Warplanes: Rafale Goes to Afghanistan On A Marketing Mission

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March 21, 2007: France is trying to get its new jet fighter, the Rafale, some combat experience. So six are being sent to Afghanistan. Three French Air Force Rafale F2s were sent to a base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. From there, the Rafales can fly down to Kabul, and make themselves useful. Three navy Rafale F2s arrived on the carrier Charles de Gaulle, which is operating off the Pakistani coast. The F2 version has the hardware and software required for precision bombing (laser or GPS guided smart bombs). The de Gaulle also has nine older Rafale F1s, which are equipped only for air-to-air combat.

The Rafale is France's latest fighter, and has a reduced radar signature (but not truly stealthy), a top speed of 2,130 kilometers per hour, and the ability to carry 8.5 tons of bombs, missiles, and other weapons. The French military has only been able to buy 120 (82 for the air force, 38 for the navy) Rafales so far, but would like to eventually purchase as many as 292.

The French Air Force activated its first squadron of Rafale fighters on June 29, 2006. The navy had received ten navalized Rafales two years earlier, 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 to spend billions on an aircraft that would face no real opposition. But, facing the need to eventually replace all those older Mirage fighters, development did get restarted, creating an aircraft superior to the American F-15s and F-16s, and very similar to the F-18F, but inferior to the F-22 and F-35.

France expected to pay for all this with export sales. That has been difficult, with stiff competition from Eurofighter, F-35, F-15E and Grippen. The 28 ton Rafale sells for up to $100 million each, and so far, export orders have been hard to come by. Noting that the considerable combat experience of the F-15E has made that older design a formidable contender in the export market, the French have gone to great expense to put some Rafales into harms way.

The F2s typically use GBU-12 (the 611 pound Paveway II) and GBU-22 (the 720 pound Paveway III) laser-guided bombs, carrying three bombs under each wing, in addition to about four tons of additional fuel, in drop tanks. Rafale still can't use its 30mm cannon for strafing ground targets, until a vibration problem is cleared up. The Rafale has not yet been fitted with a laser designator, so that function will have to be provided by Mirage 2000Ds, which are also based in Tajikistan.

 


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