Note: Article discusses Dassault Rafale fighter jet as well as its specifications in detail.

Origin of the Rafale Fighter Jet

Towards the closing decades of the Cold War in the 1970s, the French military was looking to replace their current fleets of aircraft. To mitigate development coasts and earning profit prompted France to consider a lower-risk partnership with other European players including Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain. The program picked up steam in the late 1970s which led to a formal partnership. However, multiple disagreements over workshare and difference in requirements led France to back out of the deal and pursue its own aircraft development programme. The French government released a tender where they invited major defense contractors to demonstrate their technology. The tender was awarded to Dassault in July 1986 as a part of an eight-year-flight-test programme, laying the groundwork of the Rafale fighter jet project.

The Rafale is unique in the sense that it is the only aircraft of its time to be solely built by France, that involved major French defense contractors, such as Dassault and Thales. The Rafale is referred to as an “omnirole” aircraft by Dassault.


The Dassault Rafale is the primary French omnirole Fighter aircraft. The Rafale was already on Dassault drawing boards even as the Dassault Mirage 2000 was being developed. Rafale A designated the 1986 technology demonstrator which proved many concepts for the future jet sound. The Rafale B then became the primary two-seat multirole fighter model of the French Air Force. The single seat model was the Rafale C. The Rafale M was developed exclusively for the French Navy.


The Rafale is an advanced fighter platform completed with lightweight-yet-strong composite materials, Flyby-Wire (FBW) controlling, and voice input capabilities. It features a canard delta-wing planform was adopted for its high tolerances and ability to showcase a plethora of hard points for homing, guided, and dropped ordnance. The pilot (with co-pilot in some variants) sits under a large canopy offering excellent vision out-of-the-cockpit. The tail unit incorporates a sole vertical fin atop twin engine exhaust ports. The twin engine arrangement was chosen for both power and survivability common traits of most modern multirole fighter mounts today.

The delta wing design, popularized by early successful Dassault aircraft ventures, was brought back into the fold with the Rafale. This time, the arrangement was complemented by two small forward canards fitted to either side of the cockpit. The addition of these minor surfaces has greatly enhanced the agility of the airframe as a whole, coupled with the already-impressive lift-and drag balance generated by the overall design. Fuselage material construction is made up of specialized composites to assist the aircraft in maintaining the smallest of radar signatures and features a mixture of carbon and Kevlar components. Titanium and aluminum-lithium are also used in the structure where needed.

Avionics, Countermeasure and Sensor technology

The Rafale core avionics systems employ an integrated modular avionics (IMA), called MDPU (modular data processing unit). This architecture hosts all the main aircraft functions such as the flight management system, data fusion, fire control, and the man-machine interface. The total value of the radar, electronic communications and self-protection equipment is about 30 percent of the cost of the entire aircraft. The IMA has since been installed upon several upgraded Mirage 2000 fighters, and incorporated into the civilian airliner, the Airbus A380. According to Dassault, the IMA greatly assists combat operations via data fusion, the continuous integration and analysis of the various sensor systems throughout the aircraft, and has been designed for the incorporation of new systems and avionics throughout the Rafael’s service life.


Rafale is equipped with an RBE2 passive electronically scanned radar developed by Thales. The radar can track up to eight targets simultaneously, has look-down and shoot-down capabilities & provides threat identification & prioritization. Rafale is equipped with an active electronically scanned version of the RBE2. Tests of the radar onboard the Rafale took place in 2008.

In radar, an antenna is said to be active when it has a single subassembly for amplification of radiated power and pre-amplification of received power. This is achieved by the antenna front end, which comprises an array of several hundred transmit/receive modules (T/R modules). By controlling each T/R module individually, the active antenna can steer the radar beam at speeds of an electronic chip. This is called electronic scanning in space and effectively allows the radar to overcome the mechanical constraints of steering a single antenna. It also allows the radar to track multiple targets simultaneously in all directions. The active antenna thus replaces the conventional antenna and its mechanical steering system, along with the radar transmitter and the first stage of signal reception.

