Typhoon versus Rafale: The final word

1st Fighter Wing hosts coalition aerial exercise

Europe’s two middle-weight fighter aircraft, the Typhoon and Rafale, have fought tooth and nail for multi-billion Euro sales across the world. Geographically surrounded on four sides by the Eurofighter nations, the frivolous observer may liken the French Rafale to Asterix and his indomitable friends. The reality is that France’s withdrawal from the Future European Fighter Aircraft in the early 1980s resulted in a vast and unnecessary duplication of time, money and effort to produce two very similar aeroplanes. The relatively subtle differences between these two superbly capable aircraft have inspired a great deal of heated debate, often poisoned by pride and nationalism.

 Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute. He recently released a report (which can be read here) on the Typhoon fighter sponsored by Eurofighter (I am keen to mention this to provide a context to any accusations of bias). Despite this, I generally found him an impartial -and particularly well-informed-  judge to evaluate the two types, though this is open to debate. The ‘final word’ in the title is journalese on my part, and I appreciate that this discussion will go on for a long time, probably long after both types have been retired. 

Design philosophy 

The Rafale and Typhoon share common programme roots and as such are fairly similar in design and aerodynamic philosophy. The biggest difference is in the optimisation of the wing aerofoil and camber shapes, as well as the aerodynamically coupled vs uncoupled canards. Aerodynamically coupled/uncoupled canards refer to the interaction between the lift created by the canards and the lift created by the leading edges of the wings. Uncoupled canards -i.e further from the wing- allow greater control authority due to a greater moment from the centre of lift, but cannot be used to improve the high-alpha performance of the wing.

Essentially Typhoon is aerodynamically designed to maximise manoeuvrability at supersonic speeds and relatively light (i.e. air superiority) load-outs. By contrast, Rafale’s coupled canards and wing shape is optimised for maximum lift generation and ordinance carrying capacity over a wide speed and angle of attack envelope.

Radar

 Radar is a sensitive and highly restricted topic for open source discussion… however, in very broad terms CAPTOR-M which is the current radar on Typhoon is the most advanced and capable mechanically scanned fighter radar in service around the world. It loses out to the new RBE2 AESA radar which has entered service with Armee de l’Air Rafales in terms of low-probability of intercept (stealthy emissions) and multiple simultaneous tracking and search capabilities. In the air to air domain, at longer ranges against a small number of conventional threat aircraft, Typhoon might well have the advantage over even the RBE2 due to its impressive range and resolution. However, against large numbers of targets at different ranges/altitudes and certainly in a ground-scanning role, the Rafale is currently ahead on radar capabilities. Once the long-delayed CAPTOR-E AESA radar is integrated onto Typhoon in the early 2020s, however, Typhoon should have the advantage in radar and greater development potential since its radar aperture is much larger, can fit a greater number of T/R modules for its AESA than Rafale and will have a much wider field of regard. The latter capability will allow Typhoon to take particular advantage of the long-range capabilities of the Meteor missile by continuing to provide guidance to the missile whilst maintaining maximum range from an incoming target.

Read more about Captor-E and RBE2 AESA.

1st Fighter Wing hosts coalition aerial exercise

Infra-red search and track sensors

The Typhoon’s PIRATE IRST is far and away the most capable fighter-mounted system in operation anywhere in the world. Its phenomenal sensitivity caused problems during the first decade of service due to the sheer number of false positive returns but now that processing power has caught up enough to allow the sensitivity to be properly exploited for extremely long range detection of fighter sized targets, including stealth targets, it is becoming one of Typhoon’s strongest advantages in the air superiority arena. However, at present, the systems integration allowing the radar and IRST to be tasked together in an optimal fashion is still superior on Rafale. This is a core focus of capability upgrades in the P3E software package for Typhoon.

The Death of European fighters, full story here.

Cockpit functionality: Man-machine interface

 Both aircraft are fairly close in this regard and both are continually being upgraded with new cockpit functionality streamlining to reduce pilot workload. Both present few problems for a pilot transitioning from any ‘teen’ series fighter as their carefree handling mean that they are actually very easy to physically fly, freeing up mental energy for the formidable task of making the most out of the fighting potential of both aircraft. An RAF Typhoon instructor told me last year that ‘one of the biggest difficulties for pilots from a [Tornado] GR.4 or F.3 background in adjusting to Typhoon is how to best manage the awesomeness’.

