Marine Nationale Trials Standard F3R

The Marine Nationale operational evaluation centre, CEPA/ Escadrille 10S is playing a central role in Rafale Standard F3R operational evaluation. Henri-Pierre Grolleau reports.

CEPA’s first Meteor launch in February 2019. A Rafale B accompanied the Rafale M ‘shooter’ on the sortie.CEPA

From its base at Istres, the Centre d’Expérimentations Pratiques de l’Aéronautique Navale/ Escadrille 10S (CEPA/Escadrille 10S) Détachement Chasse (fighter detachment) is busy evaluating Rafale Standard F3R. The small, 35-strong unit, including two pilots, works in close co-operation with its Armée de l’Air colleagues at the Centre d’Expertise Aérienne Militaire (CEAM).

Lieutenant Jérémy (surname withheld on request) is Officer Commanding Détachement Chasse. An experienced test pilot with more 2,400 flying hours, 1,900 of them in the Rafale, he explains: “We have shared responsibilities with the CEAM. For example, CEPA is leading the operational air-to-ground launch evaluations for the air force and navy. It also conducts all trials in the maritime environment.”

Nose-up attitude

The Détachement Chasse also has a decisive role in the F3R Meteor trials. “In all, we will fire three Meteors. For us, it all began with ground trials, our armourers practising mounting the missile on the rear fuselage hardpoints. To improve its carrier take-off performance, Dassault designed the Rafale M with an extended nose undercarriage leg compared to the air force B and C variants.

It provides a nose-up attitude for carrier launches, but reduces clearance under the rear fuselage, requiring different missile loading procedures and slightly revised loading gear.”

A CEPA Rafale M first fired a Meteor in February 2019. “We tested everything, from the loading procedures up to the point of impact, and the debriefing tools after the flight. It was a joint Armée de l’Air/Marine Nationale trial, led by CEPA. Two aircraft were involved.

I was the shooter, in a Rafale M, escorted by a two-seat Rafale B, with a navy pilot in the front and an air force weapon system operator in the back. We were sharing information via L16 data link to simulate an operational combat scenario as closely as possible.

We’ve loaned the air force Meteor launch adaptors for another test firing, to check their interoperability with air force aircraft. CEPA will fire two more missiles this summer.”

Air-to-ground campaign

In February/March 2019, the Détachement Chasse spent almost two months at Cazaux for a comprehensive launch campaign during which the new TALIOS targeting pod and most Rafale conventional air-to-ground weapons were evaluated. “Apart from the GBU-22 Paveway III and AM39 Exocet, we tested all compatible air-to-surface weapons, from the 30mm 30M791 cannon up to the Laser-Guided Training Round, including all variants of the HAMMER family and all other types of Paveway II and III bombs in French service; we even dropped an unguided Mk 82 slick bomb, just to create a big explosion so we could check how the TALIOS sensors behaved when faced with a massive fireball.

“Organising the launches proved somewhat difficult, owing to the sometimes adverse winter weather conditions. All the test cards were written in close co-operation with our colleagues at the air force’s airborne weapons centre of excellence at Cazaux.”

TALIOS and AM39

In addition to the CEAM evaluations, the Détachement Chasse has tested the TALIOS targeting pod in the maritime environment, simulating Surface Unit Combat Air Patrol (SUCAP) missions. “We took off from Istres for the trials, flying over the Mediterranean and pointing the pod at various types of ship to assess its capabilities in a variety of situations.

“We tested the pod against all sorts of vessel – large, small, fast, slow, civilian and surface combatant – in various sea states and different visibility and lighting conditions, especially when the sun was reflecting off the water. We’re very impressed with the results.

“Troops engaged in combat tell us that, unlike other fighters, when the Rafale is flying at very high altitude it cannot be heard from the ground. As a result, the enemy does not have prior warning of an incoming strike.

With TALIOS, we’ll be able to engage targets from even greater ranges, thus preserving the effect of surprise. For us sailors, TALIOS, with its built-in maintenance system, also provides another advantage: it will not have to be taken down to Charles de Gaulle’s hangar for maintenance and/or repair as often as the Damoclès pod we’re used to.”

Backwards compatibility trials are also ongoing, notably for the Block 2 Mod 2 variant of the acclaimed AM39 Exocet antiship missile. Meanwhile, “The Standard F3R’s upgraded Link 16 is more efficient and less easily detected thanks to new functionalities introduced to manage the surface contact picture. We’ve also tested the RBE2 electronically-scanned radar and the Spectra electronic warfare/self-defence suite in the maritime environment, against surface combatants.”

