This article will compare Rafale C and F-35A. Both aircraft have similar, almost identical purposes: they are to replace most other fixed wing aircraft types in use by their respective air forces. Both have land-based and carrier versions. But there are major differences in actual approach, and in the final product. While Rafale’s maneuverability is undisputed, it is often-ignored fact is that F-35 was advertised as a highly-maneuverable dogfighter, before its obvious inability to actually achieve high maneuverability forced Lockheed Martin to change rhetorics.
Impact on pilot skill
Pilot is the most important part of the system. Therefore, most important factors in fighter design are ones that directly affect pilot: sortie rate / maintenance downtime, operating cost, user interface and reliability. In all air wars to date, it has been shown that good pilot in bad aircraft will beat average pilot in excellent aircraft. In 1939, some Polish pilots became aces in open-cockpit biplanes. Early on during Vietnam war, USAFs F-4s achieved negative 2:1 exchange ratios against NVAF MiG-19 and MiG-21. Once USAF put some effort into pilot training, they started regularly achieving positive 2:1 exchange ratios. This is despite the fact that in dogfight, angles fighter (MiG) has no inherent advantage over the energy fighter (F-4) – or the opposite.
Rafale can fly 2,7 hours every day. Direct operating cost is 16.500 USD per hour (cca, 17.000 USD when corrected for inflation). F-35 can fly one hour every two days, and has direct operating cost of 30.000 USD per hour.
Pilots have to fly at least 30 hours per month, preferably 45 hours. Rafale allows up to 81 hour per month in the air (likely somewhat less), while F-35 allows 15 hours per month. However, in such situation direct operating costs per hour of flight will be 1.336.500 USD per month for Rafale and 450.000 USD per month for F-35. For the same price, Rafale will fly only 27 hours per month, which is less than minimum requirement. These are all best-case scenarios, however – average peacetime availability rate is 33% for Rafale and 28% for F-35A, though Rafale achieved close to 100% availability rate during combat deployments.
Rafale’s primary air-to-air sensor is OSF optical sensor suite on top of the nose, and has 80/130 km detection range against subsonic targets. It consists of IRST sensor with 40 km identification range and video camera with 45-50 km identification range. In addition, it has RBE-2 radar, two fisheye IR MAWS sensors and 4 RWR sensors. MAWS and RWR sensors provide spherical coverage, and can be used to generate firing solution. It has framed canopy providing 360* horizontal and 197,7* vertical visibility, including 16* over the nose, 1,7* over the tail and 27* over the sides, with a maximum of 54* over the side visibility. RBE-2 has 120* angular coverage while RBE-2AA (AESA) has 140* angular coverage.
F-35 has a single IRST sensor (EOTS) under the nose, with 160 km detection range against low-flying targets in afterburner. It is a staring midwave (or dual-band) sensor covering low frontal sector. Additionally, its IR missile warning system (DAS) can (?) be used as IRST. This system provides spherical coverage, with a caveat that it is short-ranged when compared to full-blown IRST systems. It also has radar and RWR sensors. It has a sunk, framed canopy providing 340* horizontal and 188,5* vertical visibility, including 16* over the nose, -7,5* over the tail and 26* over the sides, with a maximum of 40* over the side visibility.
Overall, both aircraft have similar raw situational awareness. Rafale has the advantage of having air-to-air optimized IRST and 360* cockpit visibility, while F-35 may have spherical coverage with DAS providing optical feed to the pilot, assuming that helmet issues are solved. However, pilots still prefer not to use the helmet, as that way they can see with far more clarity and depth perception than what helmet allows. F-35s EOTS may be capable of detecting aircraft at 160 km from the rear, compared to 130 km detection range of OSF, but since aircraft detected was low-flying F-16 in afterburner, it is hard to estimate wether it will be able to detect aircraft from that distance at higher altitudes if it does not engage afterburner; answer is most likely no. Its radar is also optimized for air-to-ground work.
However, data presentation is just as important as data collection when it comes to situational awareness. Rafale’s Human-Machine Interface is similar in concept to Gripen’s, being minimalistic so as to avoid potentially lethal data overload. On the other hand, F-35 presents huge quantity of information, typically in numerical form, which can easily overload the pilot. End result is that Rafale has significant advantage in situational awareness over the F-35.
Stealth can be divided into several areas: visual, radar and IR. Visual stealth refers to how easy is to to see the aircraft with Mk.I eyeball. Radar stealth can refer to two things: aircraft’s radar cross section (RCS), and aircraft’s radar emissions (EMCON). IR stealth refers to aircraft’s IR signature.
Rafale is 15,3 m long, 5,34 m high with 10,8 m wing span. F-35 is 15,7 m long, 4,6 m high with 10,7 m wing span. However, F-35 has much fatter body which results in somewhat larger profile from front and side.
