MRCA: Typhoon and Rafale

SHAH ALAM: TYPHOON or the Rafale? With the visit of the French Defence Minister to Malaysia coming so soon (this Sunday Aug 30, 2015), on the heels of the visit of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his Defence Procurement Minister Philip Dunne I thought it would be timely to take a look at the two acknowledged front runners in the MRCA programme.

The RMAF have, its understood from sources close to programme being having a more in depth look at both Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale – particularly with regards to the maturity of the technology that both parties are offering. Apart from the Typhoon and Rafale, the other official contenders of the MRCA is the Boeing Super Hornet and the Saab Gripen NG.

Whilst at first glance it appears that the Rafale is more mature, its been deployed on operations in North Africa (Libya, Mali and Chad), and has a current Maritime Strike Capability – stated by the RMAF as a day 1 requirement – when you scratch the surface of the proposal its not quite that clear cut.

A French Navy Rafale taking off with the single Exocet missile.
A French Navy Rafale taking off with the single Exocet missile.

The Rafale on offer to the RMAF is the F3R standard. This is the same standard as Qatar has ordered, however the technological maturity of this variant is understood to have been assessed by RMAF as Technology Readiness Level 5 (TRL5). The TRL levels run from 1 (a bright idea) to 9 (operational service).

TRL 5 would suggest that components are currently being lab tested. That is a very long way from prototype test flying, and then operational maturity and productionisation. On the surface there would appear to be considerable risk to the time-frames because of the required development.

On Eurofighter, the RMAF has been offered the the latest Tranche 3 model. RMAF pilots are believed to have been unable to fly the Tranche 3, however. This is because only Single Seat variants have been ordered by the UK’s Royal Air Force, although it has been ordered in the twin seater variant by Germany. (UK is responsible for the marketing to Malaysia).

The Tranche 3 have now begun production deliveries across Europe and is going into front line service with the Eurofighter nations of UK, Spain, Italy and Germany. The Typhoon is therefore at TRL 9, albeit there may be some additional systems that RMAF wants, such as Maritime Strike, that we will explore the maturity of later in this piece.

Electronically scanned (AESA) radar is another point of interest. Whilst Rafale is already fitted with an early generation ‘AESA’ which came from a 2007 AMSAR project (which incidently included France and the Eurofighter nations in a common programme), the development programme over at Eurofighter, led by Euroradar, a European consortium headed by Selex, continued.

It added a number of a number of additional strands, including critically that of a repositioner. Nose size would also seem important in the ASEA technology field. The nose size of Eurofighter Typhoon is significantly greater than that of Rafale. This allows not just for the repositioner but also allows significantly more antennas and receivers.

Typhoon with the AESA radar
Typhoon with the AESA radar

These are key to not just projecting power from the Radar, but picking up returns, making the Eurofighter Typhoon AESA potential significantly more potent than its French counterpart. So whilst the Brits appear to have taken their time it would appear that it was worth the wait. The TRL level for the Captor-E radar is assessed at full maturity, TRL9, with integration onto Eurofighter Typhoon at TRL 7 [Prototype flying].

The Captor-E radar, offering something like 3 times the coverage of the Rafale radar offered on F3R, is now in production and will be in service in 2018, meaning it would be available day 1 for the RMAF.

On Weapons the comparison is again striking. Both platforms offer the joint European developed Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air to Air weapon, so we will leave that at rest.

Maritime Strike is an interesting question. Again, it appears that on the face of it Rafale is superior. It has Exocet in its arsenal, and is being marketed with AASM (Hammer) for littoral and small ship capability. However a close look at the programme suggest that AASM is nothing more than a development programme, with only the 250kg variant in service.

A Rafale pictured in a F3R standard weapon load,  AASM Hammer for strike missions and MICA and Meteor missiles for air-to-air work and extra fuel tanks.
A Rafale pictured in a F3R standard weapon load, AASM Hammer for strike missions and MICA and Meteor missiles for air-to-air work and extra fuel tanks.

It is currently guided with GPS/INS technology (latest variant could also be laser guided) which is somewhat 1980’s compared to the Dual GPS/Milimetric wave technology in use in Brimstone. The Brimstone is currently on the European Tornados and has been signed up by the Typhoon nations contractually to be in service inside 18 months, making the weapon at TRL 9 and its integration at TRL7. Unsurprisingly the RAF seem to be at the forefront of this push, given the use of Brimstone in Libya and Iraq, along with a large user of Typhoon in the Middle East (Saudi).

