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Will Dassault’s fighter become a fashionably late fighter platform that builds on its parent company’s past successes – or just “the late Rafale”? It all began as a 1985 break-away from the multinational consortium that went on to create EADS’ Eurofighter. The French needed a lighter aircraft that was suitable for carrier use, and were reportedly unwilling to cede design authority over the project. As is so often true of French defense procurement policy, the choice came down to paying additional costs for full independence and exact needs, or losing key industrial capabilities by partnering or buying abroad. France has generally opted for expensive but independent defense choices, and the Rafale was no exception.
Those costs, and associated delays triggered by the end of the Cold War and reduced funding, proved to be very costly indeed. Unlike previous French fighters, which relied on exports to lower their costs and keep production lines humming, the Rafale has yet to secure a single export contract – in part because initial versions were hampered by impaired capabilities in key roles. The Rafale may, at last, be ready to be what its vendors say: a true omnirole aircraft, ready for prime time on the global export stage. The question is whether it’s too late. Rivals like EADS’ Eurofighter, Russia’s Su-27/30 family, and the American “teen series” of F-15/16/18 variants are all well established. Meanwhile, Saab’s versatile and cheaper JAS-39 Gripen remains a stubborn foe in key export competitions, and the multinational F-35 juggernaut is bearing down on it.
Dassault’s Rafale: Variants
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The Rafale is a 9.5 – 10.5 tonne aircraft powered by 2 SNECMA M88 jet engines, each generating up to 16,500 pounds thrust with afterburner. Canards are used to improve maneuverability, especially for snap-shots in short-range dogfights, and radar shaping lowers the aircraft’s profile relative to 4th generation competitors like the Mirage 2000 or F-16. Carrier capability was a prime motivator behind France’s decision to go it alone with the Rafale program, and variants exist for both land-based and carrier use.
Despite its size, the Rafale can carry an impressive set of ordnance beyond its 30mm DEFA 791 cannon: up to 9.5 tonnes of weapons and stores on 14 pylons (1-2 on center fuselage, 2 below engine intakes, 6 underwing and 2 wingtip pylons), 5 of which are “wet” pylons that can carry heavy stores or fuel tanks. Its Thales RBE2 mechanically-scanned array or RBE2-AA AESA radar can direct MBDA’s MICA RF missiles, and future integration of the long-range Meteor is also planned. A combination of Thales/SAGEM’s OST Infrared Scan and Track optronics, and MBDA’s MICA IR medium-range missiles, allows the Rafale to supplement its radar-guided missiles with passively-targeted, no-warning attacks on enemy aircraft from beyond visual range. At present, this capability is only duplicated by Russian aircraft: Sukhoi’s SU-27/30 family, and advanced MiG-29s.
Rafale Variants: Types and Tranches
Dassault: Power of One
The Rafale comes in several broad types, and also comes in different capability tranches.
Carrier-capable Rafales are single-seat fighters, and are referred to as Rafale Ms. They will become the French Navy’s only fighters, replacing the F-8P Crusader fighter, Etendard IVP reconnaissance aircraft, and Super Etendard strike aircraft. They feature the usual set of carrier modifications, including lengthened and strengthened landing gear, strengthened airframe and arrester hook for landings, and carrier landing electronics. The front-center pylon is deleted on this version, in order to make room for that robust landing gear.
French Air Force Rafales come in 2 broad types: the preferred 2-seat Rafale B, and the single-seat Rafale C. They will eventually replace the SEPECAT Jaguar, Dassault’s Mirage F1, and most of the Mirage 2000 family in French service.
Rafale & Mirage 2000D
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Within those designations, Dassault’s Rafales also come in capability tranches that are common across all versions.
Initial Rafale F1s are limited to air superiority missions, and included only Rafale-Ms intended as urgent replacements for the French carrier force’s 1950s/60s era F-8P Crusader air superiority fighters. Rafale F1s are capable fighters, and represented a huge upgrade for the Marine Nationale. Even so, they lack the wide weapons fit of 4+ generation counterparts like the JAS-39 Gripen or modern F-15 Strike Eagles, the optimized cockpit of EADS’ Eurofighter, or the price advantages of Sukhoi’s SU-30 family.
Surviving Rafale-M F1s will be upgraded to the F3 configuration, swapping out the core mission computer and cockpit displays, and changing the plane’s radar, electrical wiring, SPECTRA countermeasures system, and hardpoints. The 1st upgraded plane was delivered in October 2014.
Rafale F2. The F2 standard, which adds the ability to carry and use precision ground attack weapons. This standard includes 2-seat air force Rafale-Bs, single-seat Rafale-Cs, and naval Rafale-Ms. Key additions include radar ground attack and terrain-following modes, carriage of laser-guided bombs and Storm Shadow/ Scalp cruise missiles, MICA IR missile capability using the OSF IRST sensor, a Link 16 datalink, and a buddy tanker pod for Rafale Ms. The biggest thing the F2 standard lacks is integration of independent laser targeting capability, which is why French Rafales over Afghanistan had to operate in conjunction with Super Etendard and Mirage 2000D fighters.
