Dassault Rafale: Oui or non?

The Dassault Rafale.

The Dassault Rafale is like like the neglected middle sibling of the "Eurocanard" family.  The Typhoon is the star quarterback, getting attention for his wins, his performance, and popularity.  The Saab Gripen is the youngest and smallest, impressing everyone with how clever and easy it is to get along with it is.  The Rafale...  Well, it just focuses on being independent and hard working.

Originally a member of the same group that went on do develop the Eurofighter, France backed out early in the program.  It was clear that what France wanted was not in sync with Germany and Britain.  Germany and Britain were in need of a air superiority fighter to rival the MiG-29s and Su-27s that the Soviets had just unveiled.  France, on the other hand, was looking for a more balanced and affordable multirole fighter to replace its aging fleet of aircraft, both in the air force (Armée de l'air) and Navy (Marine Nationale).  It was also looking to secure its own military aircraft industry, and it was unhappy with not having a stronger say in what would become the Typhoon's development.  Instead, France went off on its own and developed the Dassault Rafale.

Much like the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Rafale's development was delayed thanks to end of the Cold War and France's military budget being slashed as a "peace dividend".  Eventually, the Rafale was placed in production to begin replacing outdated Mirage 2000s, F1s, Jaguars, and Super Etendards.  The Rafale M is now the sole fighter of France's navy and is the flagship of France's air force.  Since its procurement, the Rafale has proven its worth in combat over Afghanistan, Libya and now, Mali.

A Rafale on its way to Mali.
Like the Typhoon and Gripen, the Rafale is delta-winged with front canards for added manoeuvrability and lift.  Like the Typhoon, it is a twin engined design.  One could be excused for getting the three confused, especially from a distance.  A good "spotter's guide" is to look at the jet intakes.  The Gripen's are at the front of the delta wing, the Typhoon's is underneath like an F-16, and the Rafale has two semi-circles tucked into the lower fuselage, combined with a more "smoothed out" body shape.

Will it fit?  Probably.
Unlike the Typhoon, the Rafale was developed from the start to be adept at ground attack.  Capable of carrying over 9 tonnes of weapons and fuel on its 14 hard points, the Rafale is certainly the "bomb truck" of the three.  It is also cleared to carry nuclear weapons (not a Canadian requirement!).  The Typhoon and Gripen (C/D) carry 6.5 tonnes.  All this armament is supplemented by a 30mm cannon.

The Rafale is no slouch in the air-superiority role either, it is highly manoeuvrable and it is capable of supercruise while carrying a light load.  It's top speed is slightly higher than a CF-18.  The Rafale doesn't quite enjoy the Typhoon's air superiority reputation, but it should be capable enough at the hands of a competent pilot.

For detection, the Rafale is available with a modern AESA radar and IRST (infrared search and track).

Various components of the Rafale's SPECTRA ECM system.

Another key selling point of the Rafale is its SPECTRA electronic counter measure (ECM) system.  This gives the Rafale a "semi-stealth" capability when combined with its construction of radar absorbing materials.  This enables it to avoid enemy detection by sending out false signals, decoys, or simply jamming enemy radar.

A Rafale M on landing on a aircraft carrier.
Since the Rafale was also designed from the outset to operate off of France's Charles de Gaulle and a planned future aircraft carrier, its airframe should be considered to be about as robust as the CF-18, and there should be no concern about runway compatibility.  The Rafale also utilizes the "probe-and-drogue" aerial refuelling system and should be compatible with the CC-150 aerial tankers.  The Rafale is also compatible with NATO's Link-16 datalink system.  

All together, the Rafale offers a compelling option.  It offers great versatility, robustness, and survivability.  It appears to be an easy sell for those who believe the Gripen is simply too small and the Typhoon is too expensive and specialized.  But it is right for Canada?

Not quite.

Although much of the marketing behind the Rafale emphasizes its lower cost compared to the Eurofighter Typhoon, recent sales do not seem to agree with this.  Indeed, the Typhoon and Gripen have been far more popular on the export market, with India's recent purchase being the only foreign sale of the Rafale thus far.  A future sale to Brazil is possible, but the Rafale needs to prove its value over the much cheaper Super Hornet and Gripen to do so.

