involved would need to be made somewhere around the beginning of the next decade. We will leverage several technologies to maintain our position in the very long term and to adapt the aircraft to match the threat.
“Its sensors, for example, will benefit from the use of gallium nitride, or GaN technology, in multi-function arrays [MFAs]. Flight testing of GaN tile antennas for detection, jamming and communication functions, is set to begin before 2025. They will enter service on the Rafales of the fifth production tranche, or on the next post-F4 Rafale standard, depending on emerging priorities and the international and geostrategic situations. The technology will enable installation of MFAs on the sides of the forward fuselage, extending the radar’s angular coverage. New weapons will also be adopted, including the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon being jointly developed by France and the UK.
“I should finish by emphasising that Rafale’s growth potential places it among the key assets in the ongoing study defining the Système de Combat Aérien Futur [Future Air Combat System], which should appear around 2040, and with which Rafale will be fully interoperable.”