When it comes to radar signature, whichever jet uses radar is going to be detected well beyond its own radar range and become a target; SPECTRA will give Rafale firing solution with 1* precision at 200 km. Rafale will have RCS of 0,75-1,10 m2 with 6 missiles, while AN/APG-81 has 160 km range vs 1 m2 target. Thus F-35 will detect Rafale at 149-164 km. Tracking (attack) range will be 119-131 km without jamming, or 22-25 km with jamming; 70-80 km is possible with EOTS. However, since SPECTRA can reduce Rafale’s RCS by factor of 1,5-3, F-35 will detect Rafale at 113-149 km; tracking range will be 90-149 km, with tracking range of 13-119 km. F-35 has RCS of 0,00143 m2 with 4 missiles, while RBE-2 PESA has 139 km range vs 5 m2 target. RBE-2 AESA (which entered service in 2012) has 208 km range vs 5 m2 target, or 278 km when cued by SPECTRA. Detection range will be 18 km for RBE-2 PESA and 27 km for RBE-2 AESA, with 36 km possible if RBE-2 AESA is cued by SPECTRA. This will give attack ranges of 14 km, 22 km or 29 km. Rafale’s OSF has range of 80 km vs subsonic head-on target at 20.000 ft. At 30.000 ft, range may be 80-90 km, which means that Rafale will be able to attack the F-35 from 65-70 km. That being said, ability of both to attack the opponent will be limited by missile effective range (15-100 km for Meteor, 9-36 km for AIM-120D, 4-16 km for MICA).
Rafale’s OSF is its primary sensor for air-to-air combat and radar is primary sensor for air-to-ground combat. Situation with the F-35 is opposite, but its EOTS FLIR is equipped with air-to-air IRST mode, and may be dual-band.
In terms of IR signature, primary factors are size, speed and engine emissions. Rafale has two M88 engines producing a total of 9.953 kgf on dry thrust and 15.077 kgf thrust in reheat, compared to 12.700/19.512 kgf for the F135. Further, since Rafale’s engine emissions are divided in two engines, leading to increased cooling due to greater ratio of plume surface area to crosssection. While normally this advantage would be negated by aerodynamic superiority of single-engined aircraft, this is not the case here. F-35s unaerodynamic fuselage means that it requires full dry thrust to achieve speed of Mach 0,95, while Rafale supercruises at Mach 1,4 at equivalent engine setting, and with 6 missiles. Consequently, Rafale has significantly lower engine IR signature when compared to the F-35 at same speed. Rafale also has smaller frontal and side signature, while shock cone should be of similar size. Note that both size and temperature are important: while at low altitude atmospheric absorption and clutter mean that it is easier to notice hotspots, at high altitude lack of both atmosphere and clutter means that target size and sensor’s resolution play important role as well. Rafale also received Hot Spot treatment, further reducing IR signature.
Rafale M can cruise at Mach 1,4 with 6 missiles. Assuming that 30% of the onboard fuel (1.425 kg) is used for supercruise, Rafale will be able to cruise for 11 minutes (657 seconds). At 35.000 ft, this will allow it to cover 271,7 km (146,7 nm). Maximum combat radius on internal fuel is 925 km.
F-35 is supposed to supercruise for 150 nautic miles at Mach 1,2 with 4 missiles. 150 miles at 40.000 ft and Mach 1,2 would take 13,08 minutes. At test bench and full dry thrust, F135 consumes 11.089 kg per hour, while the F-35 has 8.280 kg of internal fuel. 2.417 kg theoretically spent for “supercruise” (real value would be less) is 29% of the F-35s onboard fuel. F-22 can cover a maximum of 0,04 miles per pound of fuel at 45.000 ft and Mach 1,5. Its combat radius is 400 nm with 100 nm supercruise; this means that it uses 5.000 lbs of fuel for supercruise and 8.600 lbs for subsonic cruise. As the F-22 has 18.000 lbs of internal fuel, 13.600 lbs of fuel would equalize 76% of the onboard fuel, with just supercruise requirement accounting for 28% of the onboard fuel. Since F-35s supercruise is done without extended subsonic leg, it means that either F-35 has to burn off a portion of fuel to supercruise, or else it can only achieve Mach 1,2 at low afterburner. Following quote suggests the latter, as does the fact that the F-35 can achieve top speed of only Mach 1,67, due to drag issues but also due to using divrterless intakes, which are unfit for supercruise.
“What we can do in our airplane is get above the Mach with afterburner, and once you get it going … you can definitely pull the throttle back quite a bit and still maintain supersonic, so technically you’re pretty much at very, very min[imum] afterburner while you’re cruising,” Griffiths said. “So it really does have very good acceleration capabilities up in the air.”
F-35A also has combat radius of 1.082 km with 4 missiles, compared to 925 km with 6 missiles for Rafale. This is despite the higher fuel fraction (0,385 vs 0,332), higher internal fuel load (8.280 kg vs 4.750 kg) and the fact that the F-35 is flying clean while Rafale has only 4 low-drag missile stations. However, since Rafale can supercruise even with external fuel tanks (cca Mach 1,2 with two tanks), it is possible for it to use tanker support to extend the combat radius without sacrificing too much in terms of sortie rate. F-35 is limited to maximum cruise speed of Mach 0,95, which gets reduced to cca Mach 0,8 with external fuel tanks.
