Because the only 5th generation fighter in service yet is, as of today, the F-22 Raptor – the Russian PAKFA and the Chinese J-20 and J-31 haven’t entered service yet – the era of Generation #4+ fighters hasn’t ended yet, and these fighters will still be quite useful until then. Indeed, these fighters will retain military utility (absent double-digit SAMs) for some time even after the eventual introduction of the PAKFA, J-20, and J-31.
And among these aircraft, the French Dassault Rafale is, without doubt, the most capable and most lethal one. This post will look at this interesting airplane briefly and then compare it to its foreign competitors.
The Rafale (French: squall) program was initiated in the late 1970s by the Giscard d’Estaing administration as a replacement for the Super Etendard, Mirage F1, Mirage III, and Mirage V aircraft already in service and the Mirage 2000 multirole fighters which were in the advanced design and production phase (they entered service in 1984). The Rafale first flew in 1986 and entered service in 2001.
The Rafale is designed to meet the needs of two services. The French Air Force, the world’s oldest (established in 1909), needs an affordable multirole fighter to protect national airspace and conduct strikes against a variety of ground targets: fixed structures as well as moving targets – ranging from enemy tanks and APCs to air defense system batteries and ballistic missile launchers to insurgents.
The French Navy wants an aircraft capable of the same range of ground strikes, but also one capable of defending the fleet from air attack and winning air superiority in environments where the French Air Force does not have access to any airfields.
Additionally, both services want an aircraft capable of carrying the ASMP and ASMP-A stealthy cruise missile with a nuclear warhead – currently the TN-88, and later the TNA (Tete Nucleaire Aerienne, i.e. Aerial Nuclear Warhead), as a part of France’s nuclear deterrent – France’s only defense against the most catastrophic threats.
Barack Obama’s drive to unilaterally disarm the United States, confirmed last week in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate, shows that America’s nuclear umbrella can no longer be counted upon by anyone, because Obama and his extremely leftist party base are determined to scrap it unilaterally. Yet, there is zero chance of there ever being a world without nuclear weapons. In fact, Obama’s legacy will be a world with more nuclear weapons (but not American ones) and more nuclear-armed states in it.
This means that France cannot, under any circumstances, afford to scrap its nuclear arsenal or to cut any further. If anything, France will need to increase it. Hence, the need for a French national nuclear deterrent.
France is very, very fortunate that it has an independent nuclear deterrent, produced entirely in France of French components by French hands. France would’ve been in a terrible situation if she were dependent on the United States for any of these components like the UK is. Obama’s America could’ve simply denied France such components, just like the Kennedy Administration initially did to the UK by cancelling the Skybolt missile. But even the pro-British Reagan Administration was initially reluctant to supply Trident-II SLBMs to Britain in the 1980s.
France, on the other hand, produces all of the components for its nuclear deterrent – the warheads, the missiles, the planes, and the submarines – itself. And the Rafale is one of those components.
The Rafale has already proven itself in three different wars. In Afghanistan, it performed numerous ground strikes against the Taleban, sometimes with GBU-12 Paveway II bombs used against Taleban caves. In Libya, it successfully evaded Qaddafi’s woefully obsolete 1960s-vintage Soviet air defense systems and led the fight against his regime. Most recently, in Mali, the Rafale flew long distances to perform strikes against Islamic insurgents.
Thus, the Rafale is a veteran of three wars despite entering service only a little more than a decade ago, a stark distinction to all of its competitors except the Super Hornet, none of which have seen any combat whatsoever, even against obsolete Soviet air defense systems or insurgents unable to contest control of the air.
Armament, sensors, powerplant, aerodynamic and kinematic performance
The Rafale can carry more ordnance than any of its competitors, hands down. The Air Force variants (B and C) have 14, and the Navy (M) variant, 13 hardpoints. By contrast, the F-35 can carry only 4 munitions (e.g. missiles) while in its stealthy mode; the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the F-16 can carry only 11, and the Su-35 twelve.
