Is the Rafale Just a Cheaper Eurofighter - And Can Either Compete Against American Aviation?

France’s Rafale and the jointly developed British, German, Italian and Spanish Eurofighter twin engine lightweight fighter jets were developed in parallel from the late 1980s as two distinct but in many ways very similar fighter programs. The Soviet Union and the United States had by the early 1980s inducted a new generation of high performance fourth generation combat jets into service such as the MiG-31 interceptor and the Su-27, F-14 and F-15 heavyweight fighters, all of which had left European aircraft far behind in terms of performance. With the two superpowers at this time working on ambitious fifth generation fighter programs, what would later become the F-22 Raptor and the MiG 1.44 and Su-47 prototypes, Europe’s much more limited technological base meant that it would aim to develop less ambitious fighters which could bridge the gap with the previous generation of American and Soviet aviation. The European jets were thus consistently smaller, shorter ranged, reliant on weaker engines, lacking in stealth capabilities and failing to break new records or test new boundaries as the Americans and Soviets consistently were. The Eurofighter and Rafale fighters which were developed from the 1980s today bear a striking resemblance to one another, largely due to their origins as a single fighter program with France originally having been a partner in the Eurofighter program. French developers branched off in 1985 to develop an independent aircraft due to disagreements over the course the program should take. 

Comparing the Eurofighter and Rafale today, both are considered the most expensive in the world for their weight ranges due largely to the greater efficiency of the American and Russian defence sectors which are the only ones producing competing twin engine medium or lightweight designs, namely the F-18 and MiG-29/35. Both European fighters struggled on global export markets, particularly compared to American platforms such as the F-15 and F-35 which consistently won every competitive tender against them. Although both are costly, however, the Rafale has proven to be significantly cheaper than the Eurofighter when marketed for export due to its design being in many ways less ambitious and more conservative. A look at the primary differences between the designs can give insight into the divergent priorities of the two fighter programs which in turn reflects differences between the requirements of France aviation and those of the Eurofighter’s own developers. 

The most outstanding difference between the Rafale and the Eurofighter is the engine design they are built around, with the French Snecma M88 turbofans producing considerably less thrust at just 75kN with afterburner while the British EJ200 engines powering the Eurofighter can put out 30 percent more at 90kN. Differences in engine power are largely attributed to the greater limitations faced by France’s smaller indigenous defence sector, with the M88 being the very weakest engine of any production fighter in the world with significant implications for how the aircraft performs. The Rafale’s flight performance is below average for a fourth generation fighter, with a climb rate of only around 300 m/s, a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 and a very low altitude ceiling of under 16km. The Eurofighter, however, has a very high flight performance for its weight range rivalled only by the Russian MiG-29/35, with a 320 m/s climb rate, a maximum speed over Mach 2 and a service ceiling approaching 20km.  The French jet’s disadvantages, however, are partly compensated for by the conservative nature of the Rafale’s engines, which notably consume less fuel allowing them to facilitate a longer range for the fighter. The Snecma M88 engines are reportedly also considerably easier and cheaper to maintain than the EJ200, which contributes to the Rafale’s overall lower operational costs. 

The Rafale and Eurofighter were both designed with a low operational cost in mind, meaning while they are not as cheap to operate as most single engine fighters such as the F-16 or Gripen, they are much less costly to fly than higher performance heavyweight jets such as the American F-15EX or Russian Su-35 both of which comfortably surpass their European competitors. The Rafale, however, is approximately 10% cheaper to operate and has maintained much higher availably rates in the French Air Force than Eurofighters generally have. This combined with its lower price has made the Rafale attractive to some parties. The latest variants of the French jet are estimated to cost around $245 million per aircraft when marketed abroad as part of an export package, including armaments, spare parts, training and maintenance infrastructure. The Eurofighter, in its most advanced form the Tranche 3A, costs considerably more at approximately $321 million each in similar packages. While the Rafale costs over 50% more than an American F-35A (sold in packages for around $140 million each but with less armaments), or almost twice as much as an F-16 Block 72 (in packages sold for around $120 million each), the Tranche 3A Eurofighter’s price tag brings its cost to over double that of an F-35 making it hard to justify and causing considerable controversy for its only export client Kuwait.  

With the American F-35A being produced on a much larger scale and integrating technologies over a decade ahead of its European counterparts, the stealthy new fighter is expected to price both of the less efficient European fighters out of any export market wherever it is offered, much as the F-15 succeeded in doing beforehand in Singapore and South Korea and the F-16 had in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. This is despite the F-35 and F-15 having higher operational costs and fuel consumption. Foreign interest in the Rafale and Eurofighter has come overwhelmingly from countries which are not provided access to the F-35, including Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, Egypt and India. The only notable exception was Greece, which while planning F-35 acquisitions placed a small order for Rafale fighters in 2020. France’s offer to provide almost half of these free as aid, and to deliver all aircraft almost instantly from its own inventories, was needed to give the aircraft any chance of competing against American aircraft for future Greek contracts since the more popular F-35 had a long queue for deliveries. France’s growing military support for Athens also helping to provide a political motive for the purchase. 

Ultimately neither the Rafale nor the Eurofighter are expected to see significant further export orders, with the latter notably having gained no orders outside the Persian Gulf region with the exception of a small contract for the sale of 15 jets to Austria which for political reasons did not see non-European alternatives actively considered. While European manufacturers are currently seeking to develop a sixth generation fighter jet, effectively skipping over the fifth generation entirely, limitations of their technological bases and defence sector inefficiencies mean future programs are expected to enter service far behind their American, Chinese and Russian competitors and to compete at lower standard. While the Rafale may be France’s last independently developed fighter, the aircraft has gained a competitive edge over the Eurofighter in many cases due to its lower cost, with the aircraft also placing a greater emphasis on air to ground operations which has made it more versatile than its rival and was key to swaying the Indian Defence Ministry in its favour. France's traditionally greater skill in politically manoeuvring to secure arms exports, such as the reported large bribes paid to secure an Indian purchase, are also thought to have given its fighter a significant advantage particularly outside the Persian Gulf region where British influence is more limited. The Rafale can be considered a cheaper sister to the Eurofighter in some respects, but its more conservative and well rounded design has in many ways proven advantageous despite its poorer flight performance. 

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