NARANG buddy pod

Rafale Standard F3R is compatible with the new NAcelle de RAvitaillement de Nouvelle Génération (NARANG, New Generation Refuelling Pod). At the time of writing, NARANG had just entered a common trials/ operational evaluation phase. Jérémy emphasises: “NARANG is an absolute priority for the Marine Nationale. A new inflight refuelling pod, it looks identical to the current system, but is very different internally. Obsolescence issues have been resolved and more powerful pumps offer almost double the fuel transfer rate.

Buddy-buddy refuelling is an essential Rafale M mission. Trials are proving the NARANG refuelling pod, which brings a sea change in capability.
Henri-Pierre Grolleau

Flottille 11F transitioning to Standard F3R

According to the latest information available at the time of writing, the first Standard F3R Rafale M should be delivered to Flottille 11F in May 2019. Lieutenant-Commander Edgard, Flottille 11F’s Deputy Commander, explains its position: “We have been selected as the support squadron for the 2018/19 academic year, while Flottilles 12F and 17F are the duty units. This means we’re responsible for training new pilots joining the Rafale community, plus the transition to the F3R.

“The challenge for the next few months is to continue converting new pilots fresh out of the training pipeline onto the Rafale F3.4+, while seasoned aircrew simultaneously build experience on the upgraded Standard F3R aircraft.

“In September 2019, we’ll rotate back as a duty squadron and 17F will become the support unit. We have to be fully operational on the Standard F3R by then. Our initial focus will be on the air-to-ground role and using the TALIOS targeting pod, before switching to the air-to-air mission.

“We’ll take advantage of the huge dedicated training area off Brittany to devise new operational tactics to fully exploit Meteor’s capabilities. We’ve already selected the first pilots to transition to F3R. One of them is detached to CEPA, in Istres, to become familiar with the new variant so that he can pass his knowledge on to other pilots once he’s back with the Flottille.”

The current Rafale refuelling pod is fully mechanical, with no modern self-diagnostic features. It is an essential store for most carrier landing cycles.
Henri-Pierre Grolleau

“During a carrier landing cycle, a Rafale configured as a buddy-buddy refuelling tanker is almost always launched to refuel recovering aircraft that might encounter difficulty trapping back on board. The intervals at which fighters can be sent to refuel are dependent upon the time taken to climb up to the tanker rendezvous, take fuel then descend back to rejoin the carrier landing circuit. With NARANG’s massively increased fuel transfer rate, we will be able to send more aircraft for fuel within a given timeframe, or a similar number of fighters in a shorter timeframe.

“Likewise, while accompanying a raid, the buddy-buddy refuelling sequence will be shorter, allowing the tanker-configured Rafale M to give away more fuel to the other fighters participating in the mission. The NARANG is also fitted with an integrated monitoring system optimised to facilitate and accelerate maintenance; the previous pod was entirely mechanical, with no auto-test capability whatsoever.”

Block 3 HAMMER 250 during CEPA trials.
Henri-Pierre Grolleau
A Meteor test round, ready for launch from the port underfuselage station. CEPA
Rafale B equipped with TALIOS and a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb.
Henri-Pierre Grolleau

Aboard Charles de Gaulle

F3R trials will continue with tests of the Mode 5 IFF/transponder and Mode S transponder/interrogator in the second half of 2019. In the same period, the Détachement Chasse will spend time aboard Charles de Gaulle alongside their DGA colleagues, for a comprehensive trials campaign at sea. It will test how the new F3R systems behave in real conditions. “The new systems will be assessed to ensure they can withstand the rigours of catapult shots and carrier landings.

Numerous sorties will be flown with a TALIOS pod that will later be dismantled and closely inspected. We’ll also test the Defence Advanced GPS Receiver [DAGR, pronounced ‘dagger’] which will be used to transmit accurate positioning and universal time data from the carrier to Rafales on the deck, providing immunity from GPS jamming.

It’s a new functionality and we need to determine the quantity of DAGR systems required for launching a given number of Rafales in a single wave.

“We will also check the at-sea handling, assembly and loading procedures for the GBU-16 laser-guided bomb, HAMMER Block 3 precision weapon and Meteor. We’ll fly off the carrier with live Meteors to perform accelerated ageing tests. Finally, we’ll fly away from the ship to launch a HAMMER Block 3 and a GBU-16 over a land range.

“We have not carried out such an ambitious evaluation programme since delivery of the first Standard F3 aircraft, more than ten years ago. With Standard F3R, we have passed a significant milestone in terms of Rafale’s operational capabilities.”

”We have not carried out such an ambitious evaluation programme since delivery of the first Standard F3 aircraft, more than ten years ago.”