Dassault Rafale has instantaneous turn rate of 30 deg/s, sustained turn rate of 24 deg/s and roll rate of 290 deg/s. F-35 has corner speed of 370 kts for 9 g instantaneous turn and M 0,8 for 4,95 g sustained turn, both values being at 15.000 ft. This gives it instantaneous turn rate of 26,6 deg/s and sustained turn rate of 10,8 deg/s, with roll rate of 300 deg/s. Since two degrees per second turn rate difference allows pilot to dominate adversary in dogfight, and difference in turn rate will be higher than calculated here due to different altitudes used for calculation, it is clear that the F-35 is seriously outmatched in close combat. Rafale also has climb rate of 305 m/s compared to 259 m/s for F-35. Consequently, F-35 will loose energy far more quickly than Rafale while being unable to recover it. Rafale is also aerodynamically clean with two wingtip missiles, compared to F-35s clean configuration of four internal missiles. Further two missiles can be carried on low-drag pylons. Since F-35 internal bay adds permanent drag and weight penalty, both aircraft can be considered to be equal in terms of low-drag air-to-air payload.
Close-coupled delta-canard wing offers significantly higher maximum lift coefficient and positive trim lift on all control surfaces. Further, canards and wing control surfaces overlap in their functionality, unlike with horizontal tail configuration, leading to improved damage resistance. During level flight or sustained turn conditions, canards provide download while trailling edge control surfaces provide upload; F-35 only has tail to provide upload. Modern unstable canard-deltas will have canards provide no moment force during sustained turn conditions, thus reducing drag and improving lift-to-drag ratio; further, presence of canards has beneficial impact on wing L/D ratio during all turn conditions. When initiating a turn, canards will provide upload while trailling edge control surfaces and tail will provide download. When combined with canards’ longer moment arm, this results in higher turn onset and thus improved transient performance, which is crucial for dogfight.
(Note that the best way to escape either missile or gun shot is instantaneous turn in order to put the attacker at 3/9 o’clock followed by acceleration, and if necessary another turn. Sustained turns do not have much place in dogfight. In a multi-ship dogfight, no turn should be followed for more than 90 degrees).
Rafale and F-35 both have good post-stall maneuverability. However, while F-35 requires a chute for spin recovery, Rafale’s close-coupled canards will allow purely aerodynamic spin recovery, something not offered by any other configuration (including long-coupled canard one). This is important since stall spin is the leading cause of maneuver-induced aircraft losses at 31%; post-stall maneuverability by itself has little use in combat. F-35s wing root vortices are also drawn inboard, causing loss of outboard wing control surfaces effectiveness at high angles of attack. Interference between vortices also causes bursting well before they reach wing trailling edge, let alone tail surfaces, leading to reduced tail effectiveness as well as increased vertical tail wear. Rafale’s canard tip vortices meanwhile energize outer portion of the wing, allowing high controllability even at extreme angles of attack, while both canard root and LERX vortices energize inboard portion of the wing, increasing lift. Consequently, Rafale will have superior nose authority at high angles of attack (in fact, Rafale’s nose authority is equal, or superior, to the F-18s). Both Rafale and F-35 will have large amounts of forward fuselage lift during level flight and maneuvers, with Rafale’s fuselage lift being improved through “spillage” from canards as well as LERX. With both aircraft, vortices originating from nose will also improve lift.
F-35s 35* swept wing is optimized for subsonic and transonic maneuverability, whereas Rafale’s 48* swept wing focuses on transonic and supersonic maneuverability, while still retaining excellent subsonic performance thanks to integrated close-coupled canard design. F-35s lower wing sweep results in extended transonic region and much faster supersonic drag rise with Mach number.
During supersonic flight, aircraft will become more stable. Rafale’s close coupled canards will reduce pressure point shift with increased speed, allowing Rafale to remain aerodynamically unstable at higher speeds than non-canard configuration would. Once aircraft does become stable, Rafale can transition trim authority to canards. This means that while F-35s horizontal tail will have to provide download and subtract from lift, thus worsening L/D ratio, Rafale will use canards to keep the nose up, which will lead to improved L/D ratio compared to canard-off configuration and thus increased maneuverability as well as improved cruise performance (cruise speed and efficiency).
F-35s primary missiles are AIM-120 for beyond visual range engagement and AIM-9X for within visual range engagement. AIM-120D is a RF BVR missile with 180 km maximum aerodynamic range. It has 40 g maneuvering capability at Mach 4. AIM-9X is an IR missile with 26 km maximum aerodynamic range and 50 g maneuvering capability at Mach 2,7. Block III version was supposed to provide an IR BVRAAM with 42 km range, but its development was cancelled. British F-35s will be equipped with ASRAAM, which has 50 km range and 50 g maneuvering capability, giving it genuine BVR capability.
