Rafale - Then (1986) And Now

by Bill Sweetman
Jan 13, 2015

Flight testing isn't what it used to be. Usually, a comment like that would be a throwback to the days of The Right Stuff and fighters that went supersonic on their maiden flights, but even in the 1980s -- as our report on the start of flight tests with the Dassault Rafale A shows -- things moved faster, literally. Within two weeks of its first flight on July 4, 1986, the Rafale A had achieved its design top speed of Mach 1.8 and had pulled 6 g at supersonic speed. The latter was a significant achievement, underscoring the advantage of a canard-delta configuration over a low-sweep tail-aft design. 

Like the contemporary British Aerospace Experimental Aircraft Prototype, precursor to the Typhoon, the Rafale A was an aerodynamic technology demonstrator with off-the-shelf engines. Even in the hottest days of the Cold War (as the AW&ST story notes) the Rafale was not expected to be in service before 1996. Post-1990 budget cuts were mostly to blame for delays: the French air force retired the Mirage IIIs and F1s that would have been first to be replaced and the Navy updated its Super Etendards. The first Rafales replaced the Navy's ancient F-8E(FN) Crusaders in 2001. 

It was an ambitious project, probably the most complex ever undertaken in France. The goal was to replace all of France's combat aircraft, from the light-strike Jaguar all the way to the Mirage IV nuclear bomber and including carrier-based aircraft. As our story shows, stealth was a major design consideration, but the approach was very different from that being followed in the U.S.: stealth would be combined with a very advanced, automated electronic surveillance and jamming system.

Rafale would also have an electronically scanned radar, the third on any combat aircraft and the first on an agile fighter, and detect targets using fused inputs from active and passive sensors. It would also be Franco-French: it is free from non-sovereign technology, down to the most basic component level, something that Dassault still considers a sales point. 

Rafale development involved some new tools. The challenge of designing land- and carrier-based airframes that were as common as possible, without saddling the land-based version with half a ton of unnecessary weight, was met with the latest version of a Dassault-developed design tool named Catia -- which would go on to become an industry standard. The French defense ministry quietly built the world's biggest indoor radar cross-section range at Bruz, near Rennes in northwest France. 

The final design was smaller than the four-nation Typhoon, and compact enough to dispense with wing folding. However, it was configured to carry an impressively large load, with hardpoints and pylons carefully located to reduce interference drag. 

It was a complex task and development continues to this day, paced by budgets. So far, Rafale has met its operational requirements, but has yet to close a deal that sustains France's fighter exports. Dassault and the rest of French industry have high hopes for 2015: closing the complex deal with India, and possibly adding Qatar and even Egypt to the orderbook.

Read our August 4, 1986 cover story: French Rafale Reaches Mach 1.8, Maneuvers at 8g in First Tests

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