F2 Rafales have now been upgraded to F3 status, which was much easier than it is for the F1s.
ASMP-A4 on Rafale
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Rafale F3. Since 2008, all Rafales have been delivered in the F3 standard, and most have now been upgraded to it. Initial changes added the ability to carry French ASMP-A air-launched nuclear missiles, allowing the Rafale to replace the Mirage 2000N in that nuclear strike role. Other modifications include full integration with the Reco NG reconnaissance pod, implementation of all currently planned modes for the RBE2 radar, anti-ship attack with the Exocet or follow-on ANF, and support for an improved tanker pack.
Further changes were forthcoming within F3. Full integration with Thales’ Damocles surveillance and laser targeting pod was executed, and Damocles-equipped Rafales were used over Libya in 2011. The current standard is F3.3, and F3.4 is expected to debut in early 2014.
The Rafale’s radar took a quantum leap forward as of Rafale #C137, with Thales’ RBE2-AA AESA radar replacing the mechanically-scanned RBE2 array on previous aircraft. The new radar has hundreds of active T/R modules, and involves about 400,000 lines of code all by itself. This compares to about 2 million lines of code for the aircraft’s entire original avionics suite. In exchange, AESA radars generally create roughly 2x-3x better range or resolution than current PESA technologies. Note that older Rafales don’t currently have AESA radars, but they’re expected to see upgrades under a EUR 1+ billion F3R program.
Nuclear ASMP-A capability is irrelevant to exports, but the addition of an AESA radar and full independent precision strike capability will go a long way toward making the Rafale more competitive with challengers like American F-16/15/18s, Saab’s JAS-39NG Gripen, EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon, and the oncoming F-35 program.
Rafale F3Rs features software enhancements to make full use of the RBE2-AA radar, Meteor long range air-to-air missile integration, SBU-64 dual mode laser/GPS AASM smart bomb integration, improvements to Thales SPECTRA self-defence system, an Identification Friend or Foe interrogator/transponder with full Mode-5/ Mode-S-compatibility. Diagnostic improvements will make maintenance easier and more cost-effective, and there are reports that F3R will improve an overall pilot interface that has been consistently rated below the Eurofighter’s. As of September 2013, the DGA started referring to these planes as the 4th tranche (4T), and January 2014 saw a full commitment to develop all of these upgrades for fielding by 2018.
Efforts to include MBDA’s Meteor long-range air-air missiles are underway already, but it won’t be ready until 2018. That will make Rafale the last European fighter to integrate the Meteor, about 3-4 years later than the JAS-39 Gripen. It will also be the only fighter with a 1-way Meteor datalink instead of a 2-way link.
The Rafale remains behind in 2 other areas.
Its new Damocles surveillance and targeting pod’s 320 x 240 infrared array is far behind other international offerings, even with an architecture that effectively gives 640 x 480 resolution. Current performance is adequate, but this gap will continue to widen until the improved PDL-NG surveillance and targeting pod’s debut in 2018 with an effective 1280 x 1040 array. That’s about the same as some rival offerings in 2014, so by 2018, the Rafale is likely to modernize from a gross competitive disadvantage in a critical technology to a noticeable competitive disadvantage.
The 2nd gap is even more consequential. While the Rafale has a wide Head Up Display, an installed Helmet Mounted Display that would allow the Rafale to take full advantage of its wide-borseight MICA missiles remains the type’s most important missing piece, even after F3R.
Dassault’s Rafale: Program
Le Bourget, 2005
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The French Senat tallied the Rafale program at EUR 43.56 billion over 40 years, at 2011 prices. That figure was for 286 forecast aircraft, and the EUR 152 million per-plane figure was similar to the Pentagon’s “PAUC” metric, amortizing development costs as well as flyaway purchases.
Current plans call for delivery of 225 Rafale B/C/M aircraft by the end of the program, which will stop sometime around 2017 without export orders. Cutting production totals to 225 worsens per-plane raises the development cost average per plane, and slowed production will raise actual per-plane fixed costs.
If the Rafale is expensive, it’s also the heart of French military power. Its carrier and nuclear roles are irreplaceable, and the 2011 Libyan operation demonstrated that it has evolved to play a central role in French conventional wars. The Rafale program equally important to France’s aerospace industry, as the heart of France’s advanced military aerospace research. The Rafale has been responsible for significant steps forward in French materials science, engine design, computing, sensors, etc. at Dassault, Thales, and Snecma. Not to mention over 500 sub-contractors. In total, the aircraft is said to be responsible for 7,000 direct and indirect jobs.