One of the more controversial lost Rafale sales was Switzerland.  After an extensive competition comparing the Typhoon, Rafale, and Gripen; the Gripen NG was chosen.  The Rafale was said to have more capability, but Dassault could only offer 16 Rafales for the same cost as 22 Saab Gripens Es.

French fighter...  French munitions.
Possibly the biggest stumbling block of the Rafale for Canada is, for lack of a better word, its "Frenchness".  Not in any derogatory sense, but in the sheer amount of France sourced hardware built into the aircraft.  The radar and SPECTRA ECM system are made by Thales, the engines are produced by Snecma.  Almost all major components are built in France.  This, of course, includes its weapons systems.  This is where it gets complicated.

Although Dassault's website promises the ability to mount "Customer-selected weapons", the Rafale is currently outfitted to handle predominantly French made missiles.  It will be compatible with the upcoming MBDA Meteor, but will only share a one-way datalink with the missile, rather than the two-way datalink the Meteor will have with the Gripen and Typhoon.  

The Rafale's weapon compatibility isn't such a big deal for India, it currently flies the Dassault Mirage and is already equipped with a stockpile of French munitions.  Canada, however, would have to make the decision to either replace our current stockpile of American AMRAAMs, Sidewinders, Mavericks, and Harpoons for French Micas, Hammers, and Exocets; or wait (and pay) for the Rafale to be tested and cleared for Canada's current weapon stockpile.  Any price advantage the the Rafale has over the Typhoon could easily be eliminated by extra costs inherited with its weapon systems.

Is there such a thing as "Too French"?
Lastly, as loathe as I am to let politics play a role, there is the simple fact that selecting the Rafale as Canada's future fighter could be perceived as "snubbing" some rather important allies and trade partners.  Buying the Rafale would obviously strengthen Canada's relationship with France, but that's it.  The F-35, although a Lockheed plane, is a multinational project, so no problem there.  The Super Hornet is an American plane so it wouldn't ruffle any feathers if chosen, given Canada's past preferences.  Buying the Typhoon, on the other hand, would make friends in Germany, Britain, Spain, and Italy.  Even the Swedish made Gripen E/F uses an American made General Electric engine, is compatible with European or U.S. missiles, and even carries a German Mauser canon.

Dassault's recent deal with India included manufacturing the majority of Indian Rafales in India.  Whether or not Canada could get the same deal is unknown.  It isn't as likely however, as India has ordered substantially more Rafales than Canada potentially would.  (as many as 189 vs. 65-70)

If I were to rank Canada's choices for its next jet fighter, the Rafale would probably be tied for second place with the Typhoon (with the F-35 4th and the Super Hornet a distant 5th).  Although it lacks the Typhoon's ferocity in the air, it makes up for it with its (percieved) cheaper cost and superior ground attack ability.  Much like the Typhoon, Canada's potential purchase of a Rafale would depend on a lot of factors that come to light at the negotiation table:  Price, industrial offsets and future support.


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    1. Here's Silver Dart's first part!

      again, the first part (I don't know why, it always disappears) :


      Your website is amazing!
      I haven’t read all the articles yet, but I will begin with a comment about this very good post about the Rafale. Why? Here, I must admit I’m French and very interested in the Rafale program. I know it’s a bit about national pride, but I hope a citizen of the Avro Arrow’s country can understand that.
      While I’m speaking about my ‘frenchness’, please excuse me for my English level. I do the best that I can and if there is anything you don’t understand or if you feel you’re maybe misunderstanding something, don’t hesitate to ask for precisions.

      Firstly, I am very pleased that you explain fairly what the Rafale is about, and its strengths.
      It is sometimes difficult, especially in the English-speaking world, where it is significantly easier to find plenty of data to support US-made or English-made fighter aircrafts… and because of national pride too.

