France has obtained sufficient export orders (from India, Qatar and Egypt) to justify the cost of another major upgrade of electronics and weapons systems in their new Rafale jet fighters. This latest upgrade is called F4. The first Rafale were the F1 and it was equipped only for air combat. It was not until F2 appeared in 2005 that Rafale could handle smart bombs and ground attack in general. The F3 standard followed in 2008 that added more weapons capabilities (including nuclear). F4 will add more communications capabilities, especially with foreign aircraft and those equipped to exchange digital data quickly and automatically. There will be many changes to the electronic systems in general that will make it easier to develop and install future upgrades. F4 is not expected to enter service until 2025 and it will take longer because F4 involves improving engine performance as well as extensive electronics modifications.
Although it entered service in 2001 Rafale didn’t get any combat experience until 2007 when six were sent to Afghanistan. Three French Air Force Rafale F2s operated from Tajikistan. From there, the Rafales could fly down to Afghanistan and make themselves useful. Three navy Rafale F2s arrived on the carrier Charles de Gaulle, which was operating off the Pakistani coast. These F2s were the first Rafales with the hardware and software required for precision bombing (laser or GPS guided smart bombs). In 2011 Rafale carried out combat missions over Libya followed by service over Mali since 2012. Since 2014 Rafale has been active in Syria and Iraq.
The export sales were difficult to obtain initially and the first two orders (both for 24 aircraft) came in 2015 with the third (for 36) came in late 2016 when India finally signed a contract for 36 Rafale fighter jets with an option to buy 18 more in three years.
At the time of the first export sale France was the only user with 180 Rafales ordered and about 130 delivered. As of early 2017 180 have been delivered and 45 more are on order because France can now afford to build 225 for itself.
The Rafale design is a further evolution of the Mirage 2000 (from the same manufacturer) and has the Delta Wing configuration common with the Mirage designs but with canards (a small forewing is placed ahead of the main wing) added. Rafale has a maximum speed of 2,450 kilometers an hour and a range of over 3,700 kilometers. It is equipped with a 30mm cannon and can carry nearly ten tons of weapons. It is now a battle tested aircraft that has seen service in Afghanistan, Mali, Libya and Iraq. No Rafales have been lost in combat but four were destroyed in accidents. There is a naval version of Rafale that has operated off French and American carriers.
After 20 years of trying the Rafale has gone from an export zero to export hero in 45 days. France has had nothing but hard times trying to find export customers and had to cut the production rate to 11 aircraft a year, but now they will have to do the opposite. Furthermore we are observing growing interest in French made fighter and among potential buyers in the Middle East are United Arab Emirates, and maybe Kuwait together with Bahrain