As of September 2013, 121 Rafales had been delivered: 38 Rafale-M, 39 Rafale B, and 44 Rafale C. As of October 2014, the total had risen to 133.
Rafale Program: History
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Unfortunately, 1985 proved to be a perilous start date for an expensive decade-plus weapons project. The end of the Cold War led to a severe funding crunch. Development took a long time, and fielding was delayed for many years. That delay left Rafales with great potential as a 4+ generation fighter, but limited operational capabilities that compared unfavorably with the planes it was trying to replace. That has come back to bite Dassault, and France.
The first operational Rafale-M aircraft was delivered in 2000, to the Marine Nationale, and the type entered full service in 2004, in the F1 configuration. Plans call for eventual delivery of up to 60 Rafale Ms, delivered or upgraded to at least the F3 standard.
The end of 2004 saw initial delivery of 2-seat Rafale B fighters to the French air force, and 2005 saw delivery of the 1st single-seat Rafale C. The aircraft entered service with the air force in 2006. All Rafale B/C fighters have been delivered as F2s or F3s.
By 2006, the French armed forces had ordered just 120 Rafales (82 Rafale A-C for the Armée de l’Air, 38 Rafale M for the Marine Nationale) of the planned 294. About 70 had been delivered by 2009, when a new French purchase raised the order book to 180 Rafales; but 2009 also saw production cut from 14 to 11 aircraft per year. This is seen as the minimum necessary to maintain the production line, and keeping the line at even that minimum capacity required an extra EUR 1.1 billion during 2009-2014 budget period, to bring forward 17 orders planned for later years.
The challenge for the following 2015-2019 budget period was to finalize the export orders necessary, in order to maintain production while French orders were cut again.
The Rafale Program: What’s Next?
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Additional multi-year buys will be required, but absent major export orders, a combination of deteriorating global finances, future demographic crunches in Europe, and the advent of unmanned UCAV projects like the nEUROn, will all compete with additional French Rafale orders. As those orders are squeezed, Dassaut won’t be the only firm feeling the pain. The effect would be felt throughout France’s aerospace sector, as Snecma, Thales, and their subcontractors would be forced to rethink their plans – or even their existence, in the case of some lower-tier suppliers.
That leaves 2 options for the platform.
As the British have demonstrated, one way to improve a jet’s affordability is to improve maintenance contracts. In 2008, the French defense ministry’s SIMMAD signed a 10-year “Rafale Care” contract with Dassault that paid for availability and flight-hours, rather than spares and man-hours. The British approach has been to build toward a contract that makes 1 firm responsible for all sub-contractors as well, but in 2012, a decade-long contract between SIMMAD and Thales made it clear that France prefers a set of modular performance-based contracts instead.
Once the French approach has several years of data behind it, that kind of future cost certainty could be helpful on the export front.
That would be timely, because after over a decade of failure, exports may offer the program a 2nd ray of hope. Rafale versions were picked as the preferred choice in India’s MMRCA competition, and have several potential export contenders in the wings. They need to close a few of these deals – but that hasn’t been easy.
Rafale’s Export Issues
French Mirage 2000C
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For previous French fighters, domestic production has been supplemented, and subsidized, by strong export sales. The Mirage III was exported to around 20 countries, and was so successful that its export profits could have financed almost 25% of France’s oil imports! The Mirage F1 was exported to only 10 countries. The Mirage 2000 has 8 customers. Rafale? None.
To date, the Rafale has lost export opportunities in Algeria (SU-30MKA – Rafale a long shot), Brazil (JAS-39E/F Gripen NG – Rafale the initial favorite), Greece (Eurofighter, then F-16), Morocco (F-16C/D – Rafale the favorite), The Netherlands (F-35A), Norway (F-35A), Oman (Eurofighter – Rafale a long shot), Saudi Arabia (Eurofighter), Singapore (F-15SG), South Korea (F-15K, Rafale won but politics reversed the pick), Switzerland (JAS-39E Gripen NG), and the UAE (F-16E/F, but could win next competition). Other losses have been rumored over the years.
Europe’s 4G+ trio
In a March 2012 statement, Dassault CEO Charles Edelstenne threw its export issues into sharp relief. Translated:
“When one is in a country like India which is an open country and in which Americans do not have the same weight as countries that are their private hunting preserve, we have a chance. And this chance, we got it… The market for the Rafale, it is countries that do not want or can not buy or American countries who want to have a second source while buying American. Now all countries, except two, where we lost, were countries that did not fit this definition.”
There’s some truth to this statement, but it also elides many of the Rafale’s genuine problems. Questionable precision ground attack capabilities for Rafale F1-F2s, coupled with limited integration beyond French weapons, hurt the aircraft badly on the export market until mid-2011.