      There are moreover some details I would be happy to submit to you.
      1/ Maybe it’s not what I think but when you write ‘All this armament is supplemented by a twin barrel 30mm cannon.’ , I think it’s rather a single barrel cannon. Check here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GIAT_30. Anyway, that’s not a big deal.

      2/ There is the very question of price. There is a critical lack of transparency about this topic, which is definitely not only a f-35 problem. However, the link about UAE deal is maybe a little unfair, because we don’t speak about a nearly “off-the-shelf” fighter : UAE requires many improvements. Here, the development cost (and who pay for it) is included in the talk. The point 3/ will add another point of view.

      3/ You’re absolutely right to give details about armaments. In my opinion, that’s a crucial point that could easily distort the price of a deal, and give a false truth about the price of an aircraft. Clearing a new missile for a fighter is indeed costly: the fact that dedicated flight tests are needed seems to dramatically increase the costs. This fact is a partial explanation of why air forces rarely change their fighter suppliers. Even though AMRAAM and Sidewinder are fully integrated in Typhoon and Gripen, the ability to use Maverick or Harpoon is more questionable (but I’m maybe wrong). Another question is the current inventory of RCAF’s munitions. I have strictly no idea, have you some information? A low stockpile could ease supplier transition. But that seems highly unlikely for me in Canada case because of the importance of interoperability with USAF."

  2. Hi,

    Thank you very much for the repost.

    I didn't even know for the Silver Dart, thanks!

    About the Swiss evaluation, it's indeed a bit complicated : Firstly Gripen C/D, then Gripen MS21 (Gripen NG? sort of gripen NG? something else!?), and some talks about in-flight evaluation (or not), of the latter, ...
    Once again, we can only dream of the day when fighter aircraft evaluation will be entirely open and transparent!

    Well, I will probably continue to read your blog and I think I will have some comments about "how the five fighters stack up".

    1. Gripen C/D is the operating jet today, 1 and 2 seat. The Gripen NG(new Generation) is under development. The Gripen E is the name for it in the SWAF. The Gripen demonstrator is a flying tech-demontrator since 2008.

    2. Gripen MS21 was the name given in the Swiss evaluation to an upgraded Gripen demonstrator if equipped with a new avionic and sensors. in fact,its close to the future Gripen E/F

      Swiss tecnhical evalauation here:

    3. And the "frenchness" argument about the sweapon system is questionable ; It's the customer who chooses the weapons he wants.
      For example, Rafale is offered to Brazil with A-Darter, Dassault even proposes the integration of any weapon or brazilian program. ("a integração de todos os outros mísseis disponíveis no inventário ou programas da Força, como o A-Darter")

  3. The Rafale is almost tailored made for Canada - cheaper than a F35 or F18 or even F15 - the fighter is excellent for the role that Canada needs - plus a 9 tons weapons capacity - and with a marine airframe than can equal a CF-18 , the fighter is exactly suited for Canada -

    - France is for course welcome to offer this fighter to Canada - but the cold is the factor to surmount - if it passes - a Rafale can be made to suit Canada -

    -again - flexibility is the key here - as the plane can be purchased in small qantities - to respect the budget requirements - it is a win win situation for Canada and France to come together and do business -

    -it is a fighter that is in a niche all of its own - Dassault has a winner here and Canada has budget requirements that cannot be met by a fleet composed of only CF-35 fighters -

    -CF35 's are so expensive -4 to 1 - 3 to 1 - 5 to 1 - who knows - the Rafale is on target - on budget and a serious contender in any situation - the Canadian pilots are top norch - with this fighter they can do their job -

  4. Hello,

    Regarding the weapons stockpile you say: "Canada, however, would have to make the decision to either replace our current stockpile of American AMRAAMs, Sidewinders, Mavericks, and Harpoons for French Micas, Hammers, and Exocets; or wait (and pay) for the Rafale to be tested and cleared for Canada's current weapon stockpile."
    But the link you give about this aircraft (http://www.aviationinsurors.com/load.html) shows his capability to load any of these types of weapons !
    Then, for me the compatibility with weapon stockpile is not at stake, it would be more a question of political interest and cost.