Rafale’s primary missile is MICA, a dual-role WVR/BVR missile which comes in IR and RF variants. It has 80 km maximum aerodynamic range and 50 g maneuvering capability at Mach 4. Additionally, it will be able to use Meteor as long-range BVR missile; it has 315 km range and 40 g maneuvering capability at Mach 4.
With standard loadout, F-35 has advantage in nominal missile range. However, its BVR missile – AIM-120 – is an active radar missile. Consequently, even if the F-35 does use its IRST for passive attack, missile will give itself away with its own radar, quite possibly long before enemy MAWS notices it. Once it does so, its limited maneuverability and usage of easily jammed or decoyed RF seeker head means that any enemy fighters will easily avoid it.
MICA IR on the other hand uses an IIR seeker. This has two advantages. First, it is passive, which means that enemy gets no warning of an incoming missile until (and unless) his MAWS notices the missile. Second, IIR seekers are very hard to jam and nearly impossible to decoy, forcing enemy fighter to rely on maneuvers to evade it. MICA is also more maneuverable than AIM-120. If used against the F-35, F-35s own limited maneuverability will likely cause it to be a toast against MICA. Further, Rafale’s speed advantage (M 0,33 difference in top speed and M 0,45 difference in cruise speed) will reduce difference in effective missile range.
Rafale has standard loadout of 6 missiles (2 MICA IR + 4 MICA RF) and 3 gun bursts, for a total of 1,47 onboard kills. F-35 has standard onboard loadout of 4 RF BVRAAM and 2,6 gun bursts. This translates into 0,996 onboard kills. Heavy loadout for Rafale is 10 missiles; assuming 8 of these are MICA RF, total number of onboard kills is 1,79. “Heavy” loadout for the F-35 is 8 RF BVRAAM, 2 IR WVRAAM and 2,6 gun bursts, translating into a total of 1,62 onboard kills. As it can be seen, Rafale has a significant advantage in number of onboard kills with standard loadout, but this advantage is reduced with full loadouts. Both aircraft also have options for both IR and RF BVRAAM, though IR BVRAAM are of different capabilities.
Numbers in the air
Rafale may allow up to 81 hour per month in the air, compared to 15 hours for the F-35. However, direct operating cost will be >1.336.000 USD for Rafale, compared to >450.000 USD for F-35. If identical expenditure is assumed, Rafale will allow 27 hours per month, a 1,8:1 advantage.
Since Rafale costs ~93 million USD unit flyaway, compared to 120 million USD at the very least for the F-35, it has 1,29:1 advantage. As Rafale can sustain 2,7 sorties per day, compared to one sortie every two days for the F-35, Rafale has a 7:1 numerical advantage over the F-35.
Response to attacks
While Rafale is capable of taking off roads (like most other fighters), this capability will be restricted by its overly large wing span. F-35s wing span is only 10 cm smaller than Rafale’s. Rafale is also a twin-engined aircraft, making it harder to maintain than e.g. Gripen. While F-35 is single-engined, this provides no maintenance benefit due to the F-35s maintenance-hungry stealth coating and hugely complex electronic systems. Consequently, neither aircraft can be effectively operated from road bases, which may be a lethal disadvantage in the age of precision GPS-guided munitions and Google Earth.
Dassault Rafale supercruises at Mach 1,4 with 6 missiles, compared to the F-35s cruise speed of Mach 0,95 with 4 missiles. At low afterburner, F-35 can maintain Mach 1,2 for 150 miles (241 km), and to achieve even that performance it can carry only 4 missiles in its weapons bay. For comparison, Rafale can likely maintain Mach 1,4 cruise speed for 388 km. Even if that is too optimistic, it is clear that Rafale can cover greater distance than the F-35, and at higher speed.
Engagement kill chain performance
Kill chain consists of following steps:
- detection capability
- identification capability
- cruise speed
- maximum speed / mach on entry
- altitude on entry
- lock on / firing solution range
- missile seeker diversity
- endgame countermeasures (inbuilt, towed, disposable; jammers, decoys, chaff, flares)
- defeat the missile / disengage
- airframe agility
- sensors coverage
- mach on egress / fuel reserves on afterburner
- BVR missile seeker diversity
- BVR missile agility
- BVR missile warhead lethality
- WVR missile agility
- WVR missile warhead lethality
- gun lethality
As shown before, F-35 will detect Rafale at 113-164 km with radar and cca 80-100 km with IRST, possibly less due to Rafale’s IR signature reduction measures. Rafale will detect the F-35 at 18-36 km with radar, or at 80-100 km with IRST. However, radar is an active sensor, which means that it can be detected at far greater distance than its own detection range. Even assuming that target is a flat plate and that entirety of the signal reaches it, radar will get back 1/16th of the signal – at best. RCS comparison shows automobile to have an RCS of 100 m2 (likely from the side; from the front, 25-50 m2 value can be expected), whereas Rafale has RCS of ~1 m2 when armed. Consequently, F-35s radar receives less than 1/400th of the signal that was sent out. Even when aperture size difference between RWR and radar is accounted for, Rafale will detect F-35s radar signal at two times the distance (>300 km), likely as much as several times farther (note that radar horizon at 10.000 m is at distance of 825 km). Since both fighters have extensive ESM capabilities, radar is not likely to be used.
