The Indian Air Force Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) Competition set out to choose the best 4.5 generation fighter for India’s Air Force. The MMRCA contract became the largest Indian defense contract in its history with an estimated value of over $20 billion dollars after final negotiations. (The Times of India, 2012) Defense contractors from all over the world put forward their best designs with the hope of winning the monumental contract. American aerospace defense giants such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing entered the competition along with a multitude of international competitors such as Dassault Aviation, Saab, Mikoyan, and the eurofighter consortium (BAE, EADS, and Alenia Aeronautica). The following 4.5 generation fighters entered the contest: F-16IN, F/A-18E, Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Mig 35, and JAS 39 Gripen. After a multiyear selection process, the Indian Air Force (IAF) shortlisted the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon as the finalists in the competition.
After further evaluation, the Rafale was declared the winner of the MMRCA competition in January of 2012. The decision to choose the Rafale came as a shock to many within the Defense community. Prior to the MMRCA the French Rafale had failed to win a single defense contract with any foreign nation despite the fact the Rafale had been submitted to at least 5 competitions by this point. Particularly, the inability for the F/A-18E to even reach the shortlist process puzzled many Defense analysts. Did the Indian Air Force really choose the best aircraft? In order to fully assess the validity of the IDF’s decision, a brief background of the Rafale will be given. A technological and performance evaluation between the Rafale and the most promising aircraft candidates within the competition will be given In part II of this article. (Rafale pictured bellow)
The Defense Industry Daily provides an excellent summary of the creation of the Rafale development program. “It all began as a 1985 break-away from the multinational consortium that went to create EADS’ Eurofighter. The French needed a lighter aircraft that was suitable for carrier use, and were reportedly unwilling to cede design authority over the project. As is so often true of French defense procurement policy, the choice cane down to one of paying additional costs for full independence and exact needs, or loosing key industrial capabilities by partnering or buying abroad. France had generally opted for expensive but independent defense choices, and the Rafale was no exception. “(Defense Industry Daily, 2012) Aside from the B,C, and M variants the Rafale is built to 3 different standards F1, F2, and F3. The F1 variant is only capable of conducting air to air operations while the F2 can conduct both air to ground and air to air missions. The majority of Rafale’s in use by French forces are of the F2 standard. (Defense Industry Daily, 2012) Since 2008 all Rafales have been built to the F3 standard which includes various improvements the most important of which is the ability to carry tactical nuclear weapons.
The Rafale features a delta wing canard design (an increasingly common trait among modern European developed fighters). The advantage of the delta wing canard design is it allows for a higher angle of attack and improved turning abilities (APA, 2012) at the cost of some controllability. However, most modern aircraft featuring the delta wing canard design employ software that mitigates control issues stemming from canards. As per most 4.5 generation fighter designs, the Rafale makes use of design shaping techniques (e.g. serrated patterns on trailing edge of wings and canards), and composite materials to lower its radar cross section. Estimates of the Rafale’s frontal rcs are hard to come by given the exact number is classified; the best estimates are around 2m^2. In addition to featuring a reduced rcs, the Rafale’s survivability is enhanced further by the use of the Thales and MBDA SPECTRA system. “The SPECTRA system for the Rafale combat aircraft operates in electromagnetic, laser and infra-red domains. Using sophisticated techniques, such as interferometry for high precision DOA and passive ranging, digital frequency memory for signal coherency and active phased-array transmitters for maximum effectiveness and covertness, the highly advanced multi-sensors and artificial intelligence data fusion capabilities of SPECTRA provide the Rafale aircraft with the best chance to survive in harsh and lethal environments…Offering unique high sensitivity detection and multiple threat capability, and operating smart data fusion between multi-spectral sensors, it provides identification, location, jamming and decoying against an extensive range of electromagnetic, infra-red and laser threats… By virtue of its fully passive situational awareness capability, SPECTRA is a major contributor to the low observability concept of Rafale.” (Thales, 2012) The SPECTRA system was instrumental to the Rafale’s operational success in Opération Harmattan over Libya. (Briganti, 2011) The image bellow shows two Rafale's preparing to launch on board the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and partake in operation Harmattan over Libya. The Rafale in the foreground is equipped for aerial refueling. Note: all picture credits are shown at the conclusion of this article.
Part II of the article will be posted shortly and will examine the other aircraft involved and how they compare to the Rafale. The question of if the Rafale is right for India will be answered in Part II.