This is what I have been saying since last December: that Dassault Aviation's bid was L-1. Am glad that the ‘buzz’ I had come across in Delhi—claiming that the Rafale’s per unit cost was US$5 million cheaper—has now been confirmed. Within the next 60 days, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is widely expected to finally ink the contract for procuring up to 189 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (M-MRCA), inclusive of firm orders for 126 units, with an option for another 63. Around a quarter of the total projected fleet of IAF Rafales will be tandem-seaters. The final contract value will include the flyaway per-unit cost of the aircraft, plus administrative costs related to project implementation. Following this, over the next 36 months, various supplemental contracts are likely to be inked with various French and non-French OEMs, such as those relating to the procurement of guided-weapons (including the MICA-IR and MICA-EM BVRAAMs, AASM family of PGMs, GBU-49 laser-guided bombs, Taurus KEPD-350 cruise missiles, and probably the Brimstone anti-armour PGM) and their part-task trainers, procurement of mission avionics sub-systems (like the ASTAC ELINT pods, Litening-3 laser-designator pods EL/M-2060P SAR pods, and EL/M-2222 self-protection jamming pods), COBHAM’s 754 buddy-buddy refuelling pods, mission planning systems, procurement of tactical flight training and maintenance simulators, procurement of hardware required for a new Base Repair Depot (catering to depot-level maintenance requirements and 1,000-hour aircraft inspection schedules), establishment of four avionics intermediate workshops for ensuring serviceability of the Rafales at the IAF Wing-levels, and creation of licenced-assembly lines (for the airframes, engines, avionics and accessories) so that the MoD-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) can begin rolling out the Rafales within 48 months of contract signature. While Dassault Aviation will deliver between 18 and 24 Rafales between mid-2015 and 2018, HAL’s annual aircraft rollout rate is presently a targetted 14 units per annum.
Following contract dignature, R & D work will begin in both France and at the IAF’s Bengaluru-based Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) to customise those Rafales destined for the IAF in order to accept mission-specific avionics that will ensure compatibility with the IACCCS. For instance, HAL-built IFF transponders, TACAN, software-defined HF/VHF/UHF radios, SATCOM terminals, and operational data-links with built-in encryption modems for ensuring two-way communications between friendly combat aircraft as well as platforms like the A-50I AEW & CS and IL-78MKI aerial refuelling tankers, will be installed on-board. Once the deliveries get underway, four Rafales from the first delivery tranche will be attached to the Gwalior-based Tactics & Combat Development Establishment, which, along with the IAF’s College of Air Warfare, will begin work on validating all the operational parameters of the Rafale within an India-specific operating environment, and consequently begin drafting the Rafale’s IAF-specific operations and maintenance manuals—a process that will take up to three years.
When I had last viewed the Rafale at Le Bourget, Dassault Aviation was then using the 49th International Paris Air Show to describe its combat-proven Rafale as being an ‘omnirole’ M-MRCA, a tag that it said denotes the type’s ability to perform multiple mission types simultaneously. This differs from the widely adopted multi-role description used by its rivals (read: Eurofighter EF-2000) largely as a result of the aircraft’s ability to provide its pilot with data fuzed from on-board sensors, it said. These range from its THALES-built RBE-2 AESA-based multi-mode radar (MMR), Spectra integrated electronic warfare suite and OSF passive front sector optronics equipment to the variety of precision-guided munitions (PGM) on offer from both SAGEM and MBDA. By 2030 the Rafale will be France’s sole manned M-MRCA, although the country’s air force could also start to field an unmanned combat air system from around this time. Signed in December 2009 and covering the delivery of 60 aircraft, the Rafale’s fourth order tranche will extend production up to the end of 2019. Paris’ commitment takes to 180 the number of Rafales to be produced for its air force and navy, from a total commitment for 286 aircraft: 228 B/Cs and 58 Ms, respectively. The current production rate delivers 11 aircraft a year, with around six on the line at any one time at Dassault’s Merignac site. The goal is for each Rafale to spend around five months between the arrival of its main structures and customer acceptance, with roughly 70% of the activity at the site concerned with test activities, such as on fuel and hydraulics systems and flight controls.
