While the F-35 dominates Europe, the J-31, J-20, and Rafale ‘battle’ the East.

The French Air and Space Force [FASF] recently ordered 42 Rafale fighter jets, spending around $5.5 billion. This decision comes amid concerns from French lawmakers regarding delays in introducing the “Future Combat Air System” [FCAS], which is set to succeed the Rafale.

Missile that 'punched' Russian sub will arm India's Rafale M
Photo credit: Reddit

Forecasts suggest that the FCAS won’t be ready until sometime between 2045 and 2050. The most recent, fifth round of the Rafale production contract has been awarded to Dassault Aviation and its main equipment suppliers, Safran, Thales, and MBDA, by the French defense procurement agency.

Even though the FCAS, envisioned as a fifth-generation-plus aircraft, receives financial backing from several affluent European countries, the project has encountered substantial problems slowing its progress.

France creates next-gen FCAS engine with an innovative turbine
Photo credit: MoD, France

Given the exorbitant costs associated with the FCAS, which could be double or even triple the price of a Rafale, France has chosen to upgrade the 4.5-generation Rafale jet of its own design, incorporating some enhancements.

Shifting our attention to India, we see a project underway to develop a fifth-generation fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft [AMCA]. The project is being rolled out in two phases: a partial stealth phase and a full stealth phase. Could India’s endeavor provide insightful lessons or potential alternatives in this scenario?

One F-22 downed five Rafales, but one Rafale shot down an F-22
Video Screenshot

The world of aviation is evolving swiftly. A new venture by three influential countries – France, Germany, and Spain – follows a path paved by the UK and France. The Future Combat Air System [FCAS] is their grand project.

This game-changing initiative is the brainchild of leading co-developers – Dassault Aviation, Airbus from Germany, and Spain’s Indra Sistemas. Their plan is to bring new improvements to the combat air system. The aircraft will also have the capability to control drones remotely, giving it a unique advantage.

French Rafale F5 coming with emphasis on EW and SEAD in 2030
Photo credit: Twitter

The project involves a shared work model. Dassault takes the lead in creating the Next Generation Fighter, or NGF. Airbus handles the expansion of remotely controlled vehicles and cloud communication. Safran Aircraft Engines works with MTU Aero Engines to improve the engines.

With an eye on the future, FCAS aims to include aircraft carrier operations. The start of this ambitious journey was in 2017.

In June 2023, Belgium showed interest in the program and became an observer. By 2025, they could be a full participant. By 2040, we expect FCAS to replace the French Rafale, Germany’s Typhoons, and Spain’s EF-18 Hornets. Despite some delays and test flights planned for 2027, the team remains on the lookout for alternative solutions.

Kuwait gets bests Eurofighters - Meteor AAM, Captor-E AESA, 27mm Mauser
Photo credit: Wikipedia

When we’re talking about 4.5-generation fighters, both the Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon might come to your mind. They excel in forward-hemisphere stealth and can super-cruise.

The Indian Air Force’s Rafale aircraft are a bit special. They’ve been tweaked to fit India’s specific needs, bringing them to an F3-plus standard. This is pretty close to the French Rafales which used the F3R standard approved in 2018.

Fast forward to 2019, and work started on the better F4 standard. It came with lots of cool additions like improved onboard processing, external connectivity, a big upgrade to the Thales Spectra self-defense system, and the integration of the MBDA’s MICA medium-range air-to-air missile.

New munition under the French Rafale F4.1 wings - the AASM 1000
Photo credit: French MoD

The F4 standard also got better radar and sensor systems, able to spot airborne stealth targets from quite far away. The helmet-mounted display got a boost, and the communication equipment is now better suited to network-centric warfare.

Those F4-standard planes first started their flight tests in 2021, and the first ones rolled off the line in 2023. It’s the plan to upgrade all FASF aircraft to this standard. The UAE was the first international buyer of the F4 standard.

Jump to March 2023, and the F4.1 standard was introduced. We can look forward to the F4.2 standard by 2025. An impressive $1.51 billion will be pumped in to elevate the Rafale to the F4 standard between 2024 and 2026. The aim is for the Rafale to be the main player in the FASF’s combat aircraft lineup until at least 2040.

China's J-31 stealth fighter may fly in Pakistan, replacing the F-16
Photo credit: Chinese Internet

France needs a top-tier fighter aircraft for air and nuclear deterrence until the FCAS program is up and running. At present, the F4 Rafale suits the French needs, in contrast to Germany, their FCAS program partner, who chose the American F-35. This is part of a French military plan for 2024-2030 to upgrade to the F5.

With the FCAS program experiencing delays, the F5 comes across as a good backup plan. Dassault and its team are working on the F5 version, aiming to complete it by roughly 2030. The upgrades will happen gradually, and the F5 will share some characteristics with next-generation European aircraft. Its standout features are high-quality sensors, weapons, and improved cooperation and communication abilities.

Thrust vectoring engine: J-20 performs strong maneuvers at low speed
Photo credit: eng.chinamil.com.cn

The aircraft will receive significant upgrades in its electronic warfare systems, including advanced jamming systems and anti-radiation weapons.