When it comes to IR signature, Rafale’s smaller size, lower thrust and better thrust-to-drag ratio give it a major advantage over the F-35.Both aircraft have provisions for reduced IR signature, particularly in terms of hiding exhaust plume. OSF may detect F-35 from 70-100 km from front and 110-160 km from the rear, while F-35s EOTS may(?) detect Rafale at 70-100 km from the front and up to 160 km from the rear. While I don’t have figure for EOTS, OSF will allow Rafale to visually identify other aircraft at >50 km. F-35 will also have to rely on IR sensor for identification, as while NCTR works at longer ranges, it is very unreliable (30% identification reliability at best) and can be disabled by jamming or by target maneuvering. Because of this, 82% of the enemy aircraft engaged during Desert Storm had to be identified with help of AWACS, which will not be avaliable against a competent opponents as comlinks will be jammed, and AWACS aircraft will not survive for long against a competent opponent.
Note that radar-based NCTR is also very unreliable (30% identification reliability at best) and can be disabled by jamming or by target maneuvering. Because of this, 82% of the enemy aircraft engaged during Desert Storm had to be identified with help of AWACS, which will not be avaliable against a competent opponents as comlinks will be jammed, and AWACS aircraft will not survive for long in a proper war; remaining 18% were done by NCTR or IFF (and IFF itself will not be useful against a competent opponent). Consequently, IRST is a must for proper BVR engagement even when all other disadvantages of radar (loss of surprise, easily jammed) are ignored.
Rafale has cruise speed of Mach 1,4 with 6 missiles, and top speed of Mach 2,0. F-35 has cruise speed of Mach 0,95 and top speed of Mach 1,67. While Rafale’s dash speed limit is caused by air intake design, F-35s speed limit is caused by thrust-to-drag ratio. Consequently, Rafale has excess power reserve for maneuvering even at top speed. Cruise speed advantage, combined with supersonic endurance advantage, allows Rafale to dictate terms of engagement and puts the F-35 at constant threat of attacks from the rear. It also means that Rafale can safely disengage from a BVR engagement, while denying that ability to the F-35. Higher cruise speed and faster acceleration will allow Rafale to reach any speed far more quickly than the F-35 will be able to reach it. This is assuming that either fighter will actually have time to do so.
Rafale’s service ceilling of 59.055 ft is higher than the F-35s 50.000 ft limit. Further, Rafale is optimized for air superiority missions at between 30.000 and 50.000 ft, while F-35 is optimized for strike missions at 15.000 – 25.000 ft. This altitude advantage will give Rafale significant superiority in air-to-air combat. First, combination of altitude and cruise speed / dash speed advantage will give Rafale advantage in effective missile range while reducing F-35s missile range. Second, at closer ranges F-35s EOTS may loose sight of Rafale while Rafale itself will be capable of keeping track of the F-35 by using MICA IR seeker head as a short-ranged IRST.
As shown before, Rafale will be able to attack the F-35 from distance of 70 km. F-35 may be able to attack Rafale from 70-90 km by using EOTS, or from distance of cca 30 km if using radar. Both aircraft can use RWR data to cue their IR sensors; Rafale’s SPECTRA also offers 200 km range for firing solution with <1* precision. Consequently, both aircraft will rely solely on IRST, giving Rafale advantage in detection and engagement range. Neither has towed or disposable jammers, making them more vulnerable to home-on-jam mode of modern radar missiles; still, DRFM jamming means that it is not as much of a threat to Rafale as with most other modes of jamming. F-35 has to use its radar, giving up frequency agility, though it may get disposable decoys. Both can engage targets at their six o’clock through usage of onboard sensors.
Both Rafale and F-35 have a selection of RF and IR BVR missiles. However, while ASRAAM has maximum engagement range of 50 km (and is exclusive for UK version of F-35), Rafale’s MICA IR has range of 80 km, giving Rafale significant range advantage when using IR missiles. This range advantage is increased even more by Rafale’s kinematic advantage over the F-35. With RF missiles, F-35 has AIM-120 with maximum engagement range of 180 km. This is significantly inferior to the 315 km range of MBDA Meteor, but superior to 80 km range of MICA RF; Meteor will enter service in 2019, at about the same time the F-35 enters service. Further, Meteor’s ramjet propulsion gives it significant endgame kinematic advantage as well as 100 km range in straight line flight; both of these mean that it will have lethality advantage over the AIM-120. Both AIM-120 and Meteor are vulnerable to countermeasures, however, and F-35 will likely receive Meteor, somewhat reducing its disadvantage.