Growing combat experience in both Afghanistan and Libya only strengthened Dassault Aviation’s efforts to sell the Rafale to international customers like India. While the company has maintained guarded optimism over its prospects in India (in the aftermath of its shortlisting last March), it is waiting on the outcome of the roughly 36-aircraft F-X2 competition in Brazil, where a decision is expected to be made in 2012. Fresh speculation has also emerged over the past few months with regard to a long-expected deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where France already bases some of its combat aircraft. The next standard to enter frontline use, in mid-2013, is dubbed Rafale F3-04T. This will introduce the RBE-2 AESA-MMR, the laser-/GPS-/imaging infra-red-guided AASM PGM from SAGEM, improved OSF infra-red search-and-track system from THALES, and MBDA's DDM-NG passive missile approach warning system. Down the line, MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile should enter service around 2018. In addition, funded research and development studies are already looking towards possible enhancements--to be made several years beyond this point--in areas such as a reduction to the Rafale’s radar cross-section, expanded flight envelope, human/machine interface enhancements and new communications equipment and weapons. A mid-life update is also planned from around 2025.
The advantage of electronic scanning is that the radar beam is directed electronically, rather than by mechanically swiveling the antenna back and forth to scan the sky. That means the beam can be switched in microseconds from one area of the sky to another, or used for ground mapping and air surveillance at the same time by flipping between the two modes. The current RBE’s passive phased-array antenna uses electronic lenses consisting of arrays of diodes to direct the beam horizontally and vertically. The active array eliminates the grids; instead, the front end of the antenna is populated by hundreds of transmit/receive (T/R) modules, each combining a high-power transmit amplifier, low-noise, receive amplifier and beam control. Eliminating the grids also eliminates the power lost by the signal going back and forth, improving the radar’s detection capability. Such a high level of integration is made possible by the gallium-arsenide, integrated-circuit technology. THALES has also developed a new liquid-cooling system for the T/R modules. The gallium-arsenide chips, which carry out digital processing and frequency management at the same time, are produced by United Monolithic Semiconductor, a THALES/EADS joint venture, then integrated into sub-assemblies by THALES Micro Electronics before being integrated into the antenna itself. Future enhancements to the RBE-2, such as a finer aperture for ground-mapping in synthetic aperture radar mode and simultaneous mode operations will be achieved through new software, with no change to the hardware. In fact, the large number of T/R modules means some of them can fail without noticeably affecting the system’s overall reliability and performance. Their reliability is such that the RBE-2’s active front-end should not require maintenance at intervals of less than 10 years.
In addition to the RBE-2, THALES is also developing a digital colour head-up display (HUD) for the Rafale. This would be the first colour HUD in the world for a combat aircraft, as presently all combat aircraft have analogue HUDs that are able to display geometric forms in two dimensions only with a single green font. THALES’ new digital HUD will offer a three-dimensional display of the ground with important items like obstacles or the runway for example, assuring a safe flight by night and bad visibility. The higher resolution of this new HUD will allow displays of perfect geometric forms (variable line thickness and brightness) and several different fonts in different colours (green and red for the current prototype) in order to match the other displays’ colour codes used in the aircraft (such as red for high-priority threats). SNECMA Moteurs, meanwhile, is delivering enhanced M88-4E turbofans. Drawing on the activities of SNECMA’s ECO development programme of 2004-2007, the new standard reduces ownership costs and maintenance demands, gives an impressive 50% better lifespan, and also has the growth potential to increase available power from a current maximum of 17,000lb (75kN) to roughly 19,800lb. Key changes include a new high-pressure (HP) turbine, three new HP compressor stages and some changes to materials and geometry. The proposed derivative of the M88-4E for the UAE, called M88-9, will reach 9 tonnes of thrust by increasing the entering airflow from 65kg/second to 72kg/second, as well as the compression rate from 24.5 to 27. Using this engine, however, requires the Rafale’s air intakes to be enlarged, which was earlier a major blocking point in the negotiations with the UAE. Such a structural modification is not cheap and the R & D costs will most probably have to be shared between the two countries.
