Thunder at 100 feet: Flying France's Rafale Superfighter

Thunder at 100 feet: Flying France's Rafale Superfighter

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"We will now enter the yellow potato."
 
"Excuse me?" I ask S├ębastien Dupont de Dinechin, a Rafale test pilot, otherwise known to his fellow as 3D.
 
"Yes, look at the Head Level display, we enter the area which looks like a yellow potato and then we 'pickle' the weapon."
 
"And then what?" I ask.
 
"And then we go home. The target no longer exists."
 
I wonder - Could modern air warfare really be as simple as this?
 
What 3D and I have been doing is thundering over the French countryside, at ultra-low altitude, in a state of the art Dassault Rafale, the pride of the French Air Force, deep over imagined enemy territory to a pre-selected target which we have now destroyed.
 
The yellow "potato" 3D is referring to is a graphical outline located in a high resolution display which we were both looking at as we commenced our attack - 3D in the front cockpit, me in the rear.  Once 'inside the potato', well before we are physically close to the target, 3D depresses the trigger on his control stick, and an imaginary 2000 pound laser guided bomb 'separates' from the wing of our jet and follows pre-programmed GPS-based coordinates to strike the target with pin-point precision.
 
If this were a real conflict, 3D and I would be at a stage of our sortie fraught with danger: The enemy has been alerted to our presence and we need to escape, evading ground based surface to air missile batteries and airborne fighter jets.
 
But we have a friend.  'SPECTRA' is her name.
 
Built into the Rafale fighter, SPECTRA is widely considered the world's most advanced fighter-based electronic warfare suite, a system which is the cornerstone of the Rafale's survivability against a host of the latest threats. SPECTRA is designed to detect threats and provides a multi-spectral threat warning capability against hostile radars, missiles and lasers.  By detecting threats at long-range, SPECTRA allows the pilot to instantly select the best suited defensive measures combining radar jamming of ground and airborne radars and the deployment of infrared or radar decoying flares and chaff.  In a best case scenario, SPECTRA would enable 3D and I to safely exit hostile airspace. (See Pics)
 
But not on this occasion. We have been detected. A lone enemy Mirage 2000 is trying to position itself behind us to get off a shot with an air to air missile. 
 
Except we have the advantage. 
 
french-rafale-jet-295.jpgThe Rafale's RBE-2 Active Electronically Scanned Phased Array Radar (ASEA), the heart of the Rafale's weapons system, is at the cutting edge of aviation technology.  It detects targets at greater ranges and with far more accuracy than anything the Mirage has to offer.  Capable of simultaneously targeting multiple enemies in the air, the RBE-2 AESA has a fixed plate in the nose of the Rafale filled with T/R (transmit-receive) modules which fire electronically steered radar waves across a huge expanse of the sky ahead, above and below us.
 
But the Mirage pilot is no rookie.  His own electronic warfare suite would have told him he is up against a formidable threat and right now, he's maneuvering to get outside the Rafale's kill zone.  We maneuver as well but this isn't quite your Battle of Britain seat-of-your-pants flying experience.  In fact, we can't even see the enemy with our eyes but he's there alright, his location clearly outlined on our heads-up-display which is now providing 3D a firing solution for his Mica beyond-visual-range air to air missile. 
 
In just a few moments, 3D gets a SHOOT indicator on his head-up-display.  There is no time to waste.  A trigger press later, an imaginary Mica air to air missile blasts off one of the Rafale's wing pylons and begins tracking the enemy Mirage. 
 
But wait. There's a problem. The Mirage has disappeared off our radar!
 
Will our 2 Million Euro Mica air to air missile miss its mark?
 
Hang on! There he is, back on our display once again!
 
"Are we launching another missile?" I ask.
 
"No" says 3D quickly providing the missile revised targeting data through a high-speed data link which points the Mica missile in the right direction so it can intercept the enemy Mirage.  In moments, the Mica missile's own radar seeker goes `active' by detecting the enemy jet.
 
The Mirage 2000 jinxes around the sky in a last ditch effort to evade the Mica missile. But the writing is on the wall. 
 
Notch that up as another kill for the Rafale.
 
We decide that's enough work for one day.  It's time to head home without any further detection.
 
Now over the sea, the Automatic Flight Control System is activated to Terrain Following Mode and we drop to a sea-skimming altitude of 100 feet. 
 