    1. The Rafale is currently not certified for use with the current Canadian AMRAAMs, etc. It would likely be quite easy to do so, and Dassault is willing to modify the Rafale to do so, but it would still require time and money.

      It shouldn't be a deal breaker, but it is worth mentioning.

  5. "In our submission to the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat, we have taken to heart the recommendations of the Emerson Aerospace and Space Review, and the Jenkins Report on defence procurement. In doing so, we have placed a very strong emphasis on the economic benefits we will offer to Canada, if there is a competition.
    It is why we offer Canada not just a guaranteed 100 % return on your investment, but much, much more. We also offer the transfer of all intellectual property and technology in the RAFALE to Canada – with no restrictions. We want you to be able to handle 100% of the In-Service Support in Canada, from front line to depot-level work. We also go beyond the RAFALE to training, research and development opportunities, UAV and space technology and tomorrow’s greener aviation systems." -Yves Robins, a senior vice-president at France’s Dassault Aviation


  6. That was a nice evaluation on the Rafale and Canada's Fighter Aircraft procurement priorities but I think this article clearly has a bias towards the Gripen. It is the opinion of many experts in the field that the procurement process for the F-35 was an abject disaster and reflected poorly on the current government. Military observers have always maintained that the Canadian Air Force brass prefer a DUAL ENGINE fighter. The selection of the SINGLE ENGINE F-35 was pushed thru without adequate evaluation possibly because of secret advanced technology but probably because Canada does close to 80% of its trade with the USA. This should be a no brainer for any unbiased observer. Japan and South Korea have recently dropped there own Fighter projects to purchase the F-35. What was the motivation? A better aircraft or good old arm twisting from the Americans. Lets face it, Japan and South Korea have more autonomous economies than Canada's. To put it bluntly, Canada is still a vassal state for the USA. Procurement of the Gripen is sheer fantasy. No Canadian politician in his/her right mind would dare snub the American military industrial complex or want a nasty phone call from an angry American president. All the politicians are doing now is waiting for after the next election before they embark on another American fighter purchase.

    1. If you visit a webpage called "gripen4canada" you got to expect a little bit of preference toward the Gripen... Just saying...

      I think the single vs twin engine argument is a lot less important now than back when the CF-18 was selected, single engine jets have similar safety records now.

    2. Canada is a gutless country. Politics plays a major role on this fighter jet decision. We will pick what the Americans want. When will we stand up and actually think what we really need ! We stand on guard for thee......so lets do it and take the less out of gut and and an S !

  7. I personally prefer the Rafale. It's expensive to outfit, sure, and it's the most french thing since the Lumiere brothers, but it DOES have a carrier capable model out and ready! That means we don't need to develop one. And....I've been a little scared to say this, but...

    I think the Rafale looks tons cooler than the Gripen.

    I think the two are so good at what they're needed for, that I have quite literally brought it down to the looks department...that's some close competition. I personally don't mind which plane Canada gets, being an American citizen myself...but, I do care about Canada's air defense deeply, and I think that what ever choice it makes, (as long as it's not the f-35) they can make the best of it!

  8. The Rafale makes good sense to me. The Ottowa Citizen stated that the French deal “includes the unrestricted transfer of technology, such as software source codes for servicing the planes”. The plane is in production and is battlefield proven.
    Anyone who has ever played poker knows late position is better than early position. So it may make more sense to simply get a really capable “do it all multi role” aircraft like the Rafale. Then wait and see if anyone ever produces a real-life stealth aircraft. I think there is a chance stealth may be so expensive and technically difficult to maintain that there is a chance it may never be widely deployed (ever).
    From what I have read stealth is very expensive. Take a page from the Russian Buran reusable space craft. It was so expensive that it was listed as one of the reasons for the downfall of the former Soviet Union! Look at the F22, if it was really a perfect aircraft the USA would not have shut down the production line and never build the F35 at all. Reality check, entire countries may go bankrupt trying to build or acquire stealth! Once our country goes broke we may wonder why we ever needed the most expensive aircraft of all time.
    In the future if other countries are able to build stealth aircraft affordably, reliably, and in large numbers. We can combine the modern technology of the Rafale with the best of the Avro Arrow to build that new Super Arrow they are talking about. In the mean time we have the Rafale (or Gripen NG/Advanced Super Hornet/Typhoon?) patrolling our skies.