Was the Spitfire overrated? Full story here.  A Lightning pilot’s guide to flying and fighting here. Find out the most effective modern fighter aircraft in within-visual and beyond-visual range combat. The greatest fictional aircraft here. An interview with stealth guru Bill Sweetman here. The fashion of aircraft camo here. Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here. Most importantly, a pacifist’s guide to warplanes here. F-35 expose here

Costs and reliability 

 

EJ200_Image1

The Typhoon’s EJ200 engines are the most reliable military jet engines ever fielded by any airforce. This turbofan originated as Rolls-Royce’s experimental XG-40 project of the 1980s.

Both are twin engine air superiority fighters with extensive multirole capabilities. As such both are fairly expensive to maintain and fly. Operating costs are notoriously difficult to accurately compare given the all sorts of infrastructure, measurement metrics, operating environment and other factors influence even the most objective attempt. Suffice to say that the aircraft are comparable. The Rafale M, as a carrier fighter requiring more maintenance, suffering greater fatigue and saltwater corrosion can safely be assumed to be more expensive than other Rafale or Typhoon variants. Also, the Typhoon’s EJ200 engines are the most reliable military jet engines ever fielded by any air force and their uniquely low maintenance, replacement and bug-fixing requirements help to lower Typhoon’s maintenance costs significantly.

Very amusing review of Eurofighter short film here

 

Observability 

14sl0g0.jpg

Reduced observability to radar was considered during Rafale’s design. Note that there is restricted line-of-sight to the engine’s compressor face, a key contributor to radar reflections. Rafale also features serrated panel edges across the airframe, a feature originally developed for the SR-71. The gold in Rafale’s canopy also reduces radar reflections.

 

 Low observability is hotly debated and impossible to prove in open source. Both aircraft have some RCS reduction features but both are inherently un-stealthy designs. Of the two, Typhoon makes slightly greater use of RAM and active canard signature management for frontal RCS reduction but this is probably offset in the high-end survivability department by Rafale’s superior SPECTRA electronic warfare system. 

JOINT FLIGHT SUPPORTS UK-FRENCH COOPERATION

Performance

 Typhoon is the faster aircraft and has a significantly superior thrust-to-weight ratio which gives it better acceleration at all altitudes. This also allows Typhoon to retain and regain energy faster than Rafale in a horizontal dogfight situation. It also has a significantly higher service ceiling of over 60,000ft which allows it to operate uniquely well alongside the US F-22 Raptors ‘high and fast’ in the air superiority role which is exactly where it was designed to excel. Rafale has a significantly superior load-carrying capability and its manoeuvrability at low speeds and altitudes is also better than Typhoon’s although the margin is slim except where both aircraft are very heavily loaded. In terms of horizontal manoeuvrability, Rafale has the better instantaneous turn rate allowing it to reverse its turns more quickly but Typhoon can sustain higher g’s for longer without bleeding speed. High alpha performance is similar, with both aircraft limited by their air intake placement and lack of thust vectoring although Typhoon’s intakes can at least ‘gape’ slightly to increase airflow at high Alpha and low speeds. Range is almost identical at around 2000nmi with three drop-tanks in ‘ferry’ configuration but in terms of strike missions, Rafale’s greater payload capacity allows it to carry greater under-wing fuel loads for a given strike payload. The high availability of aerial refuelling in both air force’s standard operating scenarios means the small differences are almost unimportant for overall combat effectiveness.

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The Snecma M88 is probably the most significant weakness of the basic Rafale design – the engine is underpowered for the aircraft and the development potential in terms of extra thrust is low. This was one of the primary reasons the French left the Eurofighter consortium since the M88 would never have been able to develop enough power for what would become the Typhoon, but the French insisted that it be used. The EJ200 is not only phenomenally reliable but it also has very significant thrust growth potential (easily 20-30%) according to Eurojet. The problem for Eurojet who make the engine is that it works so well that there is very little business for them in terms of upgrades or replacement engines. Existing customers are perfectly happy with the EJ200 as it is.

