Dassault Aviation Rafale: “The French fighter of the 21st century
On July 4, 1986, Dassault Aviation began the flight test program of a demonstration prototype called the Rafale, an advanced single-seat fighter. Featuring complex delta wings and active canard planes, the Rafale was equipped with a digital electric control system, and made extensive use of composite materials such as carbon and Kevlar fibers and aluminum-lithium alloys. The propulsion was initially ensured by two General Electric F404-GE-400 turbojet engines offering each one 7 258 kg of thrust with afterburner after the first test flights, at the end of 1989, the left F404 was replaced by a SNECMA M88-2 turbojet engine, with which the flights started again on February 27, 1990.
Once the decision was made to mass-produce this demonstration model for the French Air Force and Naval Aviation, the aircraft was retroactively named Rafale A. The versions for the two services were to differ in several respects from the A; they were to be 3 percent smaller, have wider active canard planes and have a number of carbon composite parts replaced by superplastically molded and diffusion-welded titanium parts. Initially, the plan was to supply the French Air Force with 225 single-seat Rafale Cs and 25 two-seat Rafale Bs; in 1992, these figures were increased to 95 Rafale Cs and 140 Rafale Bs, capable of carrying out all the missions planned for the Rafale C.
A single Rafale C prototype made its first flight on May 19, 1991, followed on December 12 by the first single-seat naval Rafale M. These aircraft were each powered by two twin M88-2 turbojet engines developing a thrust of 5,000 kg dry and 7,440 kg with afterburner. A second Rafale M made its first flight on November 8 and the first Rafale B on April 30, 1993. The Rafale two-seat multipurpose fighter was to be armed with a 30 mm cannon on the right side of the fuselage and fourteen external carrying points (thirteen for the Rafale M) with a total carrying capacity of 8,000 kg; for interception missions, the aircraft carried eight Matra Mica air-to-air missiles. In 1992, the Aéronavale planned to have 86 Rafale M aircraft on board, with the first flotilla to equip the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier when it was accepted in 1998. The Rafale production versions had reduced signatures and made greater use of new materials than the Rafale A.
The Rafale was delivered equipped with increasingly advanced standards. The first production aircraft, delivered from December 1998 onwards, were of the F1 standard. It was optimized for the air-to-air role and became operational in 2004 with the French Navy’s Rafales that took off from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier during Operation Enduring Freedom. The first of the “omni-role” standards, the F2 entered service with the French Air Force and Navy in 2006, with the aircraft now capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The final F3 standard has the capability of using a further improved RBE2 radar, adding an active electronically scanned array (AESA). The F3 is also equipped with the Damocles laser designation pod and the Reco NG (New Generation Reconnaissance Pod). The latter is capable of providing extremely sharp images from a safe distance, and all recorded data can be transmitted back to base in real time. The F3 adds an anti-ship capability with the AM.39 Exocet missile, paired air-to-air refueling and a nuclear capability with the ASMP-A cruise missile. A conventional attack capability at stand-off range is provided by the SCALP EG cruise missile. This last standard was qualified by the French Ministry of Defence in 2008. The French Ministry of Defense has ordered 180 Rafales, with a total of 132 aircraft for the French Air Force (63 Rafale B and 69 Rafale C) and 48 Rafale Ms for the French Navy. India needs at least 126 Rafales, as it selected the fighter as the winner of the competition to find a new medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). The French Navy’s 12F Flotille converted to the Rafale at Landivisiau, before officially reforming on the Standard F1 in June 2001. The French Air Force’s first operational Rafale unit was the Escadron de Chasse (EC) 1/7 “Provence”, stationed at Saint-Dizier airbase in northwest France since 2006. The Rafale went into action over Afghanistan in 2006, and in 2011, French Air Force and Navy aircraft participated in coalition operations over Libya, providing air superiority, precision strike, deep strike, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) and strike and reconnaissance coordination (SCAR). More recently, French Air Force Rafales have played a leading role in Mali, helping to destroy enemy infrastructure and support friendly troops in contact. The Rafale has also been active against Islamic insurgents in Iraq, flying from its forward base in Al Dhafra, United Arab Emirates.
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