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France To Challenge US F-35 Fighters’ Dominance With Stealthier & Hypersonic Missile-Enabled ‘Super Rafale’

The Russia-Ukraine war has ensured that the combat jets must re-invent themselves to stay relevant in the age of unmanned aerial combat vehicles and long-range air defense missiles.

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French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation is coming up with a ‘Super Rafale’ F-5 that will be paired with loyal wingman combat drones and new ammunition for suppressing enemy anti-aircraft defenses.

Equipped with joint jamming radars along with self-defense systems, the Rafale F-5 will create a ‘protective bubble’ for itself and other equipment that will go into the battlefield with it.

The aircraft will evolve into a techno-system called “Club Rafale.”

Rafale, which means ‘gust of wind,’ is the frontline fighter jet developed by France. It took the aircraft a long time to gain a foothold in the international military aviation market.

But now that it has bagged some big clients, the biggest peeve of Dassault is that its frontline fighter jet has been beaten by the US F-35 war jets in almost every competition and wargame.

According to a French defense website, ‘Meta Defense,’ the ‘Super Rafale’ or Rafale F5 is going to evolve to a whole new level. “It will be an Air Combat System, based on a system of systems and not just as a combat aircraft, as is still the case with the Rafale F4,” the article reads.

As reported by the EurAsian Times, the French Ministry of Armed Forces tabled the amendment earlier this month to provide more information about the Rafale program’s upcoming efforts, particularly those related to the new F5 version that will be developed under the Military Planning Program (LPM) 2024-2030.

This development is significant because Europe’s next-generation fighter jet program, known as the Future Combat Aircraft System (FCAS), in which France is also a participant, is finally moving after being caught in the doldrums for a long time.

The French armed forces are hopeful that the evolution is likely “to profoundly change the relative positioning of the Rafale on the international scene, particularly against the American F-35”.

The French Air and Space Force (FASF) operates what is called the F3-R standard version of Rafale. It was developed and launched at the end of 2013 and was inducted into the FASF in 2018.

This version of the fighter jet is an upgraded version of the Rafale F3 standard. The F3-R version carries the Meteor long-range-air-to-air missile produced by MBDA. It is equipped with the Thales Talios new-generation laser designator pod that gives it a high degree of precision in air-to-ground strikes.

It also has a laser-homing version of the Safran Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon, from which comes its capability to destroy targets at ranges of several tens of kilometers with metric precision. It is also adapted to target mobile targets. The sensors in this version have also been upgraded to ensure interoperability.

The Rafale has proved its potency in conflicts over the last decade. It took part in operations in Afghanistan and Libya. Their capability to remain airborne for a longer duration also came to the fore as the French forces destroyed enemy targets in Mali.

Storm Shadow
File Image: Rafale

Loyal Wingman Drone

The Rafale F5 will have combat drones -nEUROn, integrated into its system. The experimental UAV nEUROn will have a degree of autonomy while remaining attached to the main aircraft.

The drone will be controlled by the Rafale itself, the crew having “the function of coordinating and optimizing the efficiency of this system of systems.”

The news report calls the F-35 A representative of the 5th generation, whereas the Rafale F5 will herald the era of 6th generation fighters. The US Air Force will also be equipping 300 of its F-35As with combat drones, like the Rafale F5, under the Next Generation Air Dominance program (NGAD).

The article, however, asserts that even if the F-35 was equipped with the Loyal Wingman-type drones, its relative advantages to the 5th generation, such as stealth and data fusion, will have been “erased or reduced” to turn into a 6th generation fighter jet.

The Rafale, however, will be able to rely on requirements that are much more of this new generation, particularly in terms of payload capacity and autonomy.

Super Rafales Could Pack More Punch Than F-35?

The operational panoply of the Rafale has been lacking in suppressing enemy anti-aircraft defenses, commonly referred to by the acronym SEAD. The F5 variant is going to make good on this shortcoming.

The article points out that the capability will be based on “the joint use of radar jammers in addition to the self-defense systems of the device, to give him the possibility of including other devices in his protective bubble.” The anti-radiation munition is designed to go up the radar beam of the adversary and destroy it.

F-35 Via Lockheed Martin

The Rafale F5 will be designed to deploy the new Franco-British missiles – Future Cruise Missile (FCM) and Future Anti-Ship Missile (FASM) instead of the SCALP/Storm Shadow cruise missiles and AM39 Exocet.

These futuristic missiles will have advanced features, such as stealth or hypersonic speed, to go up against modern air defense systems while giving the Rafale “highly advanced long-range strike capabilities.”

The Rafale F5 will also be equipped with a pod merging the capabilities of the Talios target designation pods and the Reco NG reconnaissance pod.

The Talios pod will be integrated with Rafale F4 to enable it to perform air reconnaissance and ground/surface attack missions. The pod provides a wide-area search and target identification capability and can switch instantly into target acquisition and tracking mode.

Its high-resolution sensors provide a color picture of the tactical situation to simplify the tasks of Rafale pilots. The Reco NG is presently installed on Mirage 2000 and Rafale and, with its long range and high resolution, provides intelligence imagery.

The pod with qualities of both the Talios and RECO NG will give “the hunter and air-to-ground, air-to-surface and even air-to-air tactical vision of high precision” and thus will have multiple operational options while remaining in non-transmission mode.

The Rafale F5 will be designed to carry the new nuclear-powered ASN4G hypersonic cruise missile, which will be replacing the French nuclear air-launched cruise missile air-sol moyenne portée (ASMPA) in the two Air and Space Force squadrons and the French Navy aircraft.

It will be part of France’s nuclear deterrence.

  • Ritu Sharma has written on defense and foreign affairs for over a decade. She holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Studies and Management of Peace from the University of Erfurt, Germany. Her areas of interest include Asia-Pacific, the South China Sea, and Aviation history.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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