Test pilot reveals Typhoon’s top supercruise speed here

Weaponry

tir-mica-depuis-un-rafale

The MICA missile is a compromise that puts Rafale at a disadvantage in both short and medium range air-to-air combat. One advantage it may offer is that potential enemies may have a greater understanding and knowledge of how of how to counter the Typhoon’s AMRAAM.

In terms of weaponry, the Rafale is severely limited at long ranges in the air-to-air arena by having to rely entirely on the MICA which is not credible beyond 20km due to being essentially a short range missile adapted for short-mid range work. Until the Meteor enters frontline service with Rafale operators, the aircraft lacks long range air-to-air punch, certainly compared to the proven and effective AIM-120C AMRAAM load out on Typhoon. Even the ASRAAM used as the short range IR missile by the RAF has greater kinetic energy and manoeuvrability performance at ranges beyond 20km than the MICA. The MICA is a fast and manoeuvrable missile at short ranges with lock-on after launch capabilities. However, it is neither as manoeuvrable as the IRIS-T used by German, Italian and Spanish Typhoon operators, nor as fast and lethal at medium ranges as the ASRAAM. Finally on missiles, whilst the Meteor will give the Rafale much needed long range firepower, the Rafale will only be able to utilise a one-way datalink with the missile when it has been fired, not the two way datalink which Typhoon and Gripen are equipped with – which allows for much more accurate and reliable guidance during very long range engagements whilst the missile is in semi-active mode. In terms of the gun, both aircraft have highly effective aerial guns with heavy explosive shells and good instant firing rates. Rafale has the edge of fire-weight per second but slightly shorter effective range than the BK27 on Typhoon. In terms of air-to-ground munitions, Rafale is currently the clear winner with the full French air-to-ground arsenal integrated including the nuclear strike role. The Hammer AASM has proven highly effective and accurate, with good range for a bomb adaptor kit although it is expensive compared to alternatives. Typhoon in its current tranche 2 and 3 P1Eb configuration as deployed in Cyprus for operations against ISIL can only deliver the excellent Paveway IV laser and gps-guided bomb, guided by a Litening III targeting pod. However, once the Brimstone anti-armour missile and Storm Shadow cruise missiles are added in 2018 and 2016 respectively, Typhoon will be comparable to Rafale in terms of its conventional strike suite. In recce terms, Rafale currently has the edge as the world-beating DB110 RAPTOR pod is only integrated on Tornado and although there are plans to fit it to Typhoon which would close the gap, these are not concrete as yet.

Sensor fusion

 Rafale’s sensor fusion in terms of a common picture presented to the pilot is currently slightly ahead of Typhoon although the P3E upgrade being trialled at BAE Warton will close this gap to a significant extent. It is important to remember, however, that both fighters use a post-sensor picture fusing approach to streamline information for the pilot, rather than the much more complex approach being pursued by the F-35 development programme where all sensors feed into a single process which analyses, contrasts and compares them before presenting a single, processed picture to the pilot. Post sensor fusion is where the different sensors are not linked per se but their outputs are combined by an information management system to streamline the displayed data for the pilot.

Defensive systems 

rafale_flares_jet_aircraft_france_dassault_hd-wallpaper-686111

 The defensive aids suites on both jets comprise of passive (tracking and intelligence gathering) capabilities and active (jamming and other EW) capabilities. In passive terms, Typhoon actually has the edge following the UK-led DASS upgrade programme. However, in terms of active jamming and EW capabilities, the SPECTRA system proved itself in Libya and in multiple NATO exercises and being capable of protecting the Rafale from fairly high-end threats which normally would require complex suppression packages or stealth aircraft to bypass. The French (and Swedes) have long excelled in electronic warfare and jamming and the Typhoon has a way to go yet if it is to catch up with the other two Eurocanards in this area. It is also worth remembering, however, that part of the Rafale’s appearance of being able to go places Typhoon cannot due to SPECTRA is explained by the higher (and admirable) tolerance for risk in the Armee de l’Air compared to the RAF or any other European air forces. Even if Typhoon had SPECTRA, the RAF would not have sent it into Libya before the US air defence suppression had been carried out.

Leaked Swiss evaluation report

The leaked evaluation report from the Swiss fighter contest of 2008/09 put the Rafale ahead of Typhoon in almost every category tested, what do you make of this? 

