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Rafale Down

6:02 PM, Dec 7, 2007 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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The Dassault Aviation Rafale has had almost a charmed life in the world of fighter aircraft. In the almost quarter century since the aircraft first began its development and then entered into service with the French Armée de l'Air (AdA) no aircraft had been lost until this week.

The Rafale aircraft had taken off on Thursday from the AdA airbase at Saint-Dizier and later crashed in the township of Neuvic, Corrèze, in an uninhabited area. According to the AdA, two aircraft had taken off on a training mission that called for a nighttime head-on intercept at an altitude of 4000 metres. "One of the aircraft successfully completed the training intercept and then went into a dive and plowed straight into the ground," said a source familiar with the AdA's investigation. "The speed at which he impacted was so high that there were pieces everywhere on the ground." The pilot, who was an experienced aviator, did not survive the crash. It is unknown at this time how a pilot could have become disoriented at night at such a high altitude and not have been able to recover before crashing.

The Rafale fighter has long been regarded as one of the most advanced aircraft of its kind. Its flight control system (FCS) is the envy of most other designers and permits the most carefree handling possible. One US pilot who flew the aircraft at Le Bourget pointed out the revolutionary automation that the FCS facilitates. "Coming in for a landing approach there is no need for adjustment of the flap controls--and no controls to adjust them with if you wanted to," he said. The flaps, canards, and power management controls of the engine are all linked in one of the most sophisticated FCS architectures ever devised.

Dassault had long been famous for its several generations of "Mirage" aircraft, from the Mirage IIIC that had been the workhorse of the Israel Air Force during the 1967 Six-Day War to the latest model, the Mirage 2000-5 MkII that recently ended production. Dassault has manufactured 601 of the Mirage 2000 models, the last of which was delivered to the Hellenic Air Force at a ceremony in Tanagra Air Base in Greece on 23 November.

The Rafale was designed to be the next-generation successor to the Mirage 2000 series, and incorporated a number of new, leading-edge technologies that in some cases were the first of their kind to be on-board a NATO aircraft. It is currently the only military aircraft built by Dassault, but the programme is still profitable and on schedule, which is rare for most military aircraft that call for the introduction of so many new-age systems. Its Thales RBE2 radar is regarded as one of the most advanced in its class and had a unique feature in that its passive array (PESA) antenna can be removed and replaced with an active electronically scanning array (AESA) in one of the easiest and effective upgrades of its kind.

Another impressive aspect of the Rafale is that it was designed from the ground up to be both a land-based and carrier-based aeroplane. Not until more than a decade later when the U.S. armed forces decided to procure the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) would another combat aircraft be developed with both naval and conventional take-off applications as part of the requirement.

As impressive as the aircraft is it has had little success in the export market, sales that the program needs in the long run to keep the production line open. Near-misses in competitions in South Korea and Singapore saw the Rafale muscled out by the US lobby and government-to-government influence that convinced both nations to purchase the Boeing F-15 instead. The Dassault jet also was in line for sale to Saudi Arabia and Morocco, but in both cases the official French arms export agency, the Délégation Générale pour l'Armement (DGA) is regarded as having fumbled the ball at critical moments.

Next week, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi will visit Paris--the first such visit from a Libyan head of state to take place in 30 years--and is expected to sign a deal to purchase 10 to 14 Rafales for the Libyan armed forces. Dassault is also involved in a program to upgrade and refurbish the older Mirage F1s that Libya previously had in inventory.

As with every other fighter manufacturer in the world, Dassault is working hard to win the tender for 126 fighter aircraft--plus options for 63 additional fighters--from the Indian Air Force (IAF). Dassault is in a better position than most of its competitors, as the IAF already operate the Mirage 2000 and the continuity and commonality between it and the Rafale offers some synergisms that only the Russian competitor, RSK-MiG can also claim.