The SPECTRA EW and jamming system is also expected to be enhanced. These radar jamming, ECCM, infrared, and radar decoys together will create a protective shield for the aircraft.

Plans are underway to develop on-board and airborne saturation systems for the electromagnetic spectrum, to limit an enemy’s combat access. These would be used in conjunction with ground forces under multi-domain conditions. Enhancements such as fiber-optic cabling will enable the Rafale F5 to penetrate challenging areas more effectively.

Tejas - India is trying to 'screw up' the sale of US F-16s to Argentina
Photo credit: Indian MoD

The upgraded Rafale will also function as a flying command post with data processing and fusion capabilities, similar to the emerging role in the USA’s Next Generation Air Dominance [NGAD].

There’s a push to develop advanced surface attack and anti-ship missiles, along with long-range air-to-air weapons. The F5 will also be fitted with the Future Cruise Missile [FCM], the Future Anti-Ship Missile [FASM], and the planned Thales RBE2 XG radar.

The upgraded Rafale, known as “Super Rafale” will carry hypersonic nuclear-guided missiles named “ASN4G.” This will replace the ASMPA missile and serve as France’s deterrence capability, changing the Rafale from a fighter jet to an integrated combat system.

First part of UAE's 80 Rafale F4 delivery program is in full swing
Photo credit: Dassault Rafale

The F5, initially planned for delivery beginning in 2029, could now be available from 2027. It’s expected to be a reliable combat system, serving as a bridge until the Next Generation Weapon System [part of the FCAS program] is ready.

Advanced weapons and drones for different roles are also in development, promising improved long-range strike and combat abilities. They plan to integrate an unmanned wingman, similar to the European nEUROn combat drone program, by 2024. This idea is gaining popularity around the world, including in India.

France plans to invest about $6.75 billion in the Rafale aircraft program from 2023 to 2026, with a further $5.87 billion set aside after 2026. Given political restrictions, countries unable to acquire the F-35 may be potential customers for the Rafale F5.

Thorny path: Tejas Mk2 fighter will be liked but no one will buy it at first
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Unlike other European fighters, Rafale is mostly produced in France, with the main components being handled by Dassault [airframe], Thales [avionics and EW], and Safran [aero-engine].

In addition to a land-based model, Rafale also comes in a maritime variant. French officials have discussed the possibility of Rafale being used to launch small satellites. Rafale continues to sell well globally.

Rafale was introduced to the French Navy in 2004, followed by the FASF in 2006. Over the years, it’s been used in various missions in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq, and Syria.

To date, around 260 Rafales have been built. This new order will increase the number of Rafales in France to around 234. Rafale’s export orders currently stand at a substantial 297, due to orders from countries like India [36], Egypt [55], Qatar [36], Greece [24], the United Arab Emirates [80], Indonesia [42], and Croatia [24]. The recent order from the FASF ensures the Dassault Aviation Rafale production line will remain active for the next ten years.

India’s air force is facing two big problems. First, the number of fighter aircraft is lower than it should be. The Indian Air Force [IAF] needs to have 42 squadrons of aircraft, but right now they only have 31. The Indian Navy also needs more combat aircraft that can take off from aircraft carriers.

The IAF has ordered more than 200 new aircraft, but these will take a long time to build and start using. In the meantime, there’s a big gap in terms of how many aircraft they have and how many they need.

Egyptian Air Force surpassed 10,000 flight hours with French Rafales
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The IAF is considering the Rafale, a type of aircraft, to fill some of this gap. The Rafale-M model has also caught the attention of the Indian Navy. The IAF already has the infrastructure to support another two squadrons of Rafales.

The second problem is that India needs to update its air force with fifth-generation fighters. China is already using 150 of its J-20 fifth-generation fighters and plans to have 400 by 2027. And Pakistan is following closely, planning to start using the J-31, another fifth-generation aircraft, by 2029.

India does have plans for its own fifth-generation aircraft, the AMCA. However, it won’t be ready until around 2035. Unlike China’s and Pakistan’s aircraft, it’s not clear how stealthy the AMCA is going to be. It’s being developed in two stages.

India's first 'production' Tejas Mk1A made a secret test flight
Photo credit: Wikipedia

India isn’t able to buy the F-35, an American fifth-generation aircraft. And India doesn’t want to rely more on Russian technology. There are other options, but they all come with delays.

Another option might be to make more Rafales in India. If this happens, they would initially be made to the F4 standard, but with the potential for upgrading to the F5 standard later.

The estimated costs of these different options have been released. This means India’s decision-makers can decide what’s most cost-effective. This might be a quicker way to get more aircraft.

And if more Rafales are made in India, this shouldn’t slow down the development of the AMCA. France, which designed the Rafale, is a dependable ally, with the French president even being invited to be the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day in 2024.

India has been using French-made aircraft since the 1950s. Deciding on a new aircraft involves looking at many different factors and costs. Therefore, it’s essential to start discussing these issues within India’s aviation industry.

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