Dassault triumphs in Mideast as F-35 policy shifts: Oman eyes Rafale

The Middle Eastern nations have recently turned their gaze towards French fighter jets, particularly the Rafale, as the American F-35 Lightning II—the 5th generation fighter jet—remains inaccessible due to U.S. considerations for the security of its ally, Israel. Notably, the nation of Oman, which enjoys a strategic position near the Arabian Sea and shares its boundary with Yemen, is the latest to manifest interest in Rafale. 

Alabama ANG's 'Red Tails' soar with state-of-the-art F-35 fighters
Photo by st Lt. Michael Luangkhot

Oman’s desire to bolster its airborne prowess is being expressed through plans to procure between 18 to 24 French fighter jets. This move becomes more significant when you consider that Oman’s air force currently operates a fleet primarily composed of 24 F-16s and 12 Eurofighter Typhoons. 

Given the escalating insecurity in the region, the advanced technology and multi-role capabilities of Rafale make it an appealing prospect for Oman’s air capabilities.

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

Rafale club 

In recent times, the ‘Rafale Club’ membership has been growing steadily, more so in the Gulf region. With both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates having the French fighter jet under their command, now Oman seems to be heading towards procuring the latest F-4 model of Rafale, with negotiations already underway. It’s worth noting that Egypt, another Arab country, harbors Rafale jets within its fleet. 

Interestingly, the U.S.’s disinclination to provide wealthy Gulf states with the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets has delivered a golden opportunity for Dassault Aviation to solidify its foothold within the region with the Rafale fighters. Israel has voiced opposition to the sales of F-35s to Middle Eastern nations because such transactions would compromise its doctrine of maintaining a superior military prowess in the region.

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

Israel’s security strategy has always centered on maintaining a military advantage over neighboring nations. This has been achieved either by acquiring top-tier military assets from the U.S., or by ensuring peer countries cannot access such technology.

Dassault Aviation has thrived

In this climate, Dassault Aviation has thrived, with their Rafale fighter jet becoming an exceedingly popular choice within the region. In fact, Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest oil producer, is reportedly in discussions to buy a fleet of these French-manufactured aircraft. 

Technologically well-equipped Qatar, which already boasts 36 Rafales, is not falling behind and is planning an upgrade to the F-4 variant for its existing squadron. Furthermore, the country is even considering an additional purchase of 24 fighter jets by 2025. 

This information was confirmed by the French Defense Minister, Sebastien Lecornu, on his recent trip to Qatar, during a meeting with defense officials at the Dukhan Air Base, home of Qatar’s Rafale squadron. 

A report from the French media outlet La Tribune reveals that Qatar intends to upgrade their Rafale jets to the F4 grade, the latest and the most advanced version currently serving within the French Air Force. 

The trend has reversed

Despite offering a top-notch omni-role combat experience, the Rafale initially struggled to capture the market. Aside from Egypt and Qatar, the Rafale’s sales record was somewhat lackluster. A hefty price tag played a significant part in hindering its market penetration. 

However, the trend has reversed in the last decade. With Serbia becoming the ninth customer of Rafale jets, the fighter’s clientele now includes the French Navy and Air Force, Egypt, Qatar, India, Greece, Indonesia, Croatia, and the UAE. 

The French also anticipate that Egypt will increase its Rafale contingent after it abandoned plans to purchase Russian Su-35 jets. Currently, Egypt has 54 Rafale fighters. 

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‘The strategy is bearing fruit’

Dassault Aviation spokesperson, Mathieu Durand, was quoted as saying, “We believed a lightweight, multi-role aircraft would be an easier sell. It was disputed at first, but the strategy is now bearing fruit.” Not only are countries expanding their orders for these French jets, but there’s also a significant queue of potential buyers, including Oman, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Malaysia, Iraq, Colombia, and Bangladesh. 

When the Indian Air Force, the fourth largest globally, selected the Rafale over the Eurofighter Typhoons in 2012, it sparked a sales boom for the French combat aircraft. Following India’s lead, the UAE signed a precedent-setting contract for 80 Rafales. 

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

The evolution of the fighter jet took a significant amount of time, with its first flight as a demonstration unit held on July 4, 1986. The official program launch took place in January 1988. The first Rafale F1 prototype took off on May 19, 1991, and it wasn’t until a decade later, on May 18, 2001, that the first of these jets was delivered to the French Navy.

DA Rafale F-4

In 2019, France’s Air Force commenced an upgrade of their Rafale jets to the F4 standard, thanks to a generous budget of €1.9 billion. It’s no secret that Paris anticipates the entire fleet of Rafale jets within its air force to adopt the F4 standard eventually. Furthermore, their ally in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates [UAE], showed a preference for the Rafale fighter jet by placing an order for 80 jets adhering to the F4 standard. 

Greece received the first six of eighteen Rafale fighters
Photo credit: Dassault Aviation

In a press release, Dassault Aviation revealed that the F4 standard represents another significant stride since the launch of F1, which was strictly for the first carrier-based aircraft of the French Navy; the F2 with its enhanced air-to-ground and air-to-air abilities; and the extremely versatile F3 and F3R. 

As previously discussed, the contract for developing the F4 standard Rafale jet, valued at 2.3 billion dollars, is expected to receive approval by 2024. Nevertheless, certain features are projected to be operational by the close of 2022. 

Several improvements

F-35 and Rafale fighters cannot meet domestic and foreign demand
Photo credit: Avions Legendaries

The upgrades within the F4 standard involve improvements to radar sensors and front-sector optronics and a boost to the helmet-mounted display capabilities. Also, an upgrade to the fighter jet’s engine control unit forms part of the enhancements. 

The Rafale F-4 version presents enhancements to the Thales RBE2 active electronic scanned array [AESA] radar, enhancing its situational awareness, target detection, and tracking capabilities. Furthermore, the F-4 features improved front-sector optronics, leading to better identification and surveillance of targets. 

The F-4 standard also equips the Rafale with the capability to carry new armaments, which include the Mica Next-Generation [NG] air-to-air missile and the heavy-hitting, 1,000 kg Sagem Armement Air-Sol Modulaire [AASM] air-to-ground precision weapon. 

Half of Croatia's Rafale F3-R fleet acquired, full delivery by 2025
Photo credit: Dassault Aviation

Besides these features, the Rafale F-4 also touts a radar-absorbing coating, a revised fin-fuselage junction, and custom modifications to facilitate precise landings and take-offs on aircraft carriers. This, along with an enhanced airframe, extended nose landing gear, and a tailhook strategically placed between the engines, ensures optimum carrier-based operations.

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