Dassault Rafale vs. F-35: More than Just Selecting a Combat Aircraft

February 1, 2022

The competition between the F-35 and the Rafale is emblematic of the political value and strategic significance of modern, sophisticated military systems.

Greece ordered a total of 18 Rafale combat aircraft from France in 2021. The country received the first six Dassault Rafale combat aircraft on January 19, 2022.  The Rafale is planned to replace the older models of the Mirage 2000 aircraft, also produced by France.

The year 2021 saw many developments regarding combat aircraft in the form of announcements of selection and procurement signatures. The Rafale by France and the F-35 by the United States were the two most prominent aircraft in the headlines throughout the year. The technical-military selection criteria and the political impact thereof are subject to debate. The evaluation of modern combat aircraft, similar to other sophisticated platforms such as air defense systems, requires a multi-disciplinary approach incorporating military, technological, and political assessments. The competition between the Rafale and the F-35 is emblematic of such a challenge.

The F-35 Lightning II

The F-35 Lightning II is the product of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program to develop a next-generation combat aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as well as the program’s partner nations and major U.S. allies. Developed by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 has three variants: the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) version F-35A; the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version F-35B; and carrier variant (CV) F-35C. All variants share the same basic design and mission systems whereas critical subsystems and performance parameters differ based on specific design requirements.

The development and manufacture of the F-35 are undertaken by the United States and seven partner nations, namely the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Turkey was also a partner in the program, but was removed by the United States in 2020 due to Ankara’s purchase of S-400 air defense systems from the Russian Federation.

According to the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in 2021, the F-35 program costs a total of $1.7 trillion across its lifecycle.

The F-35A is a fifth-generation combat aircraft which incorporates next-generation flight and combat capabilities such as very low observability (VLO) against radars and other sensors, advanced electronic warfare, electronic intelligence and communication capabilities, various types of electromagnetic and electro-optical sensors, and a wide range of precision guided air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. The F-35 was designed around the concept of interoperability, as a tactical combat platform able to seamlessly exchange data with various air, sea, land, and space assets of allied nations during complex multinational operations.

The JSF is the world’s most expensive and complicated weapon development project to date. Along with the project’s political aspect, JSF has resulted in controversy and criticism mainly because of its sizable budget and schedule overruns. According to an estimate by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in 2021, the F-35 program is expected to cost a total of $1.7 trillion across its lifecycle.

The F-35 is a single-engine aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of more than 31 tons. The F-35A variant is capable of carrying a total of 2.6 tons of weapons in internal bays and 6.8 tons externally. The F-35B variant has an additional fan for short takeoff and vertical landing. The development prototype of the F-35, designated as “X-35,” made its first flight in 2000. The production version prototype made its first flight in 2006, followed by the introduction into service in 2015, 2016, and 2019 of the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C respectively.

The Rafale

The Rafale combat aircraft was developed by Dassault Aviation for the French air and naval forces in order to undertake air combat, ground attack, reconnaissance, and nuclear deterrence missions. The prototype made its maiden flight in 1986, and after a protracted testing period, the Rafale entered service with the French Navy in 2004 and the French Air Force in 2006. France originally planned for a total of 286 aircraft, but eventually ordered 132 for the air force and 48 for the navy, totaling 180. Deliveries are planned to be completed in 2022.

The Rafale is equipped with a SPECTRA system, which is used for protecting the aircraft against airborne and ground threats as well as collecting electronic intelligence.

The Rafale is a twin-engine, delta-wing aircraft with a canard for improved maneuverability and aerodynamic performance. It is equipped with RBE2, a multirole radar, which is a passive electronically scanned array. The radar is accompanied by an electro-optical target detection and tracking system, designated as “Optronique secteur frontal (OSF).”

For electronic warfare and self-protection, the Rafale is equipped with a SPECTRA system, which is used for protecting the aircraft against airborne and ground threats as well as collecting electronic intelligence. The Rafale uses Damocles targeting and Reco NG aerial reconnaissance (AEROS) pods for precision strikes and imagery intelligence (IMINT) missions respectively.

