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Comparing the World's Best Light Multirole Fighters, Part Three: Rafale

March 20th - 2018

Among the most expensive light fighters in the world, rivalled in price only by the Eurofighter Typhoon and far surpassing the cost of even the fifth generation F-35A, France’s Dassault Rafale was designed with an airframe built to compromise between a light and a heavy fighter. With the country unable to afford two dual fighter programs as Russia, China and the United States did, the Rafale was developed as a ‘heavy light fighter’ compromising between the two roles. Its considerable 3,700km range in particular sets it apart from other light fighters, though it still fails to match the range of heavy fighters such as the Su-27. The platform’s speed of under mach 2 and its lack of air to air missiles capable of striking targets at over 100km, as well as high maintenance requirements nevertheless leave something to be desired. Though it lacks the MiG-35’s three dimensional thrust vectoring, the Rafale is one of the most manoeuvrable Western fighters in service and has reportedly destroyed U.S. F-22 Raptors in combat during war games and given the F-15 a fair match - though this has been attributed primarily to a significant disparity in the quality of French and American pilots rather than the actual capabilities of the fighter itself.

One critical advantage the Rafale retains is its automated PESA radar, among the most capable ever installed on a light fighter, which outperforms those of European and U.S. analogues. The radar is critical to facilitating the fighter's long range strike role, and it is when functioning as a strike fighter where the Rafale truly stands out compared to other light platforms. It was for this role that the fighter was selected by the Indian and Egyptian Air Forces, with the platform having proven its strike capabilities in 2011 during NATO's campaign against the Libyan military, rather than for any remarkable performance in air to air combat. 

While it is a capable fighter the Rafale’s price nevertheless far exceeds those of specialised heavy air superiority and strike platforms such as the Su-35, F-15C and Su-34, which has made it unpopular on export markets. This is an issue several European fighters have faced when compared to their more cost effective Russian or American counterparts. While there is little doubt that the Rafale could outperform the F-16C or F-18C light fighters by a significant margin, and potentially challenge the MIG-35 or F-18E, whether it is a worthwhile investment considering its cost, around three times that of it's U.S. equivalent, is less certain. Despite widely being derided as ‘overpriced,’ particularly when compared to U.S. and Russian alternatives, it is a highly capable fighter.

Continued in Part Four.

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