However, Rafale can cruise at Mach 1,4, compared to F-35s Mach 0,95. Assuming that this is achieved at 40.000 ft, this gives Rafale 258 knot advantage in cruise speed. Missile range from the rear is 1/4 of stated missile range, 100 knot speed advantage reduces missile range 5 to 25%, and effective range is 1/5 of aerodynamic range. Consequently, Rafale with MICA will achieve 10-13 km effective range against F-35, while F-35 with ASRAAM will achieve 0,9-2,2 km effective range against Rafale. With RF missiles, both aircraft will get Meteor with 315 km range, and 100 km effective range. Using Meteor, Rafale will achieve 13-41 km effective range against F-35, while F-35 will achieve 9-22 km effective range against Rafale. (This assumes rear-quarter attacks).
Defeat the missile / disengage
Once warned of a missile launch, first reaction is to properly position the aircraft for evasion. At beyond visual range, it is oftentimes enough to turn the aircraft away from the missile. At shorter ranges (near-visual and visual range), pilot has to quickly position the missile to the aircraft’s 3 or 9 o’clock and then turn into the missile once close enough. Both of these require high instantaneous turn capability, as well as acceleration / climb to recover lost energy. Rafale has instantaneous turn rate of 30 deg/s. sustained turn rate of 24 deg/s and maximum climb rate of 305 m/s; however maximum instantaneous turn rate should be higher as 30 deg/s is achieved with 9 g limit. F-35 has instantaneous turn rate of 26,6 deg/s, sustained turn rate of 10,3 deg/s at 15.000 ft, acceleration time from M 0,8 to M 1,2 of 63 s and maximum climb rate of 259 m/s. This means that Rafale will have major advantage when evading missiles, which will be even more incresed due to Rafale’s superior transient performance.
Rafale and F-35 both have 360* coverage with RWR and MAWS, and frontal-sector-only coverage with radar and IRST. Rafale’s RBE-2 has 120* field of regard, which is identical for F-35s AN/APG-81. RBE-2 AESA has 140* field of regard. Consequently, neither aircraft will be able to track another one with radar or IRST while engaging in defensive maneuvers. However, if F-35 uses radar Rafale may be able to keep track of the F-35 through its SPECTRA system.
There is also an issue of fuel reserves for maneuvering. Assuming that both aircraft have 40% of the fuel avaliable for maneuvers, Rafale will have enough fuel for 4,54 minutes of maximum afterburner while F-35 will have enough fuel for 5,41 minutes of maximum afterburner. However, Rafale is more agile and will thus get more mileage out of its fuel. Since I do not have M 0,8-1,2 acceleration figure for Rafale, I will use only climb figures. Comparison will assume 360* corner-speed sustained turn followed by an equivalent of 10.000 m climb at maximum (initial) climb speed. Rafale will use 15 seconds for a turn, 32,79 seconds for a climb and 0,62 seconds for equivalent of a 180* roll at maximum rate, for a total of 48,41 seconds of maximum afterburner and 5,63 maneuvers. F-35 will use 33,33 seconds for a turn, 38,61 seconds for a climb and 0,6 seconds for a roll, for a total of 72,54 seconds of maximum afterburner and 4,47 maneuvers. As it can be seen, Rafale has higher combat endurance despite smaller fuel fraction and lower fuel load. (Note here that this is based on sea-level figures; at 30.000 ft, actual thrust and fuel consumption will be closer to 1/3rd of those used, which will extend endurance. However, relative figures should stay similar, or slightly increase difference in Rafale’s favor).
In terms of countermeasures, Rafale has onboard AESA jammers, chaff and flares; SPECTRA is also capable of reducing aircraft’s RCS through active cancellation, though this is likely only an option against older-type radars. It does make it immune to home-on-jam mode of modern missiles. F-35 has chaff and flares; it could also theoretically carry disposable jammers but has no internal jammer installed. F-35 will likely have disposable RF decoys, which would give it an option to use jammers, as well as provide immunity to home-on-jam weapons. It can use its radar for jamming, but it only covers 120* forward cone and to do so it has to sacrifice frequency agility, making it vulnerable to anti-radiation missiles. That being said, F-35s low radar crossection makes usage of onboard jammer less beneficial than for most other aircraft, but also increases effectiveness of jamming when it is used.
In terms of agility, AIM-120D and Meteor can both pull 40 g at Mach 4, ASRAAM can pull 50 g at Mach 3 and MICA IR can pull 50 g at Mach 4. This means that maximum turn rate is 18,54 deg/s for AIM-120 and Meteor, 30,9 deg/s for ASRAAM and 23,2 deg/s for MICA IR. Comparing this to respective aircraft turn rates (30 deg/s ITR for Rafale and 26,6 deg/s ITR for F-35), it can be seen that both aircraft can evade any of the missiles listed.
AIM-120D has warhead weight of 23 kg, compared to 12 kg for MICA and 10 kg for ASRAAM. Consequently, lack of agility is somewhat compensated for by larger warhead weight; still, even assuming a perfectly cylindrical propagation pattern, AIM-120D has 1,5 times as large lethal radius as ASRAAM while ASRAAM has 1,67 times as high turn rate.