Another capability that is now being made available for the Rafale is the laser-guided version of the AASM ‘Hammer’ precision-guided bomb. Used extensively during France’s on-going involvement in Libya, the weapon is now available with GPS/INS guidance. This will also be combined with an infra-red seeker in use from 2012. But while the AASM boasts all-weather capability and a standoff range of more than 32nm (60km), it lacks the ability to strike moving targets. A new laser-guided version was demonstrated in three test firings in 2010. These included a strike against a target from a vertical trajectory, another which replicated the future availability of an advanced targeting pod, and a shot in which the PGM tracked a laser spot from a turret-mounted ground illuminator travelling at 43 Knots (80kph) and replicating a moving vehicle. It hit the target less than 3 feet away from the spot. At the same time, the THALES-built Reco-NG pod will receive a new function enabling in-flight GPS coordinates extraction of detected targets.
According to Dassault Aviation, there are three main reasons why the Rafale fully complies with the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) stringent parameters for choosing the optimum M-MRCA. Firstly, it comes with no strings attached. Secondly, the team of Dassault Aviation, THALES and SNECMA Moteurs claims that it has tailored its technology transfer packages to ensure total operational autonomy over the Rafale, and thirdly, as Dassault prefers to phrase it, “when a single country makes your aircraft from nose to tail, you know exactly what you’re getting into”. Dassault officials are of the view that since every political decision-maker knows guaranteed operational sovereignty is a key parameter when selecting a new-generation combat aircraft, therefore, unlike alternative sources of such combat aircraft types, the Rafale team has been fully amenable and sufficiently flexible to establish a wide range of strategic partnerships with its customers, all geared towards enabling the customer country to take part in military-industrial production joint ventures, enabling the customer air force to locally service and modify the Rafale’s airframe, transferring all the relevant software source codes, facilitating the integration of new or indigenous weapons and systems, and adapting the Rafale to accept operator-specific hardware for communications, IFF, and data-linking.
The main step towards achieving full operational sovereignty being the ability to carry out in-country maintenance of its combat aircraft assets, the Rafale team has evolved a Rafale fleet management and support programme that can be accomplished in situ. Extensive know-how and technology transfers, in addition to comprehensive training packages, will ensure that the Rafale’s operator remains capable of operating, servicing and upgrading this M-MRCA throughout its life-cycle. The Rafale team has also designed and fine-tuned its comprehensive industrial package of services encompassing flying training and simulation, spare parts supply, systems calibration, repair and overhaul of components, supply of documentation, and technical assistance. This type of fixed-price programme for contractor logistics support packages also contributes to long-term cost management, while providing guaranteed results. The Rafale team has also promised to ensure that full-scale in-country fleet maintenance-cum-upgrading will be carried out by the IAF. To this end, the French government has already approved source-code transfers for the Rafale’s mission management avionics, which include the RBE-2 AESA-MMR and Spectra EW suite. In addition, the Rafale team will also supply mission-preparation and restitution tools like EW programming systems, which will enable the customer air force to locally update the Rafale’s on-board EW threat library and jamming/decoying sequences.
The Rafale F-3’s latest tranche 4 variant (as we now know from the data released by Dassault Aviation and the French Armee de l’Air in connection with the on-going M-MRCA competitions in Brazil and the United Arab Emirates) for the IAF was proposed with the THALES-built Radar à Balayage Electronique-2 (RBE-2) multi-mode radar, which has an antenna array equipped with 1,001 transmit/receive modules, has a detection range of 180km, and performs track-while-scan (TWS) of up to 40 airborne targets. It will, in future, also feature a ground moving target indication-cum-tracking (GMTI/T) mode simultaneously interlaced with the airspace TWS mode. In addition, a synthetic aperture radar mapping mode will be available. Also on the cards is a growth variant of Snecma Moteurs’ M88 turbofan, which will be rated at 90kN (20,000lb) with afterburner (a 20% increase over the original M88-2) and a higher time-between-overhauls (from the present 800 hours).—Prasun K. Sengupta