In the mid 1970s, both the French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) and Navy (Aéronavale) had a requirement (the Navy's being rather more pressing) to find a new generation of fighter (principally to replace AdlA SEPECAT Jaguars and Aéronavale F-8 Crusaders), and their requirements were similar enough to be merged into one project.
The Rafale A technology demonstrator was rolled out in late 1985 and made its maiden flight on 4 July 1986.
The SNECMA M88 engines being developed were not considered sufficiently mature for the initial trials programme to be conducted without risk (though their development status has often been underplayed), so the demonstrator flew with General Electric F404-GE-400 afterburning turbofans as used on the F/A-18 Hornet.
Further testing continued, including carrier touch-and-go landings and test-flying early M88 engines, before the Rafale A was retired in 1994.
Though the Rafale A and British Aerospace EAP were broadly comparable, when the first Eurofighter made its maiden flight in March 1994, pre-series Rafales had been flight-testing for three years, including carrier trials.
Three versions of Rafale were in the initial production order:
Rafale C (Chasseur) Single-seat fighter for the Armée de l'Air, French Air Force
Initially the Rafale B was to be just a trainer, but Gulf War and Kosovo experience showed that a second crewmember is invaluable on strike and reconnaissance missions, and therefore more Rafale Bs were ordered.
Service deliveries began in 2001 and the type "entered service" on 4 December 2000, though the first squadron, Flotille 12, did not actually reform until 18 May 2001.
The unit embarked on the Charles de Gaulle in 2002, becoming fully operational on 25 June 2004, following an extended opeval (operational evaluation) which included flying limited escort and tanker missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom over Afghanistan.
Though restricted to an air-to-air role, with a limited range of weapons the Rafale M was claimed by some to be the most advanced fighter in service in Europe.
Full Operational Capability (FOC) was until recently still optimistically scheduled for September 2006, but has now slipped back to mid-2007, when the type should be fully operational as an omni-role fighter/fighter-bomber with MICA air-to-air missiles, SCALP EG cruise missiles, GPS-guided bombs, and laser-guided bombs (LGBs) (though the latter will be designated by other platforms or by ground based systems).
The Rafale carries, for the first time in aviation history, an integrated electronic survival system named SPECTRA which features a software-based virtual stealth technology.
The most important sensor is the Thales RBE2 passive electronically scanned multi-mode radar.
Thales claims to have achieved unprecedented levels of situational awareness through the earlier detection and tracking of multiple air targets for close combat and long-range interception, as well as real time generation of three-dimensional maps for terrain-following and the real time generation of high resolution ground maps for navigation and targeting.
However, in those circumstances when signature management is required, the Rafale can use several passive sensor systems.The front-sector electro-optical system or Optroniques Secteur Frontal (OSF), developed by Thales, is completely integrated within the aircraft and can operate both in the visible and infrared wavelengths.
The Rafale core systems employ an Integrated Modular Avionics (IMA), called MDPU (Modular Data Processing Unit). This architecture hosts all the core functions of the aircraft as Flight management system, Data Fusion, Fire Control, Man-Machine Interface, etc.
Initial deliveries of the Rafale M were to the F1 ("France 1") standard. This meant that the aircraft was suitable for air-to-air combat, replacing the obsolescent F-8 Crusader as the Aviation Navale's carrier-based fighter, but not equipped or armed for air-to-ground operations.
Future deliveries (to Flotille 11 some time after 2007) will be to the "F2" standard, giving air-to-ground capability, and replacing the Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard in the ground attack role and the Dassault Étendard
IVP in the reconnaissance role. This will leave the Rafale M as the only fixed-wing combat aircraft flown by the Aviation Navale, and plans are to upgrade all airframes to the "F3" standard, with terrain-following 3D radar and nuclear capability, from early in the decade following 2010.
The first Rafale C delivered to the Armée de l'Air, in June 2005, was to the "F2" standard, and it is anticipated that upgrades similar to those of the navy will take place in the future. The Rafale replaces the SEPECAT Jaguar, Mirage F1 and the Mirage 2000 in the Armée de l'Air.
The first Rafale deployed in a combat zone were those of the French Navy during Opération Héraclès, the French participation in Operation Enduring Freedom. They flew from the Charles de Gaulle over Afghanistan as soon as 2002, but the F1 standard precluded air-to-ground missions and the Rafale did not see any action.
In 2007, after a "crash program" enhancement some six Rafales were given the ability to drop laser-guided bombs, in view of engaging them in Afghanistan. Three of these aircraft belonging to the Air Force were deployed to Dushanbe in Tadjikistan, while the three others were Rafale Marine of the Navy on board the Charles De Gaulle.
The first mission occurred on March 12, and the first GBU-12 was launched on March 28 in support of embattled Dutch troops in Southern Afghanistan, marking the operational début of the Rafale.
(This text was adapted from http://www.wikipedia.org/ )(GFDL)
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