3D feels the need for speed and lights the afterburner, accelerating from a speed of 250 knots (463 kilometres per hour) to 600 knots (more than 1111 kilometres) in less than 20 seconds.
 
It's all incredibly impressive stuff as we return to our 'home-base,' Istres, near Marseilles in France.
 
Missions like what I experienced on my sortie on the Rafale are a snap-shot of what the Indian Air Force will be able to do in the not-too-distant future.  The Rafale is the winner of the IAF's Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition and was shortlisted by the IAF after coming up tops in the fly-off against the best fighters the US, Russia, Sweden and a European consortium had to offer.  Dassault, the manufacturers of the Rafale are presently in top-secret negotiations with the Defence Ministry to arrive at a final price among a host of details bound to accompany what has been labelled the world's biggest defence deal, easily worth more than 15 billion dollars for 126 jets.
 
It's not that the simulated mission I flew was extraordinary. Not at all. Ground attack and air-to air missions have been bread and butter operations of any competent Air Force since the First World War. What makes the Rafale experience different is the level of automation, the incredible man-machine interface and the highly fused sensor suite the French top gun employs.  In simple terms, the Rafale does the same job with more precision and safety for the pilot.
 
Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity of flying a dozen odd sorties on some of the greatest fighter aircraft including 4 of the 5 jets the Rafale had to beat to win the Indian Air Force's comprehensive trials conducted across the country.  While each of the competitors, whether the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (USA), the MiG-35 (Russia), the Gripen NG (Sweden), the Eurofighter (European Consortium), or the F-16 IN (USA) are formidable platforms, the Rafale came out tops in perhaps being the most capable fighter in its present state of development.
 
vishnu-rafale-295.jpgAn out and out 9G fighter capable of dog fighting with the best of its lighter single engine rivals like the F-16, the Rafale also retains the ability of lifting 9.5 tonnes of ordinance for missions across the spectrum of operations in air warfare including nuclear strike. The Rafale can conceivably engage enemy fighters, strike ground targets and fire an anti-ship missile at a warship all in the same mission.  With air to air refuelling and support from airborne early warning radars, the Rafale has demonstrated its ability in being at the forefront of international campaigns.
 
In March last year, pilots of the 1/7 Squadron based in St Dizier, not too far from Paris, flew a 9-hour-long mission into Libya, in the first wave of attacks against Moammer Gaddafi's armed forces.
 
Using secure high-rate data links, Rafale fighters in the early days of the conflict were able to receive intelligence images and video real-time through a system called Rover (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver) from friendly forces on the ground.  Using this information which was also shared with Intelligence analysts on-board AWACS jets, Rafale fighters were instantly vectored to new targets.  Using a combination of its Damocles laser designation pod, which can mark targets for laser guided bombs and its Front Sector Optronics system which provides high resolution images, pilots were able to accurately identify and hit targets at long ranges.
 
The 'hitting' itself was done, quite frequently, by a remarkable new munition, the AASM, a rocket boosted air-to-ground precision guided weapon, called the SBU-38 'Hammer' by NATO.  Using the Hammer, Rafale pilots were able to designate upto 6 independent targets and hit all of them simultaneously. All the pilot needed to do was to 'pickle' (depress the trigger) once for the release of all six bombs. An incredibly versatile weapon system, the Hammer, it was seen, even had a robust capability against moving targets, an unprecedented capability for a weapon of its class.
 
For me, personally, the sortie on the Rafale, a rare privilege for a civilian, came out of the blue. With Rafale winning the Indian Air Force (IAF) competition, there was really no need for Dassault the manufacturers of the jet, to make a statement in the Indian media. It was quite an honour then to be invited, a project that we at NDTV felt quite keen to take on.
 
I have flown on French fighters in the past as well. In fact, during the Kargil War, I was invited by the IAF to fly rear-seat in the very same Mirage 2000 jets which had hit Pakistani bunkers on Tiger Hill with laser guided bombs a few weeks earlier.
 
The Rafale was designed to ultimately replace the Mirage 2000 providing an incremental step up in capability compared to the old French jet. Even though hundreds of Mirage 2000s have been upgraded over the years, the jump in capability from the Mirage to the Rafale has to be seen to be believed.
 
