The Dassault Rafale will form the cornerstone of French air power until well into the 21st century. The programme began with the Rafale A technology demonstrator that was first flown on 4 July 1986. This established the basic aerodynamic design and evaluated the delta canard configuration, performance, FBW control system and composite-based structure. The generic Rafale D (Discret, or stealthy) - prototype for the Armee de l'Air versions - is slightly smaller and lighter.
The Rafale features some of the very latest avionics systems including RBE2 multi-mode radar (the first in Europe with two-plane electronic scanning), advanced pilot's helmet with sight and display, Spectra countermeasures system and OSF - a jam-resistant passive optronic surveillance and imaging system with laser rangefinder.
The Aeronavale will acquire the single-seat Rafale M interceptors and strike/attack aircraft for operation from the carrier Charles de Gaulle. This is similar to land-based counterparts but features major reinforcement of the landing gear, plus a jump-strut that allows automatic unstick rotation. The Aeronavale's has a requirement for 86 aircraft, but procurement is likely to be limited to 60 aircraft initially. The Armee de l'Air plans to acquire 82 single-seat Rafale Cs and 130 two-seat Rafale Cs.
These will be designated as Rafale F and will be delivered in several standards: F1 optimised for the air-to-air role but lacking ASMP capability, OSF and Spectra; F2 with improved air-to-surface capability (including the SCALP SOM dispenser) and the definitive Rafale F3 with improved radar. The 20 907-lb st (93.00-kN) M88-3 turbofan will become standard later in the programme. Milestones were marked with the first flights of the prototype Rafale C in May 1991 and Rafale M in December 1991, and the Rafale B in April 1993. The Rafale M is the first operational Rafale variant, which entered service in 2001. The Armee de l'Air received F1-specification Rafales in 2002.