Friday, August 29, 2014

Fighter Jet Fight Club: Gripen vs. Rafale!




At this point in FJFC, I actually have to look back and double check to make sure I have not already pitted two aircraft together.  Looking back, I realize that some match-ups were rather easy to judge, while others required much wracking of brain.

The match-ups that always seemed to cause me the most troubles were the one that included one of the fighters presented here today.  Both fighters are damn good in their own right, but with minor weaknesses that really only come to light when put in direct comparison with other fighters.

As similar as the Rafale is to the Typhoon, it shares even more in common with the Gripen.  Both aircraft originate from a single nation, both are close-coupled canard designs, and both were designed with a balanced approach towards being a true "multirole" fighter.  In essence, the only real basic difference between the two is the number of engines.

The two aircraft have progressed different paths, however.  Over the years, Saab has attempted to broaden the Gripen's international appeal.  By adding weapon options, a refueling probe, and other features, Saab has managed to secure a respectable amount of international sales.  Dassault has not been so fortunate with the Rafale however.  Its only current user is France, with an Indian purchase that seems perpetually on the horizon.  This has put the Rafale at an unfortunate disadvantage, as its upgrade path has been left to the whims of the French government amidst austerity measures.  This means that valuable upgrades like HMDs and CFTs, while available, are still not in use.

Let us leave politics aside for the moment.  How well do these aircraft fair against each other?  Remember kids, play nice.

Air-to-ground:

Interdiction/Penetration:  Much has been alluded about how fantastic the Rafale's SPECTRA EW suite.  While much has been said about it, there is not a lot about how the system actually works.  It is guessed there is some sort of "passive jamming", along with the usual RWR (radar warning receivers), chaff, flares, and other countermeasures.

The Gripen has upped its countermeasure game as well, however.  Larger wingtip pods will house expendable active decoys known as "BRITECLOUD".  It will also utilize improved electronic warfare systems.  Gripen's new wingtip ECM pods will be the first to utilize Gallium-Nitride as a means to boost power.  Not only that, but its smaller size and IR footprint could be seen as an advantage, ground defenses rely more heavily on longer ranged radar detection.

Picking a winner here would require information that is simply not available to the public.  Military EW systems are at the top of "need to know only" stuff.  Therefore, this one is a draw.  Advantage:  Tie

Deep Strike:  With CFTs, it is very likely that the Rafale would walk away with this one.  Unfortunately, France has yet to outfit any of its Rafales with them.  Every Rafale has the capability, but so far, it has remained unused.

The Gripen NG does not yet have CFT capability.  It does boast an impressive 40% more fuel storage than older models however, thanks to relocated landing gear and minor changes to the fuselage.  Saab has also worked on new, larger external tanks.  While it cannot carry as much fuel as the Rafale, its smaller, single engine design burns less fuel.  

Both aircraft utilize similar long range weapons.  The Taurus KEPD 350 for the Gripen and the Storm Shadow ALCM for the Rafale.  As it is now (and for the foreseeable future) both aircraft have roughly equivalent strike ranges.  This would change in favor of the Rafale if it were to ever get its CFTs.  Advantage:  Tie (until the Rafale gets CFTs)

Payload:  Let us not mince words here, shall we?  The smaller, single engine Gripen carries an impressive payload for its size, but it is nowhere near that of the Rafale's 21,000lb capacity.  Advantage:  Rafale

Close-air-support:  Delta-wing aircraft are typically at a disadvantage at lower altitudes.  Both of these aircraft utilize canards to provided extra control and lift however, making them admirable low-level performers.  

The Gripen steps ahead slightly, however, as it can include the Brimstone missile in its arsenal of air-to-ground weapons.  This low-collateral damage missile has proven quite popular with British pilots. Unfortunately for the Rafale, it lacks capability to use the Brimstone or similar missile so far.  It would likely be an easy fix, however.

As it stands now, neither aircraft actually use the Brimstone, so they really come out as even.  This would change if one gets the capability.  Advantage:  Tie (until one of them gets a Brimstone or equivalent)

Air-to-Ground winner:  The bigger Rafale make a better bomber.  Better still if it ever receives CFTs and Brimstone capability.  Winner:  Rafale

Air-to-Air:

First look, first kill:  Since both aircraft have reduced RCS, but are not exactly "stealth" this one comes down to radar.

The Rafale was the first (and so far only) amongst the Eurocanards that utilize an AESA radar.  The Typhoon and Gripen will soon catch up, and with a vengeance.  Both will utilize repositioners allowing additional scan angles, resulting in a wider field of view and more freedom to maneuver while maintaining a "radar lock".    

Given that the Gripen's radar is of similar size (about 1,000 T/R modules) to the Rafale's, while boasting a repositioner, not to mention a smaller IR footprint, it gets the nod here.   Advantage:  Gripen

Beyond visual range:  The Rafale and the Gripen both boast of similar speed, altitude, and high speed agility.  Both are capable of supercruising.  Both aircraft have an identical ace up their sleeve in the form of the MBDA Meteor missile.  

