Rafale Marks 35 Years Since First Flight: How Successful Has France’s Top Fighter Been?

June 4, 2021, marks 35 years since France’s Rafale fourth-generation lightweight fighter saw its first flight, with the aircraft today forming the backbone of the French Air Force and fielded in limited numbers by four foreign clients. 

The Rafale was France’s third fourth-generation fighter developed, following on from the Mirage 2000 which first flew in 1978, and the Mirage 4000 which flew in 1979. The former made up the bulk of the French fleet and provided an analogue to the American F-16 Fighting Falcon albeit with a much shorter production run and a number of significant deficiencies including reliance on a much weaker engine. 

The Mirage 4000 was the only Western fourth-generation heavyweight fighter ever to fly outside the United States, providing a high-end aircraft comparable to the American F-15 Eagle and F-14 Tomcat, although a lack of foreign interest and a tight defence budget in France itself led this much more formidable expensive fighter to be cancelled before production. The Rafale was a more advanced fourth-generation design, and had a similar weight to the Mirage 2000 (approximately 10 per cent heavier) but was constructed using more advanced composite materials and with a greater emphasis on electronic warfare. 

Unlike the Mirage 2000, the Rafale used twin engines rather than a single one which increased maintenance requirements but also provided greater redundancy and therefore improved survivability. The Snecma M88 engines it relied on, however, were among the weakest in the world used by any post-third generation fighter. 

While the M88 was under development, Rafale prototypes notably flew with F404 engines developed for the U.S. Navy’s YF-17 and F-18 fighters - the former which was developed as a direct competitor to the F-16 for the U.S. Air Force. The M88’s very limited performance relegated the Rafale to a below-average speed of Mach 1.8 - where the F-16 and Chinese J-10 could fly at Mach 2 and the slightly heavier Russian MiG-29 could approach Mach 2.3. 

The Rafale’s altitude ceiling is also the lowest in the world for a fourth-generation twin-engine fighter at little over 15km - where the MiG-29, F-15, and the planned Mirage 4000 could all reach 20km. 

While the M88 is a weak engine, its low fuel consumption provides the Rafale with relatively high endurance for a lightweight fighter. Compared to heavyweight jets such as the Su-30 or F-15, however, which are both offered at a lower price to the French aircraft, the Rafale's much lower endurance has been a factor against its favour when competing for contracts in Singapore, Algeria and South Korea. 

The Rafale has seen limited combat operations most notably against Libyan air defences in 2011, although it has never engaged another manned aircraft or any post-1970s air defence technologies with all its combat missions had been low in intensity. The French fighter has a number of strengths including a relatively capable inbuilt electronic warfare suite, which allows it to operate in contested environments without relying on specialised aircraft to suppress enemy defences or jam their sensors. 

Newer variants of the aircraft have benefitted from highly capable AESA radars, which also allow it to operate Meteor long-range air to air missiles - the most capable design of its kind in the Western world and a close competitor to the Russian R-37M and Chinese PL-15. The Rafale’s small size, however, means it cannot accommodate larger more powerful sensors as the heavyweight jets such as the F-15, Su-30, J-20 or MiG-31 can. 

The Rafale is relatively capable for a lightweight fighter, and much like the even smaller Swedish Gripen, it compensates for a mediocre and in many ways below average airframe and flight performance with sophisticated avionics and electronic warfare systems and with the attractiveness of a low operational cost and low maintenance requirements. 

When compared to other fighters from its weight range, the Rafale is one of the most capable, although its the very high price is comparable to and in many cases exceeds that of heavyweight aircraft such as the F-15EX, Su-30SM and J-16 aircraft against which the Rafale is outmatched in almost all parameters. The fighter’s high cost is a result of both inefficiencies in the French defence sector, particularly relative to the U.S., Russia and China, as well as due to the small scale on which it is produced with no air force other than France relying on it as its primary fighter. 

The aircraft for years struggled to compete on international markets despite considerable political and economic incentives offered by Paris to its clients, such as multi-billion dollar investments in their economies, although efforts by France to market second-hand Rafales at a much lower cost to poorer clients have proven more successful. 

New ‘off the shelf’ Rafales, however, have found only three clients overseas - namely, Qatar, India and Egypt, which is a much shorter list than its predecessors thee Mirage 2000 and Mirage F1 which were both much more competitive on international markets.

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