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SOURCE: THE WEEK

The Rafale fighter stormed back into the Indian public discourse on Thursday after the Supreme Court rejected calls to examine allegations of corruption in the Narendra Modi government’s purchase of 36 of the French jets.

But thousands of kilometres away, in Berlin, the Rafale was the subject of attention for an altogether different reason. Speaking at the ‘International Fighter Conference’, a French official on Wednesday claimed the French Air Force and Navy plan to upgrade their Rafale jets to serve till 2070. This would mean the fighter would have served 69 years since first entering service with the French military in 2001 and a whopping 84 years after its first flight in 1986!

According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, a renowned defence publication, Major General Frederic Parisot of the French Air Force said there will be a further four upgrade phases for the Rafale in addition to the upgrade being rolled out now. Parisot is the deputy chief of staff, plans and programmes, of the French Air Force.

Parisot said France plans to keep the Rafale in service along with its next-generation fighter. France is developing the ‘New Generation Fighter’ in cooperation with Germany and Spain, with plans to fly a prototype by 2026. The New Generation Fighter, which is an advanced stealth design, will enter service by 2040.

Slides of the presentation on the upgrades to the Rafale from the ‘International Fighter Conference’, which are circulating on social media, show plans to upgrade the aircraft’s connectivity, add new weapons and sensors, modernise its nuclear deterrent capability and even introduce artificial intelligence capabilities.

The Rafale is the sole fighter aircraft being built for the French Air Force and Navy and has replaced multiple types of aircraft in the past two decades. The French military has committed to buying a total of 225 Rafale fighters into the next decade.

Since its introduction, Dassault and the French military have unveiled multiple variants of the Rafale, featuring improvements in capability. In January this year, Dassault received a contract to build the ‘F4’ variant, the fourth such upgrade, to the Rafale. In addition to the capability to use new weapons, the Rafale F4 has a focus on networked combat and will have “new satellite and intra-patrol links, communication server and software-defined radio”.

The Rafale F4 is expected to enter service by 2024. To boost maintenance capabilities, the Rafale F4 will have a new diagnostics system that uses predictive software. Dassault is also planning other maintenance upgrades that leverage big data and artificial intelligence.

The focus on connectivity in future Rafale upgrades is believed to be linked to the increasing role of UAVs. Future fighter aircraft will not only operate alongside and exchange data with UAVs, but also be able to control them.

The Rafale will not be alone in the stables of fighters serving decades. In 2017, the US Air Force announced it would upgrade its F-16 fighters to serve till “at least 2048”, over 70 years after the fighter first flew.