When it comes to WVR missiles, Rafale carries MICA IR as well while F-35 carries no WVR missiles in standard loadout as they have to be mounted on external hardpoints; UK version may be capable of carrying ASRAAM in internal bays. As shown before, F-35 will be able to evade MICA but not easily, while ASRAAM will be unlikely to hit Rafale. MICA also has 12 kg warhead compared to 10 kg for ASRAAM, increasing its lethality.
If both aircraft are flying at Mach 0,9, Rafale’s 11 g turning capability will give it a turn rate of 22,67 deg/s compared to 18,55 deg/s for 9 g limited F-35. Thus Rafale will be capable of easily defeating AIM-120D and Meteor, while F-35 will have difficulty defeating any of the missiles within their no-escape zones.
In terms of gun lethality, Rafale uses GIAT 30 revolver cannon while F-35 uses GAU-22/A rotary gun. GIAT-30 fires 275 g projectile with 17,5% HEI content (~48 g) at 1.025 m/s muzzle velocity. GAU-22/A fires 184 g projectile with 16,7% HEI content (~31 g) at 1.040 m/s muzzle velocity. Further, GIAT-30 projectiles have crossectional density of 38,9 g/cm2 compared to 37,48 g/cm2 for GAU-22, leading to slightly slower loss of speed. Combination of these factors gives GIAT 30 significantly higher per-projectile effectiveness. Further, F-35 has to open up gun trap doors to use the gun, which adds 0,5 second delay. Even if gun doors are opened beforehand, GIAT 30 will fire 19 projectiles in first 0,5 seconds, compared to 16 projectiles for GAU-22/A. This gives total throw weight of 5,23 kg for GIAT 30, with 0,91 kg of HEI. GAU-22 has total throw weight of 2,94 kg with 0,49 kg of HEI. As it can be seen, GIAT 30 is significantly more lethal than GAU-22/A.
When finding and attacking targets, Rafale can use either its radar, IRST or external pod. Pod can be recce pod or electro-optical laser designation pod. AREOS Reco NG allows it to capture digital imaginery during day and night (IR) and from all altitudes, and feed it to offboard systems. It offers identification range of several tens of kilometers.
F-35s EOTS is basically an internal pod, removing the need for external pod carriage, thus reducing drag and RCS. Like IR pods, it uses midwave IR spectrum, giving it improved resolution and bad weather performance. It also offers identification range of several tens of kilometers. F-35s radar has ISAR capability, but it is more limited than EOTS’ imaging capability.
F-35 has advantage of internal weapons bay in missions where large payloads are not necessary. Thus, it will likely be able to achieve close to 1.082 km maximum combat radius on internal fuel. On the other hand, Rafale with external air-to-ground weapons and no external tanks has combat radius of 530-630 km on air-to-ground mission (530 km lo-lo-lo, 630 km lo-hi-lo), with a caveat that greater percentage of time is spent at low altitude than it is the case with the F-35s mission profile. Rafale achieves 1.090 km combat radius in low-level penetration w/ 12×250 kg bombs, 4 MICA, 3×380 US gal tanks, which would be a standard ground attack mission profile for Rafale in presence of air defenses.
As it can be seen, F-35 has significant range advantage over Rafale in ground combat. However, this is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, as F-35 only carries two bombs in its internal weapons bay. Its range will be significantly reduced when carrying external air-to-ground munitions, and for now at least there are no external fuel tanks to compensate for that. If Rafale carries external tanks, it will have range advantage, which will be equalized once (if) F-35 gets external tanks.
Rafale has maximum payload of 9.480 kg, whereas F-35 has maximum payload of 8.160 kg. However, three 380 US gal tanks will weight ~3.900 kg (tank + fuel), reducing Rafale’s useful payload to 5.580 kg, while F-35 in “clean” configuration will carry only 2.268 kg of air-to-ground weapons. Rafale with three external fuel tanks will carry two large air-to-ground weapons and four air-to-air missiles, while F-35 in non-stealth configuration will carry two external fuel tanks, four air-to-ground weapons and four air-to-air missiles. Consequently, while Rafale can either carry much greater weapons load, or achieve far greater range, F-35 strikes more useful balance between range and payload.
F-35s high wing loading reduces gust sensitivity; when combined with internal weapons carriage, it significantly increases low-altitude speed achievable. It can also choose wether to fly low or high, as its low RCS will provide survivability advantage against X-band radars.
Rafale’s close-coupled canards also reduce gust sensitivity, but its external weapons carriage increases drag and reduces speed (Mach 0,8 maximum in certain configurations). It also causes large RCS increase when flying up high, though at low altitudes it is not a major issue.
