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Rafale Proves Itself
by James Dunnigan
August 18, 2011

The French nuclear powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) will return to port in mid-August for some maintenance. Meanwhile, eight of its Rafale M fighter-bombers will fly to land bases and continue supporting operations in Libya. The French Air Force will also send some more Rafales to Corsica, where many of the NATO combat aircraft operate from, to eventually allow the navy Rafale Ms to get some delayed maintenance as well. The de Gaulle has been in action since mid-March, and it is the longest period of heavy combat operations for the carrier. Both the de Gaulle and its Rafales performed well. 

It hasn’t always been that way. Last Fall, the de Gaulle set out for a four month mission to fight pirates off Somalia and Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan. But before it got very far, it returned to port for repairs. The problem was not major (bad insulation in an electrical cabinet), and was repaired in a few days. But it was embarrassing, since the de Gaulle has been sidelined by repairs and mid-life refueling for most of the previous three years. Thus the de Gaulle was considered an "unlucky" ship. All navies have these. But at least now the de Gaulle is also considered a reliable performer, which can handle months of sustained operations.

The de Gaulle took eleven years to build (1988-99) and was not ready for service until late 2000. It was downhill after that, with a long list of problems. The recently completed refurbishment was meant to address the most serious problems. More time was spent testing everything to make sure the de Gaulle was really good to go. But then, just when everything seemed right, something was wrong.

The recent refurbishment, in addition to replacing the nuclear fuel, required 2.5 million man hours (about half of that supplied by the crew and navy technicians) from 1,700 workers. The worked involved stripping old paint and applying 11,000 square meters (40 tons) of new paint on the hull. The 7,800 square meter flight deck was refinished. Over 80,000 meters of electrical cables were installed. Most of the mechanical systems were refurbished, and some were replaced. Electronic systems were upgraded, to include more satellite communications access and improved Internet capability. It's now easier to use VOIP (using the Internet for telephone calls.) The de Gaulle was supposed to return to service last year. But more problems arose. For "unlucky ships", there are always more unforeseen problems.

The Rafale fighter has also experienced a lot of hard times. Export sales have been impossible to come by, so far. Recently revealed (via Wikileaks) American diplomatic messages spotlighted one reason why. In one of those messages, the king of Bahrain proclaimed the Rafale "yesterday's technology." This attitude was shared by many other Gulf State rulers, and their purchasing officials. Because of the failure to find export customers, last year the production rate the Rafale was reduced from 14 a year to 11 a year. This slowed down the delivery of Rafales, mainly because the Defense Ministry has decided that other things are more important. The new emphasis (and spending) is on peacekeeping and anti-missile defenses.

Three years ago, France ordered another 60 Rafale jet fighters, for delivery over the next five years. Officially, France plans to buy 294, but only 180 have actually been ordered and about a hundred delivered. Four have been lost due to accidents.

Five years ago, the French Air Force activated its first squadron of Rafale fighters. The navy had received ten navalized Rafales five years before that, for service on the nuclear aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. The first prototype of Rafale was shown in 1986, and the aircraft should have entered service in the late 1990s.

While one of the more modern combat aircraft in the world, development of the Rafale was delayed by technical problems, and shortages of money. Entering development just as the Cold War ended meant that there was little enthusiasm for spending billions on an aircraft that would face no real opposition. But, facing the need to eventually replace all those Mirage fighters, development did get restarted, creating an aircraft superior to the American F-15s and F-16s, very similar to the F-18F, but inferior to the F-22 and F-35.

The Eurofighter, and several other very competitive aircraft have made export sales scarce. The 28 ton Rafale sells for about $100 million each, and so far, despite their impressive pedigree and features list, there have been no export orders. But the hundreds of combat sorties flown over Libya may change that. This is not the first combat for Rafale. Four years ago, six were sent to Afghanistan, rigged to deliver smart bombs. This went off well, but did not get nearly as much publicity as the Libya operations.

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