For air-to-air combat, the Rafale’s two principal missiles are the MBDA’s MICA (Missile d’Interception, de Combat et d’Autodefense) and Meteor. The MICA is intended for short and medium range combat, with a nominal range of 80 kms, and has both electromagnetic and infrared seekers. The Meteor, with a 160 km range, is a radar-guided long-range (Beyond Visual Range) ramjet-powered missile similar to the American AIM-120D AMRAAM. The principal difference, of course, is the Meteor’s ramjet engine. The French MOD has already ordered 200 such missiles.
This diversity of missiles and seekers will allow a Rafale pilot to saturate his opponent in combat with a salvo of 3 different missiles at once (and remember, the Rafale can carry 13-14 missiles in total). This means his opponent, forced to duck one of the missiles, would be detected by another missile’s seeker, and thus be shot down.
Furthermore, the Rafale has the biggest gun on the market (ex aequo with Sukhoi aircraft): a hefty 30mm GIAT gun firing incendiary rounds. This makes the Rafale an excellent choice for both air to air and air to ground combat, as its 30mm rounds would provide excellent support for troops on the ground. 30mm is the caliber of the guns of most APCs and IFVs.
For air to ground combat, the Rafale can carry the GBU-12 and GBU-49 Paveway II, the GBU-24 Paveway III, the Sagem AASM bomb (with a range of 55 meters and a CEP of less than 1 meter, designed to attack both static and mobile targets), the MBDA Apache and Scalp-EG cruise missiles (designed for attacking targets such as the runways of heavily defended airfields from a distance outside the range of their air defense systems), the Exocet AM39 anti-ship transonic cruise missile, and the forementioned ASMP and ASMP-A stealthy nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
In short, the Rafale can carry a wide range of weapons, and perform air to air, air to ground, and air to sea combat well.
In particular, its Exocet missiles would, in any anti-ship battle, prove very deadly, as they did when launched by Argentine A-4 Skyhawks against British warships during the 1982 Falklands War. The warships of virtually all navies of the world are currently poorly prepared for the ASCM threat.
The Rafale’s two principal sensors are the Thales RBE2 ESA radar and the Thales/SAGEM OSF (Optronique Spherique Frontal) infrared search and tracking system (IRST system).
The Dassault Rafale is a relatively small, light airplane. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that its wing loading ratio (the ratio of its weight compared to its wingspace) is just 306 kg/sq m, the second lowest ratio on the market after the JAS-39 Gripen. Its combat radius is also impressive – 1,852 kilometers, again, the second-best in the market trailing only the F-15C/D. The Rafale also has an excellent rate of climb – 304 m/s, i.e. 60,000 ft/min. This means the plane can climb to its service ceiling (55,000 ft) in a minute.
The plane’s two SNECMA MM-2 turbofan engines provide a dry thrust of 50.4 kN each, or 75.62 kN (17,000 lbf) each on afterburner. This gives the plane a very good thrust/weight ratio of 0.988:1 in full combat load – unheard of for a modern fighter, and fully competitive even with 5th generation American, Russian, and Chinese fighters.
The one thing that somewhat lets the Rafale down – other than its 55,000 ft ceiling – is its speed of Mach 1.8, compared to Mach 2 or more for most other fighters. However, its principal competitor, the F-35, is worse at just Mach 1.61 and 43,000 ft. Moreover, it is not a mechanical flaw, but rather the product of a deliberate design aimed to optimise the Rafale for the by far predominant type of aerial combat – namely, close, within visual range combat. In that regime of A2A warfare, neither speed nor ceiling would be a significant issue; the predominant factors are agility, pilot visibility, sensors, gun caliber, and the quality and quantity of WVR, infrared-guided missiles.
And by these factors, the Rafale is the best, with a superlative wingloading ratio, excellent pilot visibility in all direction, superlative radar and IR sensors, a 30 mm gun (the biggest fighter gun caliber in the market), and a load of up to 14 (but usually 10-12) MICA infrared- and electromagnetically-guided missiles with a range of up to 80 kms.