Navigation and communications

Rafale is equipped with a Thales TLS 2000 navigation receiver, which is used for the approach phase of flight. TLS 2000 integrates the instrument landing system (ILS), microwave landing system (MLS) and VHF Omni-directional radio-ranger (VOR) and marker functions. The communications suite on the Rafale uses the Saturn onboard very/ultra-high frequency (V/UHF) radio, which is a second-generation, anti-jam tactical UHF radio for NATO. Saturn provides voice encryption in fast-frequency hopping mode. The aircraft is also equipped with fixed-frequency VHF / UHF radio for communications with civil air traffic control. A multifunction information distribution system (MIDS) terminal provides secure, high-data-rate tactical data exchange with NATO C2 stations, AWACS aircraft or naval ships. The radar altimeter is the AHV 17 altimeter from Thales, which is suitable for very low flight. It also has a TACAN tactical air navigation receiver for en-route navigation and as a landing aid.

SAGEM OSF infrared search and track system

Optronic systems include the SAGEM OSF infrared search and track system, installed in the nose of the aircraft. It carries out search, target identification, telemetry and automatic target discrimination and tracking. In January 2012, Thales was awarded a ten-year contract to Thales to maintain the electronic systems and warfare of the aircraft.


The Rafale features an integrated defensive-aids system named SPECTRA, which protects the aircraft against airborne and ground threats, developed as a joint venture between Thales and MBDA. Various methods of detection, jamming, and decoying have been incorporated, and the system has been designed to be highly reprogrammable for addressing new threats and incorporating additional sub-systems in the future. Operations over Libya were greatly assisted by SPECTRA, allowing Rafales to perform missions independently from the support of dedicated Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) platforms.

Targeting pods

The Rafale’s ground attack capability relies on sensory targeting pods, such as Thales Optronics’s Reco New Generation and Damocles electro-optical/laser designation pod. They allow the aircraft to perform tactical reconnaissance missions, and are integrated with the Rafale’s IMA architecture to provide analyzed data feeds to friendly units and ground stations. Damocles provides targeting information to the various armaments carried by the Rafale and is directly integrated with the Rafale’s VHF/UHF secure radio to communicate target information with other aircraft. It also performs other key functions such as aerial optical surveillance and is integrated with the navigation system as a FLIR.

Cockpit of Dassault’s Rafale

The cockpit has hands-on throttle and stick control (HOTAS). The cockpit is equipped with a heads-up, wide-angle holographic display from Thales Avionique, which provides aircraft control data, mission data and firing cues. A collimated, multi-image head-level display presents tactical situation and sensor data, while two touchscreen lateral displays show the aircraft system parameters and mission data. The pilot also has a helmet-mounted sight and display. A CCD camera and on-board recorder records the image of the head-up display throughout the mission.

Radar Cross Section (RCS)

Rafale is not a full-aspect stealth aircraft, the cost of which was viewed as unacceptably excessive, the Rafale was designed for a reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and infrared signature. In order to reduce the RCS, changes from the initial technology demonstrator include a reduction in the size of the tail-fin, fuselage reshaping, repositioning of the engine air inlets underneath the aircraft’s wing, and the extensive use of composite materials and serrated patterns for the construction of the trailing edges of the wings and canards. Seventy percent of the Rafale’s surface area is composite. Many of the features designed to reduce the Rafale’s visibility to threats remain classified.


The Rafale is powered by two M88-2 turbofan engines from SNECMA, each providing a thrust of 75kN. Maximum speed reaches Mach 1.8 and ranges peak at 2,000 nautical miles with three fuel drop tanks fitted. Combat radius is 1,000 nautical miles. The aircraft’s service ceiling is 50,000 feet and showcases an excellent rate-of-climb of 60,000 feet per-minute. The aircraft is equipped for buddy-buddy refueling with a flight refueling hose reel and drogue pack. The first M88 engine was delivered in 1996. It is a twin-shaft bypass turbofan engine principally suitable for low-altitude penetration and high-altitude interception missions.

The M88 incorporates the latest technologies such as single-piece bladed compressor disks (blisks), an on-polluting combustion chamber, single-crystal high-pressure turbine blades, powder metallurgy disks, ceramic coatings and composite materials. The M88 engine comprises a three-stage LP compressor with inlet guide vane, an annular combustion chamber, single-stage cooled HP turbine, single-stage cooled LP turbine, radial A/B chamber, variable-section convergent flap-type nozzle and full authority digital engine control (FADEC). Messier-Dowty provides ‘jumper’ landing gear, designed to spring out when the aircraft is catapulted by the nose gear strut.


The Rafale is a twin-jet fighter aircraft manufactured by Dassault Aviation and is able to operate from both an aircraft carrier and a shore base. The fully versatile Rafale is able to carry out all combat aviation missions: air superiority and air defense, close air support, in-depth strikes, reconnaissance, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence.

The aircraft was developed for the French Navy and French Air Force.