Ground attack capabilities have been fixed, but the Rafale’s EUR 100+ million price tag leaves it occupying a high-end market segment that has historically been responsible for just 25% of fighter export sales. That price gap beyond competitors like Saab’s Gripen, Lockheed Martin’s F-16, and Sukhoi’s SU-30 has also cost Dassault sales, most recently in Brazil and Switzerland.
Despite Dassault’s rosy projections for the global fighter market as a whole, therefore, their lack of foreign orders has choked expected investments, and started to feed back into platform modernization issues.
It’s also affecting the rest of the French air force. Lack of exports is forcing extra French funding, in order to keep the Rafale production line at its minimum sustaining rate. That extra spending is delaying the much-needed modernization of France’s Mirage 2000 fleet, and is beginning to pose an operational risk for France.
Current export opportunities for Dassault include:
India (~126). Preferred choice, but no contract yet.
Qatar (36). Could rise to 72 over time. The QEAF is looking to replace their 12 Mirage 2000D fighters and 6 combat capable Alpha Jet light aircraft, but the growing power vacuum is pushing them toward a larger buy. Competition: Eurofighter, F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet, F-15 Strike Eagle.
The UAE (60). Mirage 2000 customer. Negotiations have dragged for a long time.
Secondary opportunities include:
Bahrain (12-18). Considered a low odds bid. Competition: Eurofighter, likely F-16V and F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet.
Canada (~65). F-35 partner. Very unlikely there there will even be a real competition.
Kuwait (18-24). Considered a low odds bid. Competition: Eurofighter, F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet.
Malaysia (18). MiG-29N replacement on hold. Competition: JAS-39E/F Gripen NG, Eurofighter, F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet, Sukhoi SU-30MKM.
Contracts and Key Events
Rafale F3R upgrades ordered; 1st export contract to Qatar?; Indian workshare agreement negotiated.
2013 French Air Force
September 20/16: Dassault Rafale fighters purchased by the Indian government are believed to operate as the platform to take over the nuclear strike role from the Indian Air Force’s current fleet of Mirage 2000 fighters. It’s expected that a long awaited Inter-Government Agreement for the purchase of 36 of the French fighter will be announced over the next few days after New Delhi dropped its initial plan to procure 126 Rafales. While there is a follow up clause for an additional 12 Rafales, the IAF’s capability gap will be filled by either the indigenous Tejas fighters, or another foreign fighter such as the Gripen or F-16, both of which have been offered in conjunction with the “Make in India” initiative.
August 3/16: India and France are edging ever closer to closure on a potential $9 billion Rafale fighter deal. According to Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, New Delhi has agreed to sign a long awaited inter-governmental agreement (IGA), a key requirement for a potential sale; however, negotiations on offsets and final pricing are still to be confirmed.
July 8/16: While reports of imminent French concessions to India reported last week may have seemed too good to be true, that was probably because they were. Instead, Paris is insisting on the signing of an $8.9 billion government-to-government deal with India prior to any finalization on offsets for New Delhi’s purchase of Rafael fighters. An Indian MoD procurement official said that no negotiations on the Rafale deal between France and India have taken place in more than six weeks, and the next meeting is yet to be scheduled.
June 01/16: This week’s Singapore Shangri-la Dialogue may see sideline discussions between France and India over the closing of a multi-billion sale of 36 Rafale fighters. The defense ministers from both nations will be in attendance, and it’s expected that issues like consensus on actions to be taken in case of a material breach, stringent liability clause, and guarantees by France are likely to be discussed.
May 23/16: Selection of a fighter to be manufactured under the “Make in India” initiative will be decided by next March according to India’s Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar. Models in the running include Boeing’s F18A, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault’s Rafale or the Saab Gripen. Parrikar also mentioned that the ministry’s negotiations over its drawn out purchase of 36 Rafales will be wrapped up in “weeks.”
May 6/16: India’s ongoing AgustaWestland helicopter bribery scandal is likely to cause further delay to the country’s perpetual Rafale fighter negotiation with France. An increasingly cautious government in New Delhi still hasn’t finalized an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with France as bilateral discussions continue to drag on. The $8.9 billion deal includes 36 Rafale fighters alongside state of the art stealth, radar, thrust vectoring for missiles, and materials for electronics and micro-electronics from defense companies Dassault, Thales and Safran.
April 18/16: After months of wrangling, India will sign a final agreement for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters within the next three weeks. France had initially wanted over $12 billion for the sale, but negotiations over the last number of months have resulted in a drop to $8.8 billion. The first lot of deliveries will not take place for another 18 months. India’s air force replacement of its older fighters is part of an effort to effectively check the capabilities of Pakistan and China.