IR-guided WVR missiles typically have a Probability of Kill of 74%, according to research by Air Power Australia. Therefore, if a Rafale fighter begins a mission armed with 2 Meteor and 12 MICA missiles, then, even if its 2 Meteors hit nothing, its 12 MICA missiles will kill 8 enemy aircraft.
Comparison with the competitors
In comparison with the Dassault Rafale, all of its Generation 4+ competitors, with the limited exception of the Typhoon, look miserably.
The F-35 Lightning II – marketed by Lockheed Martin as a stealthy multirole fighter that can do everything and meet the needs of three US Services and many allied countries – fails the test miserably. Its wing loading ratio is 481 kg/sq m even at a 50% combat load, and 529 kg/sq m in full combat load, making it way too heavy for close combat. Its speed of Mach 1.61 and ceiling of 43,000 ft are decisively inferior to that of the Rafale (and all other Generation 4+ and 5th generation fighters in the world), as is its maximum combat load (in stealthy mode) of 4 missiles. Even in nonstealthy mode, it can carry only 8 missiles.
Moreover, the F-35 is “stealthy” only in the X-band, and only from the front and the up. From the belly and the rear, it isn’t stealthy at all, due to its deeply sculpted belly and its round, nonstealthy, muffin-shaped engine (which could be destroyed with a single round from the Rafale’s 30mm gun, thus bringing the F-35 down).
The F-35 program, in short, is nothing but a Ponzi scheme designed to earn Lockheed Martin money at the expense of US and overseas taxpayers.
The F/A-18E/F Super Bug, sometimes touted in the US and Canada as an alternative to the F-35, also fails the comparison miserably, with its aerodynamic and kinematic performance also decisively inferior to the Rafale’s. It has a wing loading ratio of 459 kg/sq m even with a mere 50% combat load; a T/W ratio (at full load) of just 0.93:1, well below the 0.99:1 of the Rafale. Its service ceiling is only 50,000 ft – 5,000 less than for the Rafale. Its rate of climb is a pathetic 228 m/s, and its combat radius a paltry 722 kms. And it can withstand only 7.6 Gs, while the Rafale can withstand a full 9Gs, the most a human pilot can withstand.
In short, both the F-35 and the F/A-18E/F Super Bug are decisively inferior to the Dassault Rafale. Buying either of these aircraft is a recipe for military inferiority and for losing control of the air. Both of them also have a tinier gun – only 20mm caliber.
The JAS-39 Gripen can compete with the Rafale only in the close combat regime, with a wingloading ratio of 283 kg/sq m (the lowest on the market) and a T/W ratio of 0.97:1 at full load (still inferior to the Rafale). It also has a decent max speed of Mach 2. However, its combat radius is very small, at just 800 kms, and it can carry only 8 missiles – as opposed to the Rafale’s 13-14. This means that, in combat against the Gripen, a Rafale pilot would get as many as 5-6 freebie shots at the Gripen.
Most troublingly of all, the Gripen, like the Super Bug, has a ceiling of only 50,000 ft – it can fly no higher than that. This makes it a non-player in the BVR regime, like the previous two competitors. Their missiles, to hit a Rafale, would have to climb steeply uphill, while the Rafale’s superior max ceiling would add to the nominal range of its missiles.
The next competitor is the F-15SE Silent Eagle. This aircraft, however, is not a development from the F-15C/D air superiority Eagle, but rather, the F-15E Strike Eagle, and has mostly the same performance parameters. It has decisively inferior thrust/weight (0.93:1) and rate of climb (254 m/s, 50,000 ft/min) ratios. Its gun’s caliber is only 20mm. Its service ceiling, at 60,000 feet, is not much better than the Rafale’s, and its combat radius, 1,840 kms, is essentially the same as the Rafale’s.
The only significant advantage it has over the French fighter is speed: over Mach 2.5+. This, by itself, however, is not enough to make it a better fighter, nor to make it a good air superiority fighter. This is no surprise, because, as its name says, the Strike Eagle is intended to be a strike jet, not an air superiority fighter.