Dassault Rafale fighter jet flies during the 52nd International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport near Paris, France. Photo by Mustafa Yalcin, Anadolu Images

The Rafale has a maximum takeoff weight of 24.5 tons and can carry 9.5 tons of external fuel and armament. For strategic strike missions, the Rafale’s main weapon is the SCALP air-launched cruise missile and the ASMP standoff nuclear missile that is used for nuclear strike. The latest version of the Rafale is designated as “F3R.” This variant comes with improved avionics systems and the introduction of the RBE2-AA new-generation active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, replacing the legacy RBE2 radar. A follow-on variant, the F4 is under development and all French air and naval forces Rafales will be upgraded to this standard.

F-35 partner orders and exports

More than 700 F-35s have been delivered to the United States, partner nations, and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers as of late 2021. So far, the U.S. has ordered 1,763 F-35As, 353 F-35Bs, and 353 F-35Cs. Partner nations, namely the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, and Norway, have confirmed orders for 353 F-35A/Bs. Canada, a Level III partner, has so far not ordered any F-35s.

In addition to the United States and seven program partners, so far, the F-35 has been selected or ordered by eight nations. South Korea ordered 40 F-35As in 2014, with a follow-on acquisition of 20 F-35As and 20 F-35Bs announced in August 2020. Two other major U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region, namely Japan and Australia, have ordered F-35s. Japan signed an agreement for an initial batch of 42 F-35As and in 2018 declared plans for the procurement of 63 F-35As and 42 F-35Bs.

Two states, namely Israel and Singapore, are procuring the F-35 as Security Cooperative Participants (SCP) under agreements signed in 2003. In 2006, the Israeli Air Force officially announced its long-term plan to purchase more than 100 F-35As. The contract for the first 19 aircraft was signed in 2010, followed by an order for 14 more in 2015. A batch of 17 aircraft was ordered in 2016, and the first F-35A was delivered in December 2016. As of January 2022, the Israeli Air Force has 30 F-35As in service. The U.S. approved the sale of four F-35Bs to Singapore with an option for eight more in January 2020.

In September 2019, the U.S. approved the sale of F-35As to Poland with a cost of $6.5 billion. Another agreement for 32 jets was signed in January 2020. In the following year, another NATO ally, Belgium, selected the F-35A to replace its aging F-16A/B fleet. A contract for 34 F-35As was signed in April 2020.

The F-35A won two major competitions in 2021. First, Switzerland announced its selection of the aircraft in June 2021. The F-35A competed against the Dassault Rafale and the Swedish Saab Gripen E/F. The Swiss Air Force will receive 36 F-35As. The other feat was in Finland. After a much-publicized competition against the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Saab Gripen, the F-35A was declared the winner in December 2021. Finland will purchase 64 F-35As along with a large package of precision-guided munitions.

The F-35 is currently on the agenda of several countries. One of the most controversial cases is the United Arab Emirates. A letter of request (LoR) for 50 F-35As and a large package worth $23 billion including MQ-9 Reaper armed drones was sent to Washington in September 2020. The request was approved on the last day of Donald Trump’s presidency and temporarily paused for review by his successor Joe Biden. The process was reportedly given a go-ahead by the Biden administration, but the UAE said it will withdraw the request in December 2021 because of a disagreement over operational limitations and logistics.

Greece is planning to induct the F-35 as well. Athens sent an LoR for 24 aircraft in November 2020. Other prospective customers include Spain, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Thailand.