A CGI image of a Typhoon armed with a number of Brimstone missiles
A CGI image of a Typhoon armed with a number of Brimstone missiles

Brimstone is the weapons of choice for use against the most likely threat Malaysia faces, that in its littoral waters, fast, small and manoeuvrable craft. Rafale would appear to have no answer to the Typhoon dominance in this area.

Typhoons biggest problem however has always been its lack of a big ship missile. Rafale is equipped with the Exocet, second only perhaps globally to the Harpoon (which is currently in service on the RMAF F-18Ds) in terms of a threat to large complex modern warships. This is a TRL 9 weapon in service today.

A French Navy Rafale with an Exocet
A French Navy Rafale with an Exocet

However industry sources indicated that Rafale can carry only 1 Exocet in one sortie. That doesn’t seem like anything near enough to be able to defeat a modern complex air defence warship with radar and weapon that are able to engage multiple targets.

Only by over complicating the radar picture are you likely to be successful today, which means multiple weapons at once. Even the RMAF reportedly during their evaluations to have assessed Rafale to be less capable than the current SU-30MKM and F-18Ds they have in-service already, and it has little or no capability development to come.

A Typhoon undergoing tests with six Marte ER ASM load.
A Typhoon undergoing tests with six Marte ER ASM load.

It is understood that whilst the Eurofighter has no large maritime weapon in service today, at least one customer has asked for the MBDA anti-ship missile the MARTE ER to be integrated. The Typhoon would be capable of carrying six of these weapons, along with a full Air to Air load and extra fuel tanks.

The offer to Malaysia also its understood included the costs for integration of Harpoon, should that be an RMAF requirement. The real game changer however could be the SPEAR 3 weapon, which is slated for entry into service in around 2022. This is based on the Brimstone concept, and is focused on moving and re-locatable targets. Its understood to have GPS, Milimetric Wave and Laser guidance. With wind tunnel testing underway its assessed by the RMAF to be at TRL level 4.

 A CGI of a Typhoon carrying a load of Spear 3 bombs complete with air-to-air missiles and extra fuel tanks
A CGI of a Typhoon carrying a load of Spear 3 bombs complete with air-to-air missiles and extra fuel tanks

On support, the numbers are quite striking. Over 600 Typhoons have been ordered globally. That is compared to the 264 Rafales now ordered following the recent deals in Egypt, India and Qatar. Straight numbers tell you that the more aircraft there are in service the better the through life costs are likely to be and the more certainty you have around security of supply.

One particular note that RMAF insiders are saying from recent visits to France and the UK is on a specific major cost driver, namely the engine support costs. The Rafale engines has a mean-time-between-failure (MTBF) of around 100 hours, compared with the 500 hours that the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium boast. This has to be of particular concern to the French in their efforts to promote their system, and the RMAF in terms of serviceability.

Costs is another factor at play. A big deal has been made about comparing costs, but my understanding from industry sources is that in a like for like comparison there isn’t much to chose between Rafale and Typhoon. Whilst some may play up initial procurement costs, and highlight differences, I am reliably informed from those close to the potential deal that in many statements around such numbers are not sensible comparisons.

A RSAF Typhoon displayed with the ordnance it can carry.
A RSAF Typhoon displayed with the ordnance it can carry.

Its only when you either strip the numbers right back, and compare like with like, or look at whole life cycle costs for both platforms, that you see the truth. There is no real difference, according to sources in India, Qatar and those close to the UAE potential deal confirm this.

Finally, back to next weeks visit. Its politics. Would we rather as Malaysia have a relationship in which four Nations feel indebted to us for such a large procurement, or a single Nation. Who would you trust you come to Malaysia’s side in our time of need? I’ll let you, the reader, decide.

Anyways my sources indicated no significant deal is expected to be signed next week. The hype have been about Rafale and the Russian Mistrals. These make good copies of course but you and I know the present situation in Malaysia doesn’t bode well for a multi-billion deal. Yes some deals could be signed.
Among them I’m told include companies participating in DSA2016.

–Malaysian Defence

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