Rafale tames the tigers
An Air Force Rafale F2 took part in the 2006 Tiger Meet. On its first international outing, the French Air Force’s new fighter made a strong impression on participants from other nations.
The Tiger Meet is an annual NATO exercise that brings together squadrons having a tiger’s head in their squadron crest. The 2006 event, organized at Albacete Air Base in Spain, featured around 50 combat aircraft (and some helicopters) from 11 nations. Though the majority of aircraft at Albacete were F-16 MLUs, F/A-18s and Tornados, there were also 10 French fighters – 1/12 squadron “Cambresis” had come from Cambrai with six Mirage 2000 RDIs, while 05/330 squadron “Côte d’argent” attached to the Mont-de-Marsan CEAM flight test centre had made the trip with two Mirage 2000-5s and two twin-seat Rafale F2s.
“The Tiger Meet developed substantially during the 1990s,” explains Colonel Mercier, who heads the planning section at the French Air Force general staff (1). “Nowadays, the exercise, which lasts for one week, is a top-level operation, aimed exclusively at pilots with mission leader qualification.”
The presence of the Rafale at Albacete, first envisaged in early 2006 and firmly backed by the French Air Force staff, was undoubtedly the highlight of this year’s event. “We came for two reasons,” explains 05/330 commanding officer lieutenant-colonel Pagès. “First, we wanted to verify the operational added value that the Rafale represents in a complex inter-allied context. The CEAM test centre and 05/330 squadron have been testing the aircraft over the past few months, and it was a logical step to look at the multinational aspect, with all the interoperability issues which that implies. The other reason for the deployment was to validate the network maintenance concept beyond French borders.”
To cut a long story short, the Rafale did all that was asked of it. The 05/330 teams returned from Spain with the firm conviction that they had an aircraft perfectly ready for external deployment.
The aircraft took part in two missions every day. The morning mission was a fairly classic air defense exercise, while the afternoon flight involved around 30 aircraft in a Composite Air Operation (Comao) – an attack against land-based or naval targets.
In a clear demonstration of the Rafale’s multi-role capabilities, both aircraft and their crews switched easily from the attack role (simulating the use of AASM missiles) to the air defense role (with Mica missiles).
“Beyond this multi-role capability, the first thing we learned was the remarkable quality of the weapon system,” Lt. Col. Pagès underlines. “We were able to confirm that the high degree of sensor fusion gave us a clear advantage in our awareness of the tactical situation. Rafale crews were able to positively identify targets at a much greater distance than other aircraft. It is well known that in more and more cases the rules of engagement require that the target be identified before attacking, which may lead a fighter to fly within three or four nautical miles of the target. With the Rafale, this distance is multiplied by three, four or even more in some cases, which considerably boosts safety and the chances of success.”
The forward sector optronics (FSO) system was particularly popular with the aircrews, who were impressed by its performance: “By cueing the FSO with the tracks provided by his radar or by another aircraft via Link 16, a pilot can easily identify an aggressor force at a range of several tens of nautical miles. For example, he can pick up two Tornados and an F/A-18 preparing to penetrate at 20,000ft and the three other F/A-18s, easy to identify with their twin tails, protecting them at 40,000ft.”
DISCRETION AND EFFECTIVENESS
In general, the Rafale’s sensor suite generates excellent awareness of the tactical situation around the aircraft. “At the debriefing, we were able to say exactly who was doing what and where,” comments Lt. Col. Pagès. “The other crews were very surprised at our global situational awareness (2).”
This brings us to Link 16, a key part of the “Rafale revolution” which also perfectly fulfilled its role during the Tiger Meet. It is known that thanks to this data link, Rafale aircraft can exchange information without uttering a single word on the radio. French crews note that this silent communication was also used throughout the exercise with NATO Awacs aircraft. “The Awacs could only communicate with us via Link 16 and the operators were very happy to see us,” says a pilot. “Following a very complex mission, one Belgian pilot told us that we didn’t talk much on the radio but that we seemed to have good control of the tactical situation. That was not untrue …”
A quick word about Spectra to close this very brief overview.
The “Côte d’Argent” Rafales are equipped with the final version of the electronic warfare suite. Not wishing to unveil its full capabilities, the crews did not use the system to its maximum potential, particularly in the offensive role. They made full use of the passive mode, however, for threat detection using Spectra’s interferometric capability. The support teams were able to expand their threat libraries during the Tiger Meet, while increasing their familiarity with this very special system. On the second day of the exercise, the Comao included an attack on an air defense site. By combining the interferometric capabilities of Spectra, the power of the FSO and the Link 16 data link, the Rafales were able to detect, identify and destroy the site from long range by “virtually” firing AASM missiles (3).
A CLASS ABOVE
Which takes us directly to this conclusion drawn from the exercise by Colonel Mercier of the planning section: “The Tiger Meet confirmed that the range of Rafale’s identification systems is fully coherent with the range of its Mica and AASM weapons. Thanks to its modular weapons and the potential offered by data fusion, the aircraft will be able to attack naval or land-based targets from a safe distance, with positive identification. There is almost nothing that we cannot do with this aircraft…”
The conclusion of the conclusion: with a lead of several years over the US JSF (or F-35), the Rafale is clearly in the same class. It is a level above the Eurofighter which, it should be added, also shone at the exercise. But only by its absence…
Henri Hémon (freelance journalist)
(1) As a former commanding officer of 1/12 squadron “Cambresis”, Colonel Mercier remains a member of the “tiger community”.
(2) It is still too early to unveil all the details, and the French pilots did not wish to reveal the full capacities of their aircraft…
(3) The AASM missile is not yet in service with the French Air Force, but the fire control systems of the Rafale F2 can simulate its use in ground attack and even anti-ship scenarios. The AASM is an extremely innovative weapon whose capabilities astonished foreign participants in the Tiger Meet (cf. box on AASM).