France's Dassault Rafale Is No F-35 Stealth Fighter, But It Wasn't Meant To Be

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: France must wait nearly two decades before a European stealth fighter can enter service.

In January 2019, French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced France would commit $2.3 billion to develop an F4 generation of the Dassault Rafale twin-engine multirole fighter.  This would include production in 2022–2024 of the last twenty-eight of the original order of 180 Rafales, followed by the purchase of an additional thirty Rafales F4.2s between 2027–2030, for a total of 210.  Since 2008, France has deployed land- and carrier-based Rafales into combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria.   

Despite incorporating stealth technology, the Rafale (“Burst of Fire” or “Gust of Wind”), is not a true stealth aircraft like the F-35. True, the French jet’s wings and fuselage are primarily composed of radar-absorbent composite materials and lightweight titanium.  Other stealthy design features include S-shaped engine inlets, serrated edges and a channel exhaust cooling scheme designed to reduce infrared signature.

These give the Rafale an estimated Radar Cross Section (RCS) of slightly above one square meters—comparable to peers like the Super Hornet and Typhoon, but orders of magnitude greater than that of the F-35 jet.  Land-based Rafales are currently priced $76–$82 million per plane, only modestly cheaper than the F-35A which benefits from vastly greater economy of scale, though the Rafale’s operating costs are likely lower.

Paris particularly prizes maintaining an independent domestic arms industry and has never seriously considered purchasing F-35s.  Instead, France is working with Germany and other partners to develop a sixth-generation Future Combat Air System stealth jet to enter service in 2035-2040.  Until then, France is doubling down on the 4.5-generation Rafale by integrating additional F-35-style avionics and improving its network-centric warfare capabilities.

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