March 31/16: A $7.5 billion deal between Qatar and France has concluded, with Qatar to purchase 24 Rafale fighters alongside MBDA missiles, and training for 36 pilots and some 100 mechanics.The deal had been initially estimated to be $6.9 billion, but extra cruise missile orders pushed up the price. The contracts were signed by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Khalid Al-Attiah, on the opening day of the Doha International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference. Despite this, the UK’s defence minister stated that a deal with Qatar to sell them Eurofighter Typhoon warplanes was “definitely still on the table” when speaking in Doha on Tuesday.
March 22/16: Qatar’s purchase of Dassault Rafale fighters has been financed with the help of Japanese banks. The Gulf state recently paid a 15% down payment on its order, which in total amounts to $6.8 billion. The loan highlights a growing relationship with Japan through Japanese business interests in areas of construction and finance. Investments and projects involving Japanese companies include construction for the 2022 World Cup, and the building of a subway system in Doha, while Qatar supplies liquefied gas to Japan. The participation of Japanese money in the deal comes as tighter EU financial regulations to European banks bring lending under greater scrutiny, while a US loan to buy French technology may have upset Boeing, a competitor to Dassault in the fighter market.
March 16/16: Dassault has experienced a 12-fold increase in defense exports in 2015. The defense wing of the company experienced an order intake for the year end (2015) at $9.2 billion compared to only $770 million in 2014. The staggering jump has been attributed to a year that involved the sale of 48 Rafale fighters to Egypt and Qatar, and further by the well publicized ongoing negotiations with India for a further 38 of the aircraft. Adding to the exceptionally good year was upgrade of the Indian Mirage 2000 fighter.
March 16/16: India’s Law Ministry has come out against the country’s Rafale deal, citing several issues in regard to the contract with French manufacturer Dassault and France. While the Defense Ministry has come out in support of the deal, refusing to answer any questions submitted by the media in relation to the issues, it seems that even a preliminary contract has yet to solidified. Costs and pricing still remain an issue, as well as a series of legal issues which are apparently weighted heavily in France’s favor. French liability has been described as “watered down,” with huge payouts not promising actual delivery. Furthermore, the French government continue in their refusal of a bank guarantee, instead offering a “comfort letter” from Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
January 29/16: India’s Rafale deal with France is expected to be complete within four months according to French ambassador to India, Francois Richier. Speaking to Indian television, it is the first time a senior official has given a time scale for the completion of the deal. President Francois Hollande had indicated earlier in the week that the process would take some time, but that there would be gradual progress on agreeing to a final sale price. Dassault had previously stated that a deal may be signed within a month after a signing of an inter-governmental agreement on Monday, but officials from both governments have admitted that the price may become somewhat of a sticking point. Richier also stated that he hoped that India would in time purchase more Rafale’s from Dassault after their initial order of 126 fighters was slashed to just thirty-six.
January 27/16: Dassault expects to have a contracts signed with India over their sale of Rafale fighters within a month. The company announced on Monday that both the French and Indian governments signed a tentative inter-governmental agreement on Monday during President Hollande’s recent state visit to India. The agreement will pave the way for Dassault to conclude the deal for thirty-six fighters once some final financial issues are sorted out over the next couple of days. The expected early delivery date for the jets were initially stated for between 2016-2017, but pre-existing contracts with Egypt, Quatar and the French Air Force may see these deliveries delayed.
January 22/16: Officials from Dassault are to fly to New Delhi to pitch a navalized version of the Rafale. With the sale of thirty-six of the fighters almost over the line, the French manufacturer looks to be capitalizing on the sale and arrangements to have parts of the aircraft produced in India. India is looking for potential suppliers for over fifty fighters for their second indigenous aircraft carrier vessel, the Vishal. Their first indigenous aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant is already under construction and will operate the MiG 29K, but no plans have been made to include it in the design for the Vishal. Sources said that India has written to four countries, including France, seeking proposals for the design of the aircraft carrier. Dassault’s visit will follow shortly after that of French President Francois Hollande’s visit this weekend.
January 18/16: The suspense surrounding India’s Rafale jet acquisition continues. With plans seemingly already in place for the deal to be finalized, India is looking to negotiate a new option to the existing deal to buy thirty-six fighters from Dassault. A visit to New Delhi by French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week was initially seen as a final dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s on negotiations ahead of President Hollande’s visit next week. The Indian government seems to be more confident that the $9.1 million deal will be ready for the visit, claiming the contract to be “politically ready”.
January 12/16: India’s long awaited purchase of thirty-six Rafale fighters is set to be finalized as French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is scheduled to visit New Delhi next week. It’s believed that the visit is specifically for the purpose of officially concluding the high-profile deal ahead of President Francois Hollande’s visit to the country. Hollande will visit as a guest to celebrate India’s Republic Day on January 26. France and manufacturer Dassault will no doubt be happy to see the deal secured, which has been ongoing for some time, and the cause of much haggling over price offsets and a deal to produce parts for the aircraft within India.