Rafale does have advantage in terms of damage tolerance. Two engines mean that one engine may survive in the case that other engine is hit (this is not given, as engines are fairly close together). Fuel distribution is more favorable for survivability, and fuel will be cooler than F-35s as Rafale does not use it as a coolant. Its canard-delta configuration also provides overlapping control surfaces in case of damage. Overall, however, F-35 will have survivability advantage due to internal bomb carriage and lesser need for external fuel tanks in air-to-ground missions. F-35s maneuvering performance will be less degraded in air-to-ground missions due to carrying internal AtG munitions, though issue of pylon g limits still remains. Rafale however, has superior basic performance, so it still does not mean that F-35 will be more agile. In fact, Rafale can achieve 5,5-6 g sustained turn with 3×2.000 l external fuel tanks, 4 air-to-air missiles and 2 SCALP cruise missiles. F-35A can only sustain 4,6 g when in clean configuration.
Performance in specific missions
In deep strike, both aircraft have similar combat radius (1.090 km for Rafale, 1.082 km for F-35). However, Rafale will be flying at low altitude in order to reduce probability of detection, which will make it vulnerable to small-arms fire, AAA and MANPADS. F-35 will stay at 30.000 ft, keeping out of the range of most threats. VHF SAMs will still be able to engage it, but long- and medium- -range radar SAMs are not as large danger as shorter-ranged air defense weapons. On the other hand, Rafale will carry 12 air-to-ground weapons, compared to only two for the F-35.
Both aircraft are capable of SEAD/DEAD. Rafale can use SPECTRA to target SAMs at long range, and active cancellation can be used to reduce RCS, likely only against older radar types. F-35s lower RCS allows it to come closer to SAM radar, reducing weapons flight time and improving accuracy. As a result, F-35 is likely to achieve better results for a given number of weapons whereas Rafale can carry larger payload and attack from longer range. However, standoff attacks may be effective, of reduced effectiveness or even completely ineffective against mobile SAMs, depending on weapons employment range and SAM mobility (time to pack up and leave). Considering that SA-6 needs 5 minutes to pack up and leave, Storm Shadow cruise missile can be employed from at most 80 km for assured effectiveness (1.000 kph speed), despite having nominal range of 560 km. Vostok-E manufacturer claims 72 km detection range against F-117A in a jammed environment or 352 km in unjammed environment; these ranges will likely be same or higher against F-35, unless it is flying below radar horizon (65 km at 500 m altitude). F-16 will be detected at 100-200 km in jammed environment, and Rafale’s performance even when loaded will be better than that. F-35 at Mach 1,6 will cover 72 km in 2,5 minutes, or 4,2 minutes at Mach 0,95. Rafale at low altitude will cover 65 km in 2,8 minutes at speed of 750 knots (4 minutes at 529 knots with heavy air-to-ground load). As it can be seen, SA-6 is vulnerable to both F-35 and Rafale, despite its new versions being one of the most mobile SAMs in existence. However, F-35 will need jammer support to achieve this performance, whereas Rafale can do it on its own, but will have to utilize nap-of-the-earth flying and expose itself to AAA and MANPADS. Consequently, package price is at minimum one Rafale (90 million USD) vs 1 F-35 + 1 F-18G (a total of >198 million USD), allowing Rafales larger force presence and higher lethality (better ability to find and hit mobile SAMs) but at a price of greater vulnerability and reduced situational awareness. More data on SAM mobility (and other technical data) can be found here. It should be noted that S-400 has instantaneous turn rate of 22 deg/s at sea level, compared to 30 deg/s at unknown altitude for Rafale and 26,6 deg/s at 15.000 ft for F-35; consequently, both aircraft can easily evade it but only if they eject air-to-ground weapons and external tanks.
Neither Rafale or F-35 is capable of carrying out close air support. Both aircraft are thin-skinned, with insufficient number of gun bursts, too high cruise speed and lack of endurance. Further, being multirole, their pilots cannot be trained well enough to carry out proper CAS. If used in the role, Rafale has advantage of significantly more lethal and more precise gun.
Ground survivability includes possibility of camouflage and ability to operate from road bases. Latter includes STOL capability, wingspan limits, fuel consumption and ease of maintenance considerations. Wingspan should not be greater than 8,74 meters.
Rafale can take off in 590 meters (rolling takeoff) and land in 490 meters. Wingspan is 10,8 meters. Fuel consumption is 1.330 kg/h (?) kg/h cruise, 7.808 kg/h at maximum dry thrust and 25.126 kg/h afterburning.
F-35A requires 2.400 m runway for safe operations, which indicates 1.200 meter takeoff requirement. F-35B can take off in 173 meters (with 2 JDAM, 2 AMRAAM and fuel to fly 450 nm; rolling takeoff) and land vertically; this performance likely requires jump ramp. Wingspan is 10,7 meters for the F-35A and B variants. Fuel consumption is 2.721 kg/h cruise, 8.890 kg/h at maximum dry thrust and 39.000 kg/h with afterburner.
As it can be seen, there is significant difference in aircraft on-ground survivability in Rafale’s favor. Rafale also requires far smaller maintenance support and far less fuel for operations, leading to reduced logistical footprint.
Rafale is significantly superior to F-35 in air-to-air combat (both WVR and BVR), which is logical as it was designed primarily for air-to-air missions. In air-to-ground combat, either can be a better choice, depending on mission requirements.