The next rival is the Sukhoi Flanker family, the most capable member of which is the newest one – the Su-35. Like the F-15E/SE, its only significant advantage over the Rafale is speed – and at only Mach 2.25, it’s even less pronounced than with the F-15E/SE. Its service ceiling (59,100 ft) is not much better than the Rafale’s (55,000 ft).
Meanwhile, its wingloading ratio, at 408 kg/sq m, is disastrously inferior to the French fighter’s 304 kg/sq m, making the Su-35 a non-player in within visual range combat where any Rafale is present, and an inferior rate of climb at 280 m/s. Its stated thrust/weight ratio of 1.13:1 refers to a 50% combat load only, not to a full combat load, the data for which is unavailable but may very well be inferior to the Rafale’s. The only criteria in which the Su-35 has parity with the Rafale are those of armament – 14 hardpoints and a 30mm gun, exactly as with the Rafale.
And so we come to the Rafale’s last rival, the Eurofighter Typhoon. This aircraft has a good thrust ratio (1.07:1) at a full fuel and armament load, but it’s not much more than the Rafale’s 0.99:1. Its rate of climb (315 m/s, i.e. 62,000 ft/min) and top speed (Mach 2) are also only slightly better than the Rafale’s and do not justify the Typhoon’s much higher cost (£125 mn per copy). The Typhoon’s service ceiling, 55,000 ft, is the same as the Rafale’s, the wing loading ratio (312 kg/sq m) is slightly inferior, and its combat radius is decisively inferior: just 601 km for a lo-lo-lo mission, and 1,389 km for a hi-lo-hi mission – better than the former, but still much less than the Rafale’s 1,800+ kms.
The Typhoon’s 27mm gun caliber is slightly smaller than the Rafale’s, and it can carry 13 missiles – the same as a Rafale M, one missile less than the Rafale B/C variants.
So the Typhoon is slightly better than the Rafale on 3 parameters, slightly inferior two, equivalent on two others, and decisively inferior on one. In other words, by most criteria, the Typhoon is either inferior or barely keeps parity with the Rafale – hardly a justification for the Eurofighter’s much higher cost.
Another advantage the Rafale has over the Typhoon, the Gripen, the F-15E/SE, and so far also over the unproven F-35C (which has suffered notorious tailhook problems and has never taken off from a carrier) is the fact that the Rafale can operate from aircraft carriers and has done so since 2001. The Typhoon, the F-15, and the Gripen don’t have a naval variant and the first two never will, as they are too heavy to operate from carriers.
So why has the UK never purchased the Rafale for its two new aircraft carriers undergoing construction?
Because of purely political issues: pressure by the Lockheed Martin Corporation and the British aerospace lobby. The former has successfully lobbied the UK government to stay in the F-35 program at a high cost to the British taxpayer, even though not a single F-35 will enter Royal Navy (or RAF) service for many years, if ever. The latter, for its part, was lobbying the British government to develop a navalized Typhoon variant, even though such an aircraft is not feasible without substantial changes to the Typhoon’s design, as the aircraft is simply too heavy for carriers.
This is why repeated French proposals to sell the Rafale to the UK have been rejected despite the significant warming of British relations since 2006 and especially since 2007 under President Sarkozy. Had the UK accepted the French offer in 2006 – at the same time when British ministers were begging the US to make the F-35’s development codes available to London – the Rafale would’ve been available for RN (and RAF) service by now. (And had the UK not delayed the construction of its two new carriers, the Rafale would’ve been flying off their decks by now.)
The Rafale was rejected for purely political, not military, reasons.
The reality confronting all nations that don’t have cozy relations with Russia or China is simple. They will either procure the Rafale – the best Generation #4+ fighter in the world – or they will see their air forces emasculated and rendered impotent, irrelevant, and useless. This applies, inter alia, to Canada, Australia, the UK, the UAE, South Korea, Poland, Spain, and others. For the time being, it also applies to nations that have friendly relations with Moscow and Beijing, such as Malaysia, Brazil, and Italy, because their PAKFA, J-20, and J-31 fighters won’t be available until later in this decade. While the Dassault Rafale is available right now.