Rafale M: The Omnivorous “Omnirole” Fighter – “Flexibility is the key to airpower,” quoth the 20th century Italian airpower strategic Gen. Giulio Douhet (1869 – 1930), and this is a tenet that’s hammered into the heads of young aspiring U.S. Air Force officers early on during their training phases as cadets in the Air Force Academy and Reserve Officers Training Corps (AFROTC) or as as trainees at Officer Training School (OTS).
However, ours isn’t the only nation’s air force to take Gen. Douhet’s dictum to heart. The French Air Force (Armée de l’air et de l’espace) and French Naval Aviation (Force maritime de l’aéronautique navale, or simply Aéronavale for short) alike are embodying the Douhet doctrine in the form of the Dassault Rafale “omnirole” (a fancy adjective for multirole) fighter. Let’s take a closer look at the Rafale, with a particular emphasis on the Rafale M naval variant.
The Dassault Rafale (literally meaning “gust of wind” and “burst of fire”) series fighters are built by Dassault Aviation S.A, which is arguably the most time-honored name in French military aviation manufacturing, dating back to 1929. As stated by Dassault’s official info page on the Rafale, “Lessons learned from the latest conflicts where air power was used, can be summarized into four overarching expectations about ωεɑρσռ systems by political decision makers,” those being Versatility, Interoperability, Flexibility (Gen. Douhet must be smiling down from Heaven at that one), and Survivability.
The website elaborates from there:
“The ‘Omnirole’ Rafale combines all these advantages: it is relevant against both traditional and asymmetrical threats, it addresses the emerging needs of the armed forces in a changing geopolitical context, and it remains at the forefront of technical innovation…Thanks to its versatility, its adaptability and its ability to meet all air mission requirements, the Rafale is the ‘poster child’ transformational fighter which provides a way forward to air forces confronted to the requirement of doing ‘more’ with ‘less’, in an ever-changing strategic and economic environment…
Of a moderate size, yet extremely powerful, superbly agile and very discrete, the latest type of combat aircraft from Dassault Aviation does not only integrate the largest and most modern range of sensors, it also multiplies their efficiency with a technological breakthrough, the ‘multi-sensor data fusion.’”
Accordingly, Dassault currently builds three variants: the Air Force single-seat Rafale C, the Air Force two-seat Rafale B, and the Navy single-seat Rafale M. All of the variants have the commonalities of twin-engines and canard delta wings. There was also the Rafale A demonstrator variant, which made her maiden flight on 4 July 1986, followed by the Rafale C on 4 May 1991.
Seaborne Rafale M (“aritiime?”)
Whilst my own research has been unable to pin down the date of the Rafale M naval variant’s maiden flight, I can ascertain that the first two such seagoing warbirds were delivered to the Aéronavale in December 2000. On 18 May of the following year, the plane officially went operational with the squadron Flottille 12F — which had previously operated the American-made F-8 Crusader — and a total of 42 Rafale Ms have been delivered to the French Navy.
The M variant, at an empty weight of 10,600 kilograms (23,400 pounds), outweighs the Rafale C by about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) due to the extra beefing up needed for carrier operations. These beefed-up features include a strengthened airframe, longer nose gear to support a more nose-up attitude (literally, that is, not a metaphorical reference to stereotypes of Parisian snobbishness), larger tailhook between the engines, and a built-in boarding latter. The plane is 15.27 meters (50.1 feet) in length, 5.34 meters (17.5 feet) in height, 10.80 meters (35.4 feet) in wingspan, and boasts a max airspeed of Mach 1.8 (1,912 kph/ 1,188 mph/ 1,032 knots).
Armament consists of a single 30 mm (1.2 in) GIAT 30/M791 autocannon with 125 rounds, and 13 hardpoints with a capacity for 9,500 kg (20,900 pounds) of ordnance, such as Magic II air-to-air missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II and Mk 82 bombs, the infamous Exocet anti-ship missile…and, in doomsday scenarios, the ASMP-A nuclear missile.
Going back to those principles of Versatility, Flexibility, and Interoperability, the Rafale M is the only non-US-designed fighter plane cleared to operate from the decks of US carriers, as demonstrated in 2008 during a joint Franco-American naval exercise involving the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Rafales vs. the Russians?
The Rafale M has seen combat, as in 2016, Rafales operating from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle struck targets associated with the Islamic State AKA ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh. Though, so far, the Rafale has only been used in the air-to-ground role, the looming specter of air-to-air engagement against Russian adversaries exists as at least an outside chance. The de Gaulle, which hosts 30 of the Rafale M warbirds, was dispatched in March of this year — on the heels of Vladimir Putin’s commencement of his “special military operation” in Ukraine — in support of NATO’s enhanced Vigilance Activities in the Black Sea region.
Given Putin’s latest provocation in Odesa, which threatens to worsen a global food shortage, time will tell if this escalates into a direct confrontation between Russia and the NATO powers; if worse comes down to worse, then the Aéronavale Rafale drivers may very well soon find themselves testing their mettle against the MiG- and Sukhoi-driving counterparts. We will find out soon enough, for better or for worse. Stay tuned, ladies & gentlemen…