As defence contractors await the results of the Canadian government’s evaluation of options to replace the RCAF’s fleet of CF-188s, many are readying themselves for the potential competition of an acquisition program. Dassault Aviation, for one, used the recent Paris Air Show in June to highlight how the Rafale, an aircraft Canadian pilots worked with in Libya, might meet the country’s future needs.
Unsurprisingly, Yves Robins is bullish about the aircraft’s capabilities. “Rafale meets all of the air power requirements of the six missions set out by the Canada First Defence Strategy, sometimes even exceeding them,” said Dassault’s senior vice-president for European Union and NATO affairs, and the lead on any future Canadian competition. “For the air defence of Canada within the NORAD alliance, we consider [that] the Rafale meets the mission perfectly. It has a very long range – much longer than other aircraft that are currently considering the risk assessment.”
Robins notes that the Rafale has already demonstrated its ability to operate with Canada’s main security partner, the United States. “Rafale is the only non-American aircraft [that] is capable of operating from U.S. carriers. It has operated for several weeks from the USS Carl Vincent and the Enterprise,” he said. “In Afghanistan, Rafale was engaged in coalition operations including close air support missions for ground troops. We don’t think that the United States would have entrusted the safety of its ground troops to a foreign aircraft should they have the slightest doubt about its ability to interoperate with those ground troops.”
Recent operational performance, especially combat operations in Mali, Libya and Afghanistan, have demonstrated the aircraft’s ability to meet the Canadian brief, he said, pointing out that in Libya the Canadian military had a first-hand view of the Rafale’s capabilities as it was placed under the command of LGen Charlie Bouchard, commander of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. Bouchard, says Robins, “expressed his total satisfaction with regard to the missions.”
One of the key elements to the Rafale’s capability offering is its ability to operate in a networked environment, both in coalition operations and in domestic anti-terror and civil emergency missions. “Rafale has been designed right from the origin to be inserted into global C4I networks,” Robins explains. “It’s vast communication and network warfare capability, as well as its firepower, should provide authorities with the capabilities they need.”
During the Paris Air Show, Dassault boss Eric Trappier identified three areas where he believes the Rafale can out-point the F-35 should the competition be restarted, suggesting that the Rafale had a compelling proposition in terms of its price, build schedule and cost of operation. Robins concurs with his CEO and suggests the common theme linking the three is the absence of risk.
“The benefits of those three points come mainly from one common denominator: there is no risk. This is because the elements are three demonstrated things that are publicly available with absolutely no risk of price escalation. They are guaranteed by the manufacturer.
“We are currently producing one Rafale a month which means [the aircraft] is immediately available. Usually the production time for a combat aircraft of that type is about three years, so this means that Rafale is an immediately available solution, at a fixed cost, with no risk involved, and fits within Canada’s budgetary constraints.”
While Dassault is unwilling to talk in detail about the aircraft price for commercial reasons, it is keen to point out that Rafale’s operational costs have been baselined by the operations in Mali. “The French air force has stated that during the Mali operations one hour of combat missions with the Rafale cost €14,000 (around CAD$19,000). That is the cost at its maximum operational tempo flying combat missions. It would be lower for training schedules or for peacetime operations.”
While the Rafale may seem to be at a disadvantage in its ability to integrate with Canada’s existing logistical and support infrastructure, Robins says there would be no “real problem in fitting an aircraft like Rafale in any logistical structures.”
According to Dassault, the aircraft is compatible with all standard NATO unguided “dumb” bombs and laser guided munitions. Although the air-to-air weapons are next-generation (MICA beyond visual range intercept and self-defence missiles and METEOR long-range ‘Ramjet’ missiles), the Rafale’s stores management system is Mil-Std-1760 compliant which provides easy integration of customer-selected weapons. Dassualt also has government support to transfer technology and IP to Canadian companies, so this work could be done in Canada.
“We have the full backing of the French government and the French air force for our export activity,” Robins explains. “It is our intention to provide Canada and Canadian industry with the full support capability for the Rafale so it will not need to leave Canadian territory for support, maintenance or upgrade. What we want to do is completely open the Rafale’s technology to Canadian industry so they can accompany the aircraft throughout its operational life – which could be 30 to 40 years – without any French interference.”
The willingness to transfer the maximum possible technology is a unique proposition and anticipates the likely Canadian requirement for industrial participation should the fighter competition be re-opened. According to Robins, “the fundamental approach is that the minimum value Canada will get through industrial participation is the value of the whole Rafale package, plus whatever it can do with technology.”
In its most recent questionnaire to industry, the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat asked for information on possible industrial benefits. Although there is, as yet, no formal call for proposals, Robins believes Dassault’s approach and French government policy that permits technology transfer of a major defence system puts it in a “privileged position.”
“That means we are in a position to open completely the Rafale to Canadian aerospace industry,” he says. “First of all, Canadian industry will be able to completely support the Rafale – it will be able to modify it, to get into the heart of the system and to have access to the source code. And the Canadian air force will be able to modify the aircraft to integrate other weapons should they wish to do so and to adapt the aircraft to future threats and future available technology.”
“The keyword is ‘Canadianization’,” he adds. “The defence industry will have the capability to master completely the aircraft throughout its service life.”
The offset package will also include production of the Rafale and potentially of other Dassault aircraft. “Obviously, we would commit ourselves to guarantee that there would be a cooperation and production package for the Rafale,” Robins says. “We can also potentially associate Canadian industry with the production of Falcons and other civil projects.
“Furthermore, Dassault is not alone in the aircraft. There will be a huge array of opportunities to assist Dassult’s partners on the Rafale, Safran and Thales. There is no obstacle to anything. It will really be up to the Canadians to define what they would like. There is an economic balance to achieve between the benefits you get by producing something in Canada and the investment you have to make for the production capability. So all of this has to be taken into account by the Canadians themselves and we are open to all of it.”
Matthew Smith is an independent defence analyst and writer with experience as an industry strategist and as an editor and contributor for Jane’s Information Group and Shephard Media (www.defenceinsight.co.uk).