December 21/15: After some delay, Qatar has finally made their down-payment on their order of 24 Rafale fighters. The $7 billion deal had undergone a number of delays after initially being agreed upon in May. It had been feared that the deal would have stalled in the new year, but with only four shopping days left until Christmas, any issues over the deal seem to have been ironed out.
November 27/15: India is to sign a deal to purchase 36 Rafale fighters from France it has been announced. The signing coincides with French President Hollande’s visit to New Delhi to celebrate Republic Day. It is expected that the delivery of the Rafale fighters will be completed within seven years and is part of India’s move to increase its air force strength to maintain effectiveness against both China and Pakistan.
November 16/15: Qatar have still to make their downpayment for 24 Rafale fighters from France despite contracts being signed by both nations six months ago. The deal, which is worth approximately $7 billion cannot be executed by manufacturer Dassault until such a payment is made and will no doubt be on the agenda for Qatari prime minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani’s visit to Paris this week. The visit is said to go ahead despite last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris.
November 12/15: The United Arab Emirates is reportedly close to signing an agreement for Rafale fighters, with the sixty-aircraft deal slated to value approximately $10 billion. Similar talks between the UAE and manufacturer Dassault collapsed in November 2011, but were revived in April 2015.
October 26/15: French firm Dassault has offered the Rafale fighter to Canada as an alternative to the F-35. The new Canadian PM looks set to withdraw from the international Joint Strike Fighter program, pushing up the cost of the other partners’ fighter in the process, although this still remains to be officially finalized. Dassault has offered the country its Rafale fighter.
October 23/15: France has reportedly agreed to invest half of the value of the contract for 36 Rafale fighters in Indian industry, with negotiations ongoing. The offset agreement is now thought to have paved the way for further negotiations over the sale of the fighters, which was first originally announced in April, following the collapse of the M-MRCA competition. The negotiations reached a sticking point in August over offset arrangements, with high level intervention in September kicking talks forward. Another potential issue has been identified as the Indian insistence on installing the indigenous Astra missile on the French fighters.
August 17/15: One sticking point in the ongoing government-to-government negotiations between India and France over the procurement of 36 Rafales has reportedly been identified. The Indian Air Force wants to modify the fighters to carry the indigenous Astra air-to-air missile, with the French refusing to do so; citing the associated cost increases with the required recertification such a move would entail. These contract negotiations have been playing out since the Indian Prime Minister announced the acquisition in April. The French government has lowered the per-unit cost of the deal, dropping this by 25% in May. They are offering French missiles instead of the Astra, likely manufactured by European missile house MBDA. The Indian Air Force also wants to integrate an Israeli-manufactured helmet display system, something which the French are unlikely to allow.
Additionally, French negotiators have reportedly rejected Indian proposals for a 50% offset arrangement in the Rafale contract negotiations. The French government has responded by offering to manufacture aircraft in India through future contracts, under the ‘Make in India’ procurement framework. Indian insistence on an offset will drive up the price of the 36 Rafales, which are currently on offer for the same price being paid by the French Air Force, following the aforementioned price drop in May.
July 30/15: France is anticipating an additional pair of export orders for its Rafale fighter, with Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates reportedly the most likely candidates. Reuters also reported Thursday that negotiations between India and France are now also discussing the possible supply of additional Rafales on top of the 36 ordered in April. Malaysia is looking to replace its MiG-29 Fulcrums, with the UAE recently restarting negotiations for the Rafale as it looks to swap out its fleet of Mirage 2000-9 fighters. The Gulf state has previously articulated a potential buy of sixty Rafales.
July 21/15: Rafale manufacturer Dassault is increasing the production rate of the fighter in anticipation of more export orders. The French jet has become an export success in recent months, following orders from Egypt, India and Qatar. The production line has recently come under strain because of the mounting orders, with the delivery rate from Dassault’s assembly line in Merignac, south-west France, set to double from the current rate of eleven per year by 2018, according to the company’s CEO.
July 17/15: Photos have emerged showing Rafale fighters flying in Egyptian colors. Egypt ordered twenty-four of the French aircraft in February, recently opting to buy AASM Hammer precision air-to-ground missiles to equip its new fleet. The first three Egyptian Rafales are due for delivery before 5 August.
May 7/15: France reportedly offered India a 25% price drop in order to seal the deal for 36 Rafales in April. The French also agreed to an extended maintenance schedule, with the 36 fighters thought to be the minimum number they would sell. The deal is thought to bring the per-unit cost of the Rafale to around $220 million, far below the approximate $300 million pricetag which became the death-knell for the Indian negotiations with Dassault. The recently announced Qatari order saw a comparable cost of $290 million per aircraft.