One of the most impressive technologies on offer in the Rafale is the advanced terrain following system which allows the jet to skim the surface of the earth using the Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS). Operational in two modes, the AFCS, allows the pilot to conduct a fully automated attack run ("hands off the controls") using either digital terrain following or a radar terrain following mode. With digital terrain following, the AFCS maneuvers the Rafale over terrain (hills, valleys, peaks) based on a three dimensional map database which is pre-programmed into the AFCS software. An even more reliable way of coming in low to hit a target (or to escape) is by using the radar terrain following mode of the RBE-2 AESA radar which scans the terrain ahead and safely flies the jet over all obstructions before resuming nap-of-the-earth operations.
 
rafale-vishnu-295.jpg3D demonstrated both modes to me during my sortie including a hair-raising ultra-low level run over the sea at no more than 100 feet at a speed nearing 500 knots (926 kilometres per hour).  This was, quite clearly, the most thrilling experience I have ever had on any fighter jet I have flown, far more thrilling than the gravity-defying "thrust-vectored" maneuvers I have experienced on the latest generation of Russian fighters such as the Sukhoi-30 or MiG-35.

Racing over the Mediterranean, 3D tells me, over the Rafale's voice-activated intercom, "Look Vishnu, no hands."  I look forward to see 3D's raised hands in the front cockpit.  He clearly isn't kidding!
 
"At this altitude and at this speed, it's safer for the radar to fly the plane than me" explains 3D. Just then, the Rafale banks to the left following the pre-programmed heading fed into the Rafale's auto-pilot system, an even more incredible experience.  For the next several seconds, I am overwhelmed by the sensation of the sea, now less than thirty metres from me, staring me in the face as we charge past.  The Rafale suddenly levels out and then banks to the right, giving me another peak at this other-worldly experience.
 
We wrap up this part of the sortie with a high G maneuver, going straight to 8.5G, which feels like being weighted down by 8.5 times one's body weight.
 
I have been up to 9G several times in the past but, in my experience, anything beyond 6G is just painful. But it's always a challenge, and I certainly wasn't about to let go of the opportunity to experience 8.5G on-board the French superfighter.
 
As we neared 8G, at the apex of a sharp vertical climb, I began sensing the onset of a grey-out, with peripheral vision slowly disappearing.  As the G forces increased, and my vision became a touch blurry, I realised I couldn't be too far from a black-out (caused by blood racing from the head to ones feet).  But high G maneuvers like this last just a few seconds and soon we were back to straight and level flight.
 
To deal with the onset of high Gs, all pilots on the Rafale (like all fighters) don a G suit which slows down the flow of blood from the head during a high-G maneuver through the inflation of air into bladders around the waist and legs. However, unlike some of the other fast jets I have flown on, a chest extension to the G-suit (which squeezes the pilot's chest to reduce the flow of blood to the legs) is optional - the angle of the ejection seat on the Rafale ensures that G forces can be dealt with effectively with only a standard G-suit kit.
 
After a one hour, twenty five minute sortie, 3D guides our Rafale back to Istres, the landing speed of the jet significantly lower than what I have experienced on jets such as the American F-16. With a touch down speed a little over 200 kilometres per hour, the Rafale actually feels as if its hanging in the air, particularly after all the high speed runs we had been doing all afternoon. This is a boon for pilots, particularly as they try to land on shorter runways. Engaging auto-throttle during the final approach to land, once the landing gear has been deployed, ensures that both airspeed and the angle of attack needed to come into land is automatically taken care of, the Rafale landing without any fuss whatsoever.
 
For me, the sortie on the Rafale was a dream come true, a chance to experience, first hand, a platform the Indian Air Force rates as the best fighter of its class in the world. When the Rafale eventually enters frontline squadron service with the Indian Air Force (assuming negotiations actually end up in a contract), the IAF may well become the most potent Air Force in the world this side of the United States, all within the next 15 years. Flying a mix of Russian Sukhoi-30 heavy fighters, PAKFA stealth fighters being jointly developed in Russia and the Dassault Rafale, the IAF's fighter fleet will have formidable capabilities - covering the entire spectrum of offensive and defensive air operations.



(Vishnu Som, NDTV's Editor Documentaries, is an aviation enthusiast who has flown and reported on a range of fighter jets around the world.)

 
Story First Published: August 03, 2012 09:53 IST

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