France’s sales thrust for the Rafale

After entering service with the French air forces and navy, the Rafale was marketed to many countries, but did not achieve an export success until the mid-2010s mainly due to high acquisition costs. In February 2015, Egypt ordered 24 Rafales under a €5.2 billion agreement with France. The agreement also covered the purchase of a FREMM class frigate and various types of missiles. A follow-on order for 30 jets was made in 2021, bringing the total number of Egyptian Rafales to 54.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is an American family of single-engine and all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft. Photo by Deposit

Qatar was the Rafale’s second export customer. As part of a massive modernization effort for its air force and securing political support during the blockade by other Gulf states, Qatar consecutively ordered three types of the modern combat aircraft: 24 Rafales from France followed by 24 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from the United Kingdom in 2018, and 36 F-15QAs from the U.S. in 2017. A second batch of 12 Rafales was ordered in 2017.

After a protracted and controversial tender period, India ordered 36 Rafales in 2016. The contract covers an option for 110 more jets and the Indian Navy is going to test the naval version of the Rafale for use onboard its indigenous aircraft carrier, the Vikrant.

As part of the deepening strategic relations with Paris, Greece signed a €1.9 billion agreement for 18 Rafales in January 2021. Twelve of these aircraft are to be delivered as secondhand from the French Air Force. A decision for the purchase of additional six Rafales was announced by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in September 2021. The Rafales will replace Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters in the Hellenic Air Force.

The last months of 2021 saw two additional contracts for Rafales. In November 2021, Croatia signed an agreement with France for the purchase of 12 secondhand Rafales. In December, the United Arab Emirates signed a €16 billion contract with Paris for the acquisition of 80 Rafales and 12 EC725 Caracal transport helicopters. The timing of the order was especially noteworthy, since it came shortly after the UAE informed the U.S. that it will suspend discussions to acquire the F-35.

Turkey and the F-35

Turkey officially became a partner of the F-35 project from the Concept Demonstration phase with the signature of a letter of acceptance worth $6.2 million in 1999. This was followed by a memorandum of understanding signed to become a Level III partner of the System Development and Demonstration phase in July 2002, and the Production, Support and Follow-on Development (PSFD) phase in January 2007.

The letter of intent covering business opportunities for the Turkish aerospace industry was signed between Turkey and Lockheed Martin in February 2007. The total workshare for the local contractors was estimated as high as $12 billion. A total of ten Turkish aerospace and defense companies were partners in the project, taking responsibilities in the development and manufacturing of several parts and components of the airframe, subsystems, and avionics.

A total of 100 F-35As were planned to be acquired by the Turkish Air Force. Additionally, the Turkish Navy planned to induct the F-35B variant for use with the TCG Anadolu amphibious assault ship. On June 22, 2018, Turkey received its first F-35A at the Lockheed Martin facilities in Fort Worth, Texas. However, Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 project became a subject of controversy after Ankara’s procurement of S-400 air defense systems from the Russian Federation.

The U.S. reaction was to halt all delivery processes of the aircraft, divert those on the serial production and assembly line to United States Air Force orders, stop all training activities for Turkish personnel in the United States, and begin preparations to remove Turkish companies from the supply chain, thereby, formally removing Turkey from the project.

After being ousted from the F-35 project, Turkey revised its modernization plans and focused more on the local development of the next-generation fighter aircraft under the Milli Muharip Uçak (MMU or  National Fighter Jet) program. In order to fill the capability gap until the MMU achieves a full operational capability, Turkey requested the sale of 40 F-16V fighters and 80 kits for upgrade of existing F-16s to F-16V standard.

Comparison and assessment

The purchase of a sophisticated military weapon such as a combat aircraft incorporates political, economic, and technological aspects in addition to military ones. The decision for the method of acquisition, such as off-the-shelf procurement or local development, is usually influenced by the political agenda and geopolitical factors of both supplier and recipient countries. These factors have been more prominently manifested in recent purchases of both the F-35 and the Rafale.

Political considerations are probably the most crucial factor that shape the decision for the type of aircraft to be acquired. One of the most notable examples is Greece’s purchase of the Rafale. Amidst rising tensions with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece and France made steps to improve political and military cooperation further in order to form an alliance against Turkey.