This begins to look like another draw until we look at the details.  The Gripen's superior radar gives its Meteor a slight edge, as its moveable swashplate allows more maneuvering whilst still maintaining radar lock.  Also, while the Gripen has the advantage of a two-way datalink with the Meteor, the Rafale makes do with a one-way.  Strangely, the French have only approved Meteor carriage for two of the Rafale's stations.  

Sorry Rafale fans, but the Gripen's radar and two-way datalink make it a superior BVR missile slinger.  Advantage:  Gripen

Within Visual Range:  I am going to go out on a limb here and say that both of these aircraft fly remarkably well in this area.  Both have IRSTs, and I am sure that the Rafale's MICA IR missile is just as good as what can be found on the Gripen.  The Gripen does give more choice here, with options for the AIM-9 Sidewinder, IRIS-T, and others.  

What lets the Rafale down, (Here we go again...) is its lack of HMD.  Now a HMD has been tested on the Rafale, but so far there are no plans to make it operational.  Until then, the Rafale is at a disadvantage when it comes to launching a HOBS (high off-boresight) missile.  

With an HMD in the Rafale, this one is a tie.  Without it, I have to give it to the Gripen.  Advantage:  Gripen

Dogfight:  The Rafale has a slightly bigger gun.  The Gripen is a smaller target.  Other than that...  Uh...  

This one is simply too close to call.  Advantage:  Tie

Air-to-air winner:  Even if the Rafale gets a long overdue HMD, the Gripen still has the advantage of a more advanced radar and a two-way datalink for its Meteors.  Winner:  Gripen

Versatility/Logistics

Versatility:  It would take a lot prove more versatile than the ready-for-anything Gripen.  Its balanced approach to air-superiority, attack, and reconnaissance make it a great aircraft for just about anything that does not involve heavy lifting or taking off from a carrier.  

The Rafale?  It has no problem doing heavy lifting.  It also has a variant that can launch from a carrier.  It even carries atomic bombs, if that is important to you.

Dassault's marketing team refers to the Rafale as "Omnirole" as a way to sound more impressive than "multirole".  For the Rafale, "omnirole" is a accurate term.  Advantage:  Rafale

Logistics:  Fighter aircraft are infamous for being high maintenance machines.  Exotic building materials wrapped around high-tech propriety technology has a way of doing that.  Yet Saab has gone to great lengths to insure that the Gripen is easy to live with.  They claim the Gripen requires little more attention than the average small business jet.  Whenever practical, it uses off-the-shelf components that are easily available.  

Not so much for the Rafale.  It was meant to showcase the very best in French aviation and it succeeds.  Every major component, from its Thales RBE2 radar to its Snecma M88 engines, originates from France.  This is great for France, not so good for foreign users.  Advantage:  Gripen

Versatility/Logistics winner:  The Rafale is more versatile, but the Gripen is easier to live with.  Not that either aircraft is a slouch in either case.  Both will perform quite admirably as the sole fighter for their home air force (although France still uses its cheaper Mirages).  Winner:  Tie


Final Score:

Air-to-ground:  Gripen = 3  -  Rafale = 4
Air-to-air:  Gripen = 4  -  Rafale = 1
Versatility/Logistics:  Gripen = 1  -  Rafale = 1

Final Score:  Gripen 8  -  Rafale = 6

The Gripen wins!  

But wait...

Suppose we outfit the Rafale with the upgrades that could easily come about if France or another nation gave the go ahead.  Namely, a HMD and CFTs.  

The CFTs would give the Rafale a clear advantage over the Gripen in the Deep Strike category, dropping the Gripen's air-to-ground score by one.

An HMD would greatly improve the Rafale's WVR capability, resulting in a tied result there and increasing the Rafale's air-to-air score by one.

Doing this, we get the following:

Air-to-ground:  Gripen = 2  -  Rafale = 4
Air-to-air:  Gripen = 4  -  Rafale = 2
Versatility/Logistics:  Gripen = 1  -  Rafale = 1

Final score (with a HMD and CFT equipped Rafale): Gripen = 7  Rafale = 7

A tie then?  No.  There are no ties allowed here at FJFC, so the Gripen's superior air-to-air capability (thanks mostly to its trick radar) wins the day here.  

For Canada, the Rafale's extra capability is mostly a moot point.  Canada does not perform heavy bombing campaigns, nor does it operate an aircraft carrier, and it certainly has no need for nuclear capability.  Only the Rafale's heretofore unused CFTs would be a benefit from a capability standpoint.  


Rafale fans take note:  I do like the Rafale.  It is a possibly the best "all-arounder" available right now.  Unfortunately, Canada simply does not need what it has to offer over the other Eurocanards. 

The Rafale is a bit of a "middle child".  The Gripen is cheaper, has a lot of clever design features, and its proven itself in cold environments.  The Typhoon is an air-supremecy monster with its new radar and Meteor missiles.  Of the three, the Rafale is the only one that would need to be "Canadianized".  While this by no means disqualifies it, it certainly complicates things.  

Any comments?  Fire away.

[NOTE:  I originally stated that the Gripen's new AESA radar utilized Gallium Nitride as a way to boost power.  This was in error.  Only the Gripen's EW pods use the new tech.  Changes have been made to the article, but the results remain the same.  The Gripen still has a repositioner and a smaller IR signature, giving it the edge in "First look, first kill".

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