    1. Very good comments here...YES, the Rafale is the Best deal Canada should offer itself...It has outclassed all the competition in all areal dog fighting (on average 3 to 1 ratio) ..so cost wise, Battle proven-Capable product wise...and most of all; INDEPENDANTLY wise! Don't need our biggest ally to tell us what to buy OR not to buy.

    2. Rafale Fighter Jet....has Beaten on average all contenders (including Typhoon, Grippen, F-35, SH-F18, Sukoy-27) 3 to 1

      So what is it you people out there don't understand!? Canada= 75 Rafale now please.

  9. The Rafale is a damn good fighter, and would probably sell well if not for its French-ness and high price. I don't know why the EF-2000 has had better sells than the Rafale -the Euro suite of weapons aren't exactly the same as the American ones either.
    But the high procurement cost, high operating cost -not because it's maintenance heavy but because spares and weapons are expensive- are going to drive folks away, let alone the lack of interoperability.

    I feel like Dassault really crossed themselves over with the Rafale. The M2K is a good fighter with low maintenance and damn good, battle proven, at what it does. So is the Rafale, with its better range and payload, but it doesn't solve the operating cost problem and instead Dassault makes buyers pay for their Rafales and its absolute goodies. Even the French couldn't pay for it.

    It's unfortunate for the IAF to have tried getting more M2K only to get crossed over by Delhi and ended up French anyway. Ironic as well that it was an open competition that did the job, an exact opposite of what's happening in Canada. Just for giggles, and shows what happens when bureaucrats try to do the air force's work.

    I wonder if the Swedes giggled when the M2K line closed. In terms of physical maintenance and overall performance, the two are very close and to this day I feel that the M2K is very modern and relevant, just like the Falcon and the Gripen.

  10. For what we know about red flags fight, the rafale seems to perform as well in WVR fight or even better than the f22 raptor. To be fair, even the typhoon EF seems to rule the f22 (in a german/usa mock fight). Since the Typhon lost 8 to 1 to the Rafale, we have a clue about the performance of the Rafale over the f22...

    To summarize, the Rafale is the best western plane available in 2014.

    Though, thanx to euro the Rafale is damn exepensive. Expensive in a total cost meaning : the Grippen is half the price or so, is half the cost / hour / plane and its rate of availability is quite superior.

    So except if Canada realy needs a very good air to ground fighter, the Gripen seems like a better bet.

    btw i'm french (but i don"t like Serges Dassault for his election fraud).

  11. Renault / Nissan = Steering wheel fell of in traffic, brand new car. Plagued with electronic problems.
    Citroen = Door fell of on car no older than 18 months. Plagued with electronic problems.
    Rafale = Why would Rafale be any better then French cars? If they cant even get the electronics of a cart to work, how are they going to cope with the demands of a fighter jet?

    France is working together with Russians in developing new weapons? France is helping the enemy...
    Why would one want to buy a fighter jet from someone that cooperates with ones no 1 enemy?

    1. My Citroën C5 works very well! Thank you! Excellent quality, reliability and engine and the best handling and driving security on earth. And, well, the doors open and close the right way... You have good books to learn how to use an automobile... Who is purchasing now Mil17 helicopters in Russia to equip Irak armed forces? The US! Things are not just as easy to understand... sorry

  12. Anders Anderson said
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    March 17, 2014 at 11:00 pm
    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, and an Identification Friend or Foe interrogator/transponder with full Mode-5/Mode-S-compatibility. As of September 2013, the DGA started referring to these planes as the 4th tranche, and January 2014 saw full commitment to develop all of these upgrades for fielding by 2018.

