From Bleriot’s cross-channel flight to the Concorde’s cross-Atlantic dash, the French have long been at the forefront of aviation. Indeed, the Montgolfier brothers were the first to fly into the heavens as early as 1783. But, then again, the Concorde was not wholly a French product. And, that raises an interesting question: Do the French still have this penchant for flying or have the realities of modern aircraft development left them behind?
Developing a new aircraft is a difficult and expensive undertaking, one that is fraught with uncertainty. Many countries choose to share the risk and reward, rather than go it alone, and France is no stranger to this. While the A400M comes quickly to mind, recent headlines call one’s attention to a truly home-grown design.
Enter the Rafale.
The recent India-Rafale deal highlights the success that the Rafale has achieved domestically … and increasingly on an international scale. Not only is the aircraft French-built; so are its engine and avionics.
The Rafale was a response to the French military’s request for a platform to replace its 70’s-era aircraft: the Air Force and Navy issued a joint request, and the tender for a new aircraft was born. While France originally joined the inter-European project – which would result in the Eurofighter – disagreements led to its pull out in the mid-’80s. Eventually, France would be the sole developer of a new aircraft, dubbed the Rafale, with both naval and conventional variants.
The French developed the Snecma M88 aviation gas turbine to power the aircraft. But local production takes time. Consequently, the Rafale A first flew with an off-the-shelf GE F404 engine. Its subsequent flights with the M88 have been a success. The two Snecma M88s (rated at 16,860 lbst each with afterburner) at the heart of this “omnirole” fighter give it an estimated top speed of Mach 1.8.
Snecma M88 production is completely dependent on finding customers for the Rafale. Egypt, Qatar, and most recently India have all agreed to purchase the fighter, with total orders of 84 aircraft. M88 production for the near term will be modest; however, engine manufacture will increase sharply in 2019, with a forecasted 72 units. Manufacture will decrease after 2019, until eventual cessation of Rafale production in the early 2020’s, barring further orders.
The Rafale has the potential to do well on the export market, although it faces stiff competition from rival companies. Nevertheless, it has proven once again that the French have not lost their place as top-notch aircraft designers.
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