May 4, 2012: The French Navy is upgrading its ten early model Rafale F-1 fighters to the F-3 standard. This means the upgraded aircraft will be able to conduct ground attack operations (deliver smart bombs and ground-to-air missiles) and carry nuclear weapons. Such upgrades are in response to poor export sales and increasing political pressure to reduce military spending.
Officially, France planned to buy 294 Rafales but only 180 have actually been ordered and about a hundred delivered. Four have been lost due to accidents. Six 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. These are the ones to be upgraded. The first prototype of Rafale was shown in 1986, and the aircraft should have entered service in the late 1990s. But there were delays, until the aircraft entered service in 2000.
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 $133 million each and, so far, despite their impressive pedigree and features list there have been no export orders. The Rafale is armed with a 30mm autocannon, 125 rounds of ammo, and can carry 9.5 tons of bombs and missiles (or drop tanks of fuel).
The hundreds of combat sorties flown over Libya have made it easier to generate interest in export sales for Rafale. This was not the first combat for Rafale. Five 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.