    Efforts to include MBDA’s Meteor long-range air-air missiles are ongoing, 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.
    Source: http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/frances-rafale-fighters-au-courant-in-time-05991/

  13. I think snubbing some close allies to buy the best plane for Canada's air defense might be the best thing we could do to help our allies get back on track. If Rafales are indeed the best planes to meet Canadian defense interests at the best cost then we shouldn't have to think twice. The JSF program is in the position it is in for a reason. (outrageous cost controls and unrealistically low price estimates.) Next time LM will need to take their job seriously when tasked to create an economical superior fighter for NATO. I have a strong suspicion that Rafale or Gripen are currently the best options for Canada's F18 replacement. The money we have already invested into the JSF program was founded by an honest belief that our allies (US & Britain) could make a plane to meet our needs, and that this plane would be important to NATO with a high price performance ratio. We shouldn't feel bad about funding it as a silent partner, but nor should we feel we need to follow through till final purchase. They didn't meet the price promised, then we should need to purchase. If JSF could deliver a good plane for Canada at a good price we wouldn't be having a debate. North America needs more money spent wisely instead of blindly following through with a poor defence solution out of misguided patriotism. When LM & Boeing see that they must meet standards to make sales, next time they will work harder.

  14. Anyway, its not like Ottawa will decide wich plane Canada will buy. Its Washington that will take the decision. And since ENGLISH-canadians hate France, even considering it as ennemy, there is no way they would choose the Rafale. Because its french. So, yea, Washington will order Canada to choose the F-35 so US make tons of cash out of their pet...

    1. I'm an Anglophone-Canadian and I don't hate France...or the Rafale. The transfer of technology and maybe potential to build in Canada could be interesting. I also want to ensure that lowest-price (including offsets) isn't seen as the "best-deal" for Canada. We need to ensure that we get "value for money" while having a very competent aircraft that first meets OUR needs and then is capable of delivering on some of our obligations to allies. Many Americans are saying that the industrial military complex in the U.S. has lost the place and doesn't care about delivering a good aircraft even for their own country. All they care about is draining taxpayer's pockets probably for the benefit of their shareholders. Maybe they're right and now they've even found a way to drain the pockets of taxpayers from foreign countries.

    2. Mathew
      I am also Anglophone-Canadian and I don't hate France... Quebec or the Rafale. And don't forget 18,444 Canadians were injured and 5,021 were killed in Normandy assisting the Allies in the liberation of France from the Germans. How can you call that "hate"? http://www.canadaatwar.ca/page13.html

  15. Why such a big country like Canada would choose a single engine fighter? Gripen and F-35 should be ruled out unless Canada downsize its air defence capability and go for a low cost option (Gripen) like Brazil and Switzerland just did.

  16. Mathew
    Here is an excellent publication talking about the Rafael Combat Success http://www.dassault-aviation.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2012/08/FoxThree_Fox15.pdf.

  17. Thanks for this remarkable overview. Indeed to purchase a French made fighter would register as cardinal sin in the good old anglocentred Canadian bureaucratic and political establishment. On this I would say that Canada in the 21st century is a more diversified nation and this should be reflected in the values and attitudes of our representatives and public servants. In brief, there should be no such a thing as too French or not even Not enough American. As a taxpayer I would say please hold a proper competition, define the mission as a Canadian mission, not just as a hypothetical Nato war somewhere, consider that the Rafale is a twin and that Dassault will encourage Canadians to modify it, which may address the armament issue.

  18. Thank you for your very interesting site and for the quality of the comments. The Rafale is a very competent and equilibrated design in pure Dassault tradition that may differ from other western/US types. The F35 is a disaster that will lead international partners to make hard choices. The Eurofighter does not seem to be such a good plane as promoted. The recent problems observed in Germany seem to demonstrate it Switzerland is not really the same kind of country as Canada... It may be the opposite! At the end, Switzerland decided not to buy Gripens considering that they would be useless and too costly. For your information, Swiss air bases are closed from 8 o'clock in the evening till 8 in the morning. That means that there is no air defence half the day. Last year, an ethiopian civilian plane that had change direction had to be escorted by French Mirage2000 to land in Geneva or Lausanne...