 Any fighter evaluation depends on the details of the assessment criteria for each exercise and without seeing those, I cannot possibly speculate. However, one thing which is worth noting is that the Typhoon sent to Switzerland was apparently a tranche 1 and one with problems. Someone involved in the competition told me in person that ‘the Swiss told us [Typhoon] that technically speaking we had brought the finest jet of the bunch, but it was as if we had brought a Mercedes sports car where the door wouldn’t shut properly and the air conditioning was broken’.

Conclusion

In conclusions: both are fantastic fighter aircraft of which European defence communities should be proud. Rafale currently has the edge over Typhoon in terms of ground-attack versatility, radar modernisation and manoeuvrability at high-loads. Equally, Typhoon has the edge in the air-superiority role due to its superior high altitude performance and thrust to weight ratio, as well as long-range armament. The advantages in maturity for Rafale are more to do with failures in the Eurofighter consortium to invest and coordinate upgrades in the way that Dassault and the French government have managed, than any inherent limitation in the Typhoon itself. Indeed, with its larger radar aperture, power generation capabilities, engine power and growth potential Typhoon has more development potential than Rafale – if it can survive in production long enough. A hypothetical air force which operated both types, whilst that would be expensive, would enjoy phenomenal complementary capabilities and would arguably be stronger than a similarly sized force comprised only of one type.

Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst at the Military Sciences at Royal United Services Institute.

Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_Br0nk

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Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

 

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

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9 comments

    • totocaca

      as usual for typhoon it’s “will be” “should be” “will have” the better radar by 2020… and never “is”, “do”, “have done”…. the reality the 2 programm start at the same time. typhoon is not operational not combat proof and difficultly drop 2 bomb alone last week on 2 P3E prrotoype… Rafale is operational combat proof more than 1000 offensive mission since 10 years… availability rate 95%… the joke has to take end. 10 years we ear that typhoon is the best and nothing to proove it… except take spank after spank in exercice against other air force… and systematicly behind rafale in each technical evaluation… it start to be very boring such kind of false umble propaganda article..

  1. Uh..Is that so?

    Sorry but what is said in this study about the MICA missile is FALSE. Yes, it has a shorter range than last AMRAAM C7 variants. But it is definitely greater than 20km… In fact, it has two variants : The MICA-IR (infrared guidance) for short engagements and the MICA-EM (electromagnetic guidance) for BVR engagements. And even in the two versions its range is far beyond 20km as the missile body remains the same, only the seeker changes.
    While confidential, the exact range of the missile lies somewhere between 50km (for low estimations) and 80km (for the high ones).
    Of course the Meteor operational capability is eagerly waited in the French Air Force, but what is being said is clearly false and, overall, this study seems to bear a really partial point of view.. What a coincidence every component of the Eurofighter is “the best ever fielded by any military”, sorry to be skeptical towards such partial statements.
    It is everything but a surprise from a study sponsored by Eurofighter.

    • Justin Bronk

      I’m well aware of the dual seeker options which, as you say don’t substantially effect the kinematic range of the MICA missile. I did not say that the MICA’s range was 20km – it will of course fly much further than that, out to at least 50km (as will ASRAAM by the way). However, what I said was that it is not credible past around 20km which is due to the fact that as a light missile with large fins and a modest but very fast burning motor compared to something like AIM-120C, it maintains energy to manoeuvre against agile targets poorly beyond that range. Due to its large motor and minimal fin-drag, ASRAAM is more capable in terms of energy retention and therefore intercept capability beyond 20km than MICA, let alone AIM-120C.

      As to your other criticism; there are two capabilities on Typhoon which are indeed best in class worldwide – PIRATE IRST and the EJ-200. Equally SPECTRA is a world leader in its role on Rafale. Read the RUSI paper before implying things about my independence, then I’ll happily respond to any queries on it. Meanwhile, I stand by the impartiality of my comments in this interview.

  2. Eric

    ‘Typhoon’s EJ200 engines are the most reliable military jet engines ever fielded by any air force’
    More reliable than the General Electric F414?

  3. John

    A good analysis but in it you mostly provide details about the Typhoon’s future enhancements and not much regarding the Rafale. I wish it was a bit more balanced in that regards. So either your compare them in their current version or in their later version. It is a bit biased to say “The Typhoon currently lacks this BUT it will have it by 2020 and it will be WAYYY better than the Rafale’s so +1 Typhoon whoo!”

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