Rafale A was a Technology demonstrator, which first flew in 1986.

Rafale D: Dassault used this designation (D for discrete) in the early 1990s to emphasize the new semi-stealthy design features.

Rafale B variant F3-R: Two-seater version for the French Air Force.

Rafale C variant F3-R: Same as Rafale B F3-R but single-seat version for the French Air Force.

Rafale M variant F3-R: Same as Rafale C F3-R but carrier-borne version for the French Naval Aviation, which entered service in 2001.

All 180 French Rafale B, C, and M models will be upgraded to variant F4.1 in 2022 and F4.2 in 2027. These variants were ordered in 2019, moreover a further 30 aircraft at the full F4 standard (F4.2) will be ordered in 2023 and delivered between 2027 and 2030. Rafale B, C, M will be upgraded to Block F4 (first step 4.1, second step 4.2)

This variant will have upgraded radar (F4.1), as well as improved capabilities in the Helmet-Mounted Display and AASM 1000 kg. The OSF (long-range optoelectronics system) will add IRST (Infrared Search and Track) for detecting and identifying airborne stealth targets at long range (F4.1). It will be more effective in network-centric warfare, with more data exchange and satellite communication capacity and will launch small (F4.2).

The company received the development contract for the Rafale F4 standard aircraft in January 2019. The validation of the latest standard is expected in 2024.

Rafale N: Originally called the Rafale BM, was a planned missile-only two-seater version for the Aeronavale. Budgetary and technical constraints have been cited as grounds for its cancellation.


Rafale can carry payloads of more than 9000kgs on fourteen external hard points (thirteen in the naval variant) for the carrying of air-to-air and air-to-surface ordnance including missiles, precision-guided weapons, dumb bombs, fuel tanks, and mission equipment pods (targeting pods and the like). The Rafale is outfitted with a twin gun pod and a Nexter (formerly Giat) 30mm DEFA 791B cannon, which can fire 2,500 rounds a minute. The Rafale is equipped with laser designation pods for laser guidance of air-to-ground missiles.

The weapons include:

Air-to-air Missiles

  • Mica
  • Magic II
  • MBDA Meteor

Air-to-Ground Missiles

  • MBDA Apache
  • MBDA Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG
  • AASM-Hammer (SBU-38/54/64)
  • GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-16 Paveway II, GBU-22 Paveway III, GBU-24 Paveway III, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II
  • AS-30L
  • Mark 82

Antiship Missiles

  • MBDA AM 39-Exocet air-launched anti-ship missile

For a strategic mission the Rafale can deliver the MBDA (formerly Aerospatiale) ASMP stand-off nuclear missile. In December 2004, the MBDA Storm Shadow / Scalp EG stand-off cruise missile was qualified on the Rafale.

Acquisition by the Indian Air force

Although India was interested in Rafale from early 2000s but due to failure of negotiations and budget constraints India and France could not come up with a deal. But after the success of Operation SWIFT Retort of PAF (in IAF lost 2 jets to Pakistan air force 1 Mig21 bison and a Su30mki). Indian prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a political rally [If we had RAFALES the result would be different]. After that India signed a deal with France to procure 36 Rafale fighter jets on emergency basis at a cost of €7.8 billion ($9.4 billion).

Testing & Operational History

The Rafale has been combat tested in several modern conflicts to date. Its first actions occurred over Afghanistan in support of NATO forces following the U.S. led invasion of the country. The aircraft then performed admirably over the Iraqi Theater after the Saddam Hussein ouster and was then pressed into service under the NATO banner once more when tackling Libyan Army forces during the 2011 Libyan Civil War. Its latest actions have placed it over the skies of Mali in the French intervention there against Muslim radicals attempting a national takeover. Even more recently, the Rafale has participated in allied strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria.

In December 2000, the French Naval Aviation received its first two Rafale M fighters. During the maritime exercise, the Navy tested the Rafale’s avionics during simulated interceptions with various foreign aircraft, in addition to carrier take-offs and landings. After almost four years of training, the Rafale M was declared operational with the French Navy in June 2004.

The Rafale M is fully compatible with US Navy aircraft carriers and some French Navy pilots have qualified to fly the aircraft from US Navy flight decks. On 4 June 2010, during an exercise on USS Harry S. Truman, a French Rafale became the first jet fighter of a foreign navy to have its engine replaced on board an American aircraft carrier.  In 2016, Rafales operating from Charles de Gaulle struck targets associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Author: Ali Hassan



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