The Rafale is an almost unparallelled achievement for a single nation, as equivalent fighter programmes have been undertaken by much larger companies or collaboratively by several nations. As an aircraft to meet French requirements (combining a robust carrier capability and good air-to-ground potential) Rafale could not be bettered, while the programme's unilateral nature afforded great focus, and protected it from many of the political factors which have so dogged the rival Eurofighter. Any problems (and those listed here are disputed) should be viewed in this light.
There have, however, been increasingly critical comments about Rafale from members of the National Assembly's Finance and Defence Commissions, and there have been reports of disagreements between Dassault and DGA about cost increases and obsolescence. According to Defence Analysis (p.17, Vol 8.No.12 December 2005) Dassault have called the RBE2 radar 'fatally flawed' alleging that its range was "inadequate" and averring that the Rafale therefore relied on AWACS support to overcome this. The DGA also described Rafale's OSF ("Optronique Secteur Frontal") as "obsolescent" and production has been cut back to just 48 units, rather than the planned number, which was to have been sufficient to equip all F1 and F2 versions.
While UK and German newspapers have been energetic in their criticism of Typhoon, Rafale has enjoyed a much gentler ride, and many of Rafale's problems (which have been similar in nature, scope and extent to those suffered by the rival Eurofighter) have seldom emerged until long after they were solved, or remain unsubstantiated rumour, though there have been exceptions. According to Defense News, Air Force Gen. Eric Rouzaud revealed that early deliveries of the Rafale were prone to a software glitch that cut out part of the flight system, requiring the pilot to hit the reset button. The fault has been fixed, Rouzaud said.
There were reports that problems with the "Central Processor" led to only three of five Rafales being delivered during 2004, and suggestions that the same problem led to a shortfall of deliveries (against the planned schedule) in 2005.
There was a two year delay in signing the production contract for the 59 F2 standard Rafales, and the order due to be placed in 2006 has dropped from 82 aircraft (65 AdlA, 17 Aéronavale) to just 66 (48 AdlA, 18 Aéronavale) (according to the Vincon Senate report). The Pintat report indicated that this reduced order has also been slipped to 2007.
Still subject to delays, the Rafale (once progressing well ahead of the rival Eurofighter) has still not entered full operational service with the Armée de l'Air, and less than a dozen are in use with the French Air Force for trials, evaluation and conversion training with EC330. Though the aircraft entered operational service with the Aéronavale in 2004 Flotille 12 still has only 9 Rafales (less than a full Flotille) and is currently limited to Air-to-Air combat (F1 software/hardware standard). There are concerns that operational loads (especially in the long range air to surface role) will be limited by the present engine's relatively modest thrust.
A "Post F3" configuration is now being discussed, this will be fitted with an active array radar, which is necessary to fully exploit the MBDA Meteor.
More controversially, some sources (including Francis Tusa's industry newsletter, Defence Analysis) maintain that the aircraft compares unfavourably with Eurofighter's Typhoon in the air to air role, though this is vigorously denied in other quarters. Though it uses a modern and extremely efficient canard Delta configuration, Rafale has been accused of being hampered by an old fashioned and 'cumbersome' Man Machine Interface, and it has been further suggested that this was the main reason behind the type's rejection by South Korea and Singapore.
According to Defence Analysis and Flight Daily News, the Singapore evaluation also reportedly revealed problems with Rafale's reliability and availability, and that the aircraft failed to demonstrate claimed radar performance or its claimed ability to supercruise. Singapore was also reportedly unimpressed by Rafale's much vaunted "Omni role" capability. "Show us, properly" was said to have been the reaction, according to Defence Analysis. The lack of official comment by Singapore leads many to dismiss such criticism as unreliable hearsay, however.
If criticism of under-powered engines and the passive electron-scan radar (which Defence Analysis say is viewed by many as a technological dead end) is to be overcome, Dassault badly need to fund the advanced F3 variant, but this is unlikely to happen quickly without an export customer (according to Aviation Week and Space Technology). A fully-developed F3 would, however, seem much more likely to gain export success. In January 2005 it was announced that eight aircraft would be cut from French orders specifically to free up funding for advanced radar development, while Meteor integration is also being accelerated.
Whatever Rafale's supposed "weaknesses" it must be acknowledged that the type has been quietly gathering real operational experience in the air-to-air role since the first Rafale Ms were delivered to the Aéronavale, and this alone is a significant advantage, giving the type great credibility. Moreover, while development of some competing aircraft has often been delayed because manufacturers have been unwilling to press ahead "at risk" the relationship between Dassault and the French government and military has allowed the development programme to press ahead at a ferocious pace.