May 5/15: Following the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters in April through government to government negotiations – side-lining India’s negotiations with manufacturer Dassault – the Indian Defense Minister announced on Monday that further negotiations between the French and Indian governments will begin this month. The Rafale’s selection as preferred bidder in the country’s MMRCA competition subsequently stagnated, with Prime Minister Modi bypassing the negotiations following pressure from the Indian Air Force. The French Defense Minister will visit India later this week, during which time the opening negotiations for more government to government Rafales are expected to begin.
March 10/15: Egypt says yes. Egypt will buy 24 Dassault Rafale fighters. Egypt already flies predecessors Mirage Vs and Mirage 2000s, and was once looking at upgrading its already large fleet of F-16s to more modern versions. Dassault’s fighters have the benefit of not having many political strings attached, and for a government arguably installed by coup, this has a certain charm.
Feb-17/15: India recalculates that Dassault wasn’t low bidder.The negotiation-via-newspapers exchange continues between France’s Dassault and India in regard to the Indian purchase of Rafale fighters. India’s MoD is now saying that upon thinking about it a bit more – for three years – they think the Dassault offer is going to be more expensive than some other, rejected bidders. Being India’s first life cycle costing contract, the RFP for 126 fighters did not demand specific information on some items relevant to that cost cycle, according to an unnamed official involved with the contract negotiation committee.
Feb-16/15: India’s hardcore negotiating not phasing Dassault. India has been sending messages through the press that it is ready to walk away from the Rafale deal. Dassault, for it’s part, isn’t biting, expressing confidence in the 126 fighter deal. Some reports indicated India is pressuring Dassault to make unspecified guarantees regarding the manufacture of the fighters. The French procurement agency DGA defended Dassault, indicating that Dassault will not be responsible for HAL-built fighters.
Oct 6-17/14: F3.4+ Testing. The French DGA tests the F-3.4+ software upgrade at Mont-de-Marsan AB. It should enter operational service in early 2015.
The F3.4+ builds on the current F3.3 standard’s improvements to Link-16 and integration of laser-guided weapons includes many software improvements, adding full compatibility with NATO’s MGRS geographic format for GPS-related functions, radar improvements in terrain following mode, new warnings for low altitudes and unusual positions that are designed to snap pilots out of disorientation, and warnings to prevent overloading the landing gear brakes during take-off. Sources: French AdlA, “Le Rafale F3.4+ experimente a Istres”.
Oct 3/14: F1 to F3. Dassault Aviation in Merignac, France re-delivers aircraft M10 to the Marine Nationale, after upgrading it from F1 to F3 status under a EUR 240 million contract for 10 aircraft.
Modifications include swapping out the core mission computer and cockpit displays, and changing the plane’s radar, electrical wiring, SPECTRA countermeasures system, and hardpoints. In return, the jump to F3 status adds implementation of all currently planned modes for the RBE2 radar, incl. radar ground attack and terrain-following modes; full integration with the Reco NG reconnaissance pod and Damocles surveillance and targeting pod; MICA IR air-to-air missile capability using the OSF IRST sensor; carriage of laser-guided bombs and Storm Shadow/ Scalp cruise missiles;anti-ship attack with the Exocet or follow-on ANF; nuclear strike capability using the ASMP-A missile; a Link 16 datalink, and a buddy tanker pod. They do not include the RBE2-AA AESA radar antenna, but the jet could reportedly be refitted with that later on.
Of the 180 Rafales ordered by France to date, 133 have been delivered, including Rafale-M F2s and F3s for the Marine Nationale. The contract only applies for the first 10 orders, which were delivered as Rafale-M F1s. Rafale fighters are currently executing missions against ISIS in Iraq, after seeing combat use in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, and Central Africa. Sources: French DGA, “La DGA receptionne le premier Rafale Marine retrofite” | Dassault Aviation, “The French defense procurement agency (DGA) takes delivery of its 1st retrofitted Rafale “Marine” from Dassault Aviation” | Navy Recognition, “The French procurement agency takes delivery of its 1st retrofitted Rafale M from Dassault Aviation”.
QEAF Mirage 2000-5
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June 19-23/14: Qatar. Reports continue to predict that Sheikh Tamim Ben Hamad Al-Thani’s visit to Paris on June 23/14 will herald a contract for 36 Rafales, with an option for 36 more. The move would represent the Rafale’s 1st export contract, and a dramatic expansion of Qatar’s fighter force from the current fleet of 12 Mirage 2000s.
With that said, the best source is France’s La Tribune. They cite government sources who are pleased with the progress of negotiations, while cautioning readers about the deal’s complexity, and doubting that the Rafale deal will be signed in Paris. That turns out to be correct: France’s Alstom wins a $2 billion light rail contract, but all “a source close to French President Francois Hollande” will says after ward is: “They discussed it. Negotiations are continuing.”