In line with this move, Greece ordered the Rafale to improve its air force capabilities. Of particular note is the handover of secondhand Rafales from the French Air Force inventory to the Hellenic Air Force in an expedited way. It is worth underlining that France followed the same course with the delivery of Rafales to Egypt. Greece is also reinforcing strategic ties with the U.S. and unsurprisingly an aircraft purchase is part of this trend. In addition to the upgrade of the 84 F-16s to the F-16V standard, Greece is planning to acquire F-35s from the U.S.

The F-35 has been the target of severe criticism because of concerns over operational independence, logistics, and critical information security. The aircraft and its logistics systems are directly connected and dependent on the U.S. Therefore, the operation and maintenance of the F-35 inherently means that the recipient country is aligned with the military and political interests of the U.S. In other words, the F-35 is an asset for a U.S.-led military-political alliance. This aspect of the aircraft has been seen in the U.S.-Turkey crisis over the S-400 procurement by the latter.

Secondly, interoperability is another criterion in aircraft selection. As a result of advances in sensors and communication systems technologies, aircraft and other major weapons are required to exchange vast amounts of data in real time with each other and with the aircraft and weapons of friendly nations in order to successfully execute military operations. In order to achieve such capability, all data-processing and exchange systems should be compatible. This capability, in turn, enables a country to be part of a military coalition and provides leverage in the political arena.

The selection of the F-35 by Australia, Japan, and South Korea is a good example of the use of interoperability as a military capacity and a political asset. These countries are close allies of the U.S. against China and North Korea in the Indo-Pacific region, and their military capabilities are built up in such a way that they can seamlessly integrate with each other for complex missions such as air and missile defense, long-range precision strikes, and strategic reconnaissance.

France arguably is following a similar path in its export of the Rafale to its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean region, namely Greece and Egypt. The sale of Rafales to these countries, accompanied by joint trainings and exercises, aims to form a joint operation capability. In short, interoperability is established based on geopolitical considerations and the foreign relations of recipient countries.

France arguably is following a similar path in its export of the Rafale to its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean region, namely Greece and Egypt.

The decision to purchase F-35s by Switzerland and Finland came as a surprise to many observers. Both these countries have declared air defense as a priority operational requirement and other contenders such as the Dassault Rafale, the Saab Gripen, and the Eurofighter Typhoon were regarded as superior to the F-35 in terms of aerial combat capabilities. Both countries executed very transparent evaluation processes. A closer look at the official reports and assessments reveals the expectations and requirements of modern air forces in complex threat environments. First of all, the combat aircraft is now regarded as a complex “system of systems” which is equipped with a variety of diverse types of sensors and cables to exchange data in real time.

Acting both as a flying sensor suite and a communications node, the combat aircraft plays a vital role in controlling a large airspace, and providing early warning and threat detection capacity. Both Switzerland and Finland use U.S.-made air defense systems – the Patriot and NASAMS 2 respectively. The F-35 is able to be fully integrated into the air defense network of these countries.

The Finland and Switzerland cases show the importance of network-centric capacity in the establishment of a credible deterrent and operational force. Such a force structure is only available through advanced sensors, communications, and data-processing systems. A modern combat aircraft that is designed and developed around this principle is the natural selection for many countries that have fewer concerns over operational costs or conflicts of geopolitical interests with the supplier country.

The F-35 and the Rafale are very modern and capable combat aircraft, but the Rafale was designed in the 1990s, which means it is adapted to the requirements of modern air warfare through upgrades. The F-35, on the other hand, is developed along these concepts and requirements from the very start.

As a result, the competition between the F-35 and the Rafale is emblematic of the political value and strategic significance of modern, sophisticated military systems. The decision either to purchase or to develop such aircraft, and the selection of the supplier country are complex problems involving military, political, technological, and economic issues.

Arda Mevlutoglu holds a BSc degree (Hons) in Astronautical Engineering from Istanbul Technical University and a MS degree in Science and Technology Policy Studies from Middle East Technical University. His research focuses on aerospace and defense technologies, defense policies, and regional security issues.