LiveFist Column: Why the Rafale goes down

Rafale shot down for real or victim of the Gripen syndrome?

by Edouard Billet
in Paris

If we believe in recent press reports (Dow Jones, Reuters, etc.), Dassault would be about to make its Rafale fighter remain a true “French exception”. The news is still not confirmed but an anonymous MoD official is said to have announced to the media that the French combat aircraft has been rejected from the IAF MMRCA contest.

What happened? Is it really true? Is the Rafale a victim of the Gripen syndrome? Remember January when rumors popped up suggesting that Saab's JAS-39 Gripen might be left out of the field trials following the IAF's Technical Evaluation Committee report.

The news (if confirmed) sounds very. The aircraft, among the six contenders, is maybe one of the most pertinent for the IAF in terms of technical and operational aspects given the wide range of capabilities but let's try to put some distance between us and the aircraft first.

I think it is useless here to make yet another technical description of the aircraft itself. Every reader of this blog knows now the different features of each contender and their strengths/weaknesses. But maybe we should do the right assessment, instead. This recent announcement (if true) was released just after Air Chief Marshal FH Major, the Chief of Air Staff, said the first technical evaluation made by the militaries is over. Field trials have not begun yet and will probably be launched just after the elections in mid-May, and Dassault’s offer has already been rejected. In other words, it looks like the offer has been rejected instead of the Rafale.

But what really happened? The debate seems now to have jumped from the technical/technological sphere into the commercial/strategic sphere. The Rafale is a really good plane and shows its potential almost each day in Afghanistan or simply during its test campaigns in the hands of the French flight test center (CEV) teams. Its potential and its present capabilities are really great, no doubt about that. But let’s question ourselves about the way the Indian commercial campaign has been led by its maker and the French authorities. The problem might be here.

Some Indian observers believe that Dassault does not really believe the fact that the RfP process will survive the coming elections. Except this hypothesis, nothing can really explain the lack of communication from the French side that many observers have highlighted compared to the commercial show orchestrated by Boeing, Lockheed Martin (even the flames on the runway… the Americans always bring some special FX with them!) or even EADS.

Many things are not clear at all because of a lack of official communications from the MoD. But would it be reasonable to put into perspective the MMRCA deal and the future contract to upgrade the IAF’s Mirage 2000? Did Indian authorities make Dassault understand that Mirage + Rafale is an impossible equation given their will to reinforce their ties with the US? Because if we remember the words that Indian officials said few months ago that clearly signified “We won't sign any other strategic partnership apart from those with the US and Russia” Therefore, is the die cast?

Another element that should be taken into account in the ‘unconfirmed’ statement made by the anonymous MoD official is the price of Dassault’s offer. This argument seems to be recurrent concerning French offers in general, and was notably heard concerning the Mirage 2000 upgrade program. If some observers and militaries sometimes reproach French programs to be expensive, the most part of them also admit in the same time that French products have very good records in terms of serviceability, and are not linked to any constraining end-use monitoring agreements. Maybe quality and sovereignty have a cost. That's a thought.

Let’s try to stay careful for now since the “rejection” has not been formalized yet. Dassault itself, according to one of its spokespersons, still has not been informed of anything by the Indian government.

Even if we try to get out of technical discussions, many readers here would probably agree with that: it is quite frustrating to totally ignore technological aspects to only focus on commercial reflections. Because, indeed, one question remains. What makes possible the fact that the Rafale is excluded for technical reasons and not the Gripen, for instance? Neither the Gripen IN/NG nor the MiG-35 are operational and field trials expected to start next month, which could become a strange mix of prototypes and operational aircrafts test flights. The Rafale in its F3 standard is today a very competitive aircraft. Neither the cheapest nor the most expensive solution, its abilities have a strong point: they are proven (Red Flag, Afghanistan) and, a minima, at the same level of the five other contenders.

What can we have against it? Maybe its good “omnirole” nature. So good that it is not the “best” in a particular mission, except maybe deep penetration missions in air-to-ground attack mode given its small EM/IR signature and its important survivability with its SPECTRA self-protection system.

What is censurable in its configuration? Mainly two points:

1) Its thrust -- an engine able to deliver 90kN would have been better, notably for high-altitude take-off and landings, but technically the solution already exists with the M88 ECO. Even if this engine is not yet in production, an agreement seems to be possible (and is thought) between the DRDO (and more specifically the GTRE) and Snecma as a possible way to boost the Kaveri program (but here again the IAF expressed its reluctance due to the level of proposed ToTs).

2) Its radar: an AESA is said to be required in the IAF's ASQR. Thales has been finalizing the development of its new RBE2 AESA for months, which is now ready for low rate production. This system has been flight tested many times in France and was recently evaluated by Swiss pilots in the frame of Switzerland AF own contest to replace its old F-5. According to local sources, pilots are really enthusiastic and enjoyed its performances (range, precision) in various tactical environments (mountains, jammed areas, etc.). Those sources also said most pilots who have flown the Rafale and the other proposed aircrafts (i.e. Gripen and EF) expressed their preference for the French fighter. Furthermore, ToTs proposed to India by Thales for the RBE2 AESA seemed to be very interesting.

So where is the logic? Probably Dassault's offer would have been rejected in the last part of the MMRCA evaluation process at the political/economical level, given the strategic interest to opt for an American solution. But such a rejection now is quite hardly understandable. So wait and see, for two reasons: 1) to see if the announcement is true and 2) to gain more distance with all these parameters.

If ever the announcement is validated by Indian officials, maybe French authorities will have to take in turn some distance with their way to support the French industry abroad. Here again, let's do a flashback two months ago during Aero India 09 and let's remember the words of Nicolas Sarkozy’s adisor on International Affairs Jean-David Levitte. According to him the Rafale was under damageable political pressure in India. He said he asked the Indian government to consider the Rafale the same way it does with the five other contenders. These words, carefully listened by any polemist, would have been read as: "If you do not select the Rafale that means you are corrupt".

So maybe we should imagine that the French government didn't really help Dassault's efforts. Such a hypothesis could be read in the light of the recent Rafale defeat in Morocco, partially caused by a lack of coordination of the French Administration with Dassault's commercial stance.
But all these are only suppositions and ideas to deepen, of course the discourse. Let's wait, savoring a good French red wine. I'm sure you know that wine possesses neuroleptic effects, i.e. it blunts the peak of emotions and reduces anxiety and stress, providing a mild euphoria and some moral appeasement?

(Billet is a Paris-based freelance aviation industry watcher and journalist. He was formerly with the French flight test center, and has tracked the evolution of the French aircraft industry for many years. This column is exclusive to LiveFist)

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