|I have noticed a lot of discussion on here lately about the Rafale and its inability to compete with the various other late 4th generation designs on the market today. In an effort to shed some light on this issue I have taken a moment to list some of the Rafale's major crippling flaws and their origins.
The single biggest issue with the Rafale, and the common thread throughout most of its major design flaws, is that its design team simply lacked sufficient vision of where the future of fighter aviation was heading. Throughout the Rafale's design process its designers chose to go with incremental improvements rather than generational leaps in technology. The Rafale was intended to catch up to, rather than leap ahead of, aircraft that were designed years earlier such as the F-16 and Mig-29. The end result is a somewhat refined, but badly overpriced aircraft that has struggled to even compete with the aircraft it was designed to match, and utterly lacks the potential to compete with newer designs.
The most obvious area where this lack of vision is displayed is in the Rafale's overall layout and its notable lack of signature reduction design features. The Rafale exhibits numerous features that would simply never be incorporated into any design intended to have a reduced RCS, including its prominent intakes, a huge vertical stabilizer, canards, a non-retractable refueling probe, and numerous other probes, protrusions, and other serious RCS offenders. What does this mean? Late in the Rafale's design process its engineers realized that they had failed to anticipate the key role RCS reduction would play in future designs and scambled to find ways to reduce the Rafale's RCS. With minimal experience with RCS reduction and an airframe that was already too far along in its design to be fixed, the end result was of course disappointing. Shaping is the single most important consideration in RCS reduction and the Rafale has too many major flaws to ever be considered stealthy. RAM coatings and last minute saw-tooth edge features are at best minimally effective on an aircraft that is otherwise designed all wrong from the start.
Not only that, but the Rafale's maneuverability proved to be disappointing, comparable to, but only marginally better than that already offered by earlier 4th generation designs and noticably lacking in comparison to its bigger brother, the Eurofighter. As the US/Israel found with the Lavi design, the improvement in aerodynamic performance available with such a design was insufficient to justfy the cost of creating an entire new airframe and a generational leap in performance would require a new approach.
Like its airframe, the Rafale's pit and interfaces sought to close the gap with earlier 4th generation designs. Drawing its inspiration from the US, the Rafale design team sought to replicate the hands on throttle and stick interface the US had adopted by the time the Rafale entered its design phase. While the Rafale was largely successful in matching the interfaces seen in US fighters in the early 90s, its designers failed to see the direction future designs were heading. Today the Rafale's pit and human interface are at best mediocre in comparison to those found in other aircraft in production. It lacks a helmet mounted site, a serious flaw in a WVR fight, and numerous other advanced features such as the Super Hornet's fully decoupled interfaces. Most critically, the Rafale's man machine interface lacks the defining features of a 5th generation design, such as advanced sensor fusion and sophisticated multi-purpose helmet mounted displays.
Probably the most famous and inexcusable design flaw in the Rafale is its unusually small and short ranged radar. While the US launched fully funded AESA programs and prepared for a generational leap in radar performance, for some reason the Rafale was designed with a PESA radar, a technological dead-end. Worse, the Rafale was simply not designed to accomodate a radar of sufficient size to operate effectively autonomously. Now, although France is working to retrofit an AESA antenna onto its PESA back-end in the Rafale, the nose of the Rafale will simply not accomodate a competitive radar. The best the Rafale can hope to do is close some of its radar performance gap with aircraft like the F-16, but will never be capable of competing with designs like the Eurofighter or Super Hornet.
Finally, one of the most critcal flaws in the Rafale's design is its widely misunderstood "Spectra" self protection jammer and RWR suite. As was done with the F-16 and Super Hornet, the Rafale design team sought to incorporate an internal self protection jammer into the Rafale to improve its survivability against radar guided threats. The major failure of Spectra was that its development cycle was far far too long and France's semiconductor and computer industry was simply incapable of providing the necessary components to create a truely cutti