Qatar is a significant customer for French defense equipment, and their support of the Muslim Brotherhood has given then an anomalous position within the Gulf Arab states. France recently sold them A330 aerial tankers and NH90 helicopters as part of a $23 billion global splurge, and are reportedly negotiating to sell the Emirate VBCI wheeled APCs and FREMM FREDA air defense frigates on top of the Rafales. Sources: La Tribune, “Le Qatar veut le Rafale de Dassault Aviation” | Bloomberg, “Dassault Said to Close in on Rafale Contract to Lift Exports” | Reuters, “France wins Qatar tram deal, discusses Rafale jets”.
May 28/14: Qatar. La Tribune says that France’s Rafale has emerged as Qatar’s 1st choice for its new fighter fleet, against competition from the Eurofighter Typhoon and an American offer that was not the F-35 (i.e. F-15 Strike Eagle or F/A-18 Super Hornet – q.v. Nov 26/13). Talks reportedly resumed in March 2014, with Qatar inquiring about a range of options from 12-72 aircraft. The pick is expected to be announced by Sheikh Tamim Ben Hamad Al-Thani on June 23/14, when he visits Paris.
The stakes are high for France, whose recent multi-year budget would buy only 26 Rafales from 2014 – 2019, despite a minimum required production rate of 11 jets per year. The French order would only last until the spring of 2016. Given the contract penalties involved in falling below minimum production, France would be forced to move its own orders forward, unless significant export orders arrive to rescue the production line. Sources: La Tribune, “Le Rafale de Dassault sur la piste d’envol au Qatar?” | AFP, “Qatar nears exclusive talks on buying Rafale fighter: Report” | Gulf News, “Qatar nears talks to buy ‘unpopular’ Rafale fighter jets”.
March 2/14: India. Dassault and HAL have reportedly established an initial workshare agreement for Indian Rafales, after long and difficult negotiations. Dassault will provide the first 18 planes from its own factories in fly-away condition. After that, HAL will be responsible for directing 70% of the work in India, while Dassault remains responsible for 30%.
Negotiations have included industrial coordination, as well as straight workshare. For instance, RBE2-AA AESA radar production will be outsourced to state-owned Bharat-Electronics Ltd (BEL) in Bangalore, while the corresponding radome will be manufactured by HAL. One step toward the agreement involved HAL setting up a new facility close to the one that BEL has in Bangalore, so that issues with radome or radar production won’t create compatibility problems that leave India’s Rafales unable to meet acceptance tests.
The MoD has already spent this term’s capital budget, so the deal will have to be finalized by whichever government wins India’s May election. Which turns out to be a landslide for the BJP opposition. Sources: Indian Express, “India seals Rafale jet deal with French firm” | NDTV, “A big step in India’s Rafale jet deal with France”.
India: workshare deal
Jan 22/14: Canada. Dassault SVP of NATO affairs Yves Robins is quoted as saying that they’re offering Canada unrestricted transfers of technology if it picks the Rafale, including software source codes for servicing the planes. That’s something Canada won’t get with the F-35, and it’s being touted as a long-term cost savings that will let Canadian firms do more of the required maintenance. They’re also pushing the government to declare a competition.
The CBC report goes on to show that the broadcaster doesn’t really grasp the issues, asking about the Rafale’s ability to operate alongside the USAF. France replies that this worked over Libya, but that isn’t the real question. The question is whether Canada could use its American weapons with the Rafale, without having to conduct expensive integration and testing programs. In most cases, the answer is no. Which is why Rafale is a long shot, in the unlikely event that Canada even declares a competition. Sources: CBC News, “Dassault Aviation ramps up CF-18 replacement pitch”.
Jan 10/13: F3R. French defense minister Jean-Yves le Drian hands Dassault Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier the Rafale F3R development contract, during a visit to Dassault Aviation’s Merignac plant. The contract, which is reported to be worth about EUR 1 billion ($1.32 billion), had actually been ratified by the DGA on Dec 30/13.
Key additions to the Rafale F3R include full integration with the SBU-64 laser/GPS AASM smart bomb and the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile, improvements to Thales SPECTRA self-defence system, an Identification Friend or Foe interrogator/transponder with full Mode-5/Mode-S-compatibility, and assorted incremental improvements to the plane’s navigation systems, data links, and radar.
At the same time, the DGA announces the expected EUR 119 million development deal with Thales Optronics for the F3R’s new PDL-NG surveillance and targeting pod, under the 2014-2019 budget. That’s on top of the initial EUR 55 million risk-reduction phase that confirmed the system’s architecture, integration, and development schedule (q.v. Jan 28/13). The French military expects to order 20 pods during a subsequent initial production phase, with 16 delivered between 2018 – 2019. The full