In the mid-1970s, both the French Air Force (Armée de l'Air) and Navy (Marine Nationale) had requirements for a new generation of fighters to replace those in or about to exit service. Because their requirements were similar, and to reduce cost, both departments issued a common request for proposal. In 1975, the French Ministry of Aviation initiated studies for a new aircraft to complement the upcoming and smaller Dassault Mirage 2000, with each aircraft optimised for differing roles.
In 1979, the French company Dassault joined the MBB/BAe "European Collaborative Fighter" (ECA) project which was renamed the "European Combat Aircraft". The French company contributed the aerodynamic layout of a prospective twin-engine, single-seat fighter; however, the project collapsed in 1981 due to differing operational requirements of each partner country. In 1983, the "Future European Fighter Aircraft" (FEFA) programme was initiated, bringing together Italy, Spain, West Germany, France and the United Kingdom to jointly develop a new fighter, although the latter three had their own aircraft developments.
A number of factors led to the eventual split between France and the other four countries. Around 1984 France reiterated its requirement for a carrier-capable version and demanded a leading role. It also insisted on a swing-role fighter that was lighter than the design favoured by the other four nations. West Germany, the UK and Italy opted out and established a new EFA programme. In Turin on 2 August 1985, West Germany, the UK and Italy agreed to go ahead with the Eurofighter, and confirmed that France, along with Spain, had chosen not to proceed as a member of the project. Despite pressure from France, Spain rejoined the Eurofighter project in early September 1985. The four-nation project eventually resulted in the development of the Eurofighter Typhoon.
In France, the government proceeded with its own programme. The French Ministry of Defence required an aircraft capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground, all-day and adverse weather operations. Unlike other contemporary European fighter projects that required some level of international collaboration and cost-sharing, France was the sole developer of the Rafale's airframe, avionics, propulsion system and armament, and as such the aircraft was to replace a multitude of aircraft in the French Armed Forces. The Rafale would perform roles previously filled by an assortment of specialised platforms, including the Jaguar, Mirage F1C/CR/CT, Mirage 2000C/-5/N in the Armée de l'air, and the F-8P Crusader, Étendard IVP/M and Super Étendard in the Aéronavale.
Jaguar Mirage F1C Mirage 2000C F-8P Crusader Étendard IVP
During October–December 1978, prior to France's joining of the ECA, Dassault received contracts for the development of project ACT 92 (Avion de Combat Tactique, meaning "Tactical Combat Airplane"). The following year, the National Office for Aviation Studies and Research began studying the possible configurations of the new fighter under the codename “Rapace” (meaning "Bird of Prey"). By March 1980, the number of configurations had been narrowed down to four, two of which had a combination of canards, delta wings and a single vertical tail-fin. In October 1982, the French Ministry of Defence announced that Dassault would build a technology demonstrator named Avion de Combat expérimental (Experimental Combat Airplane), in short ACX. France wanted to collaborate with West Germany and the UK on the project, but was prepared to build the ACX by itself. In 1984, the government decided to proceed with a combat variant of the ACX due to the conflicting technical criteria of the respective FEFA participant nations.
The resultant Rafale A technology demonstrator was a large-delta winged fighter, with all-moving canards, embodying fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system. Construction of the demonstrator commenced in March 1984, even before a contract was signed with the DGA, France's defence procurement agency. The technology demonstrator was rolled out in December 1985 in Saint-Cloud, and took its maiden flight on 4 July 1986 from Istres-Le Tubé Air Base in southern France. During the one-hour flight, the project's chief test pilot Guy Mitaux-Maurouard took the aircraft to an altitude of 11,000 metres (36,000 ft) and a speed of Mach 1.3. The 9.5-tonne (21,000 lb) demonstrator stopped in 300 metres (980 ft) upon landing.
Throughout the flight test programme, the Rafale A performed numerous day and night take-offs and landings aboard the carriers Clemenceau and Foch to investigate the pilot's field of view during carrier operations. It reached a speed of Mach 2 (2,450 km/h; 1,522 mph; 1,322.9 kn) and a height of 13,000 metres (42,000 ft). The demonstrator was initially powered by General Electric F404-GE-400 afterburning turbofans from the F/A-18 Hornet, instead of the Snecma M88, to reduce the risk that often comes with a first flight, and since the M88 was not considered sufficiently mature for the initial trials programme. It was not until May 1990 when the M88 replaced the port F404 in the demonstrator to enable the aircraft to reach Mach 1.4 and demonstrate supercruise, or sustained supersonic flight without use of afterburners. After 865 flights with four pilots, Rafale A was retired in January 1994.
At the time of the Rafale A's maiden flight, France entered unsuccessful talks with Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway about a possible collaboration on the Rafale as a multinational project; at the time, Belgium was reportedly interested in the Rafale B. In June 1987, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac declared that the country would proceed with the US$30 billion project. Subsequently, on 21 April 1988, the French government awarded Dassault a contract for four Rafale prototypes: one Rafale C, two Rafale Ms and one Rafale B. The first out of an expected 330 Rafales was scheduled to enter service in 1996. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall, which signalled the end of the Cold War, as well as the need to reduce the national deficit, compelled the French government to drastically reduce its defence budget; the 1994 budget for the Rafale programme was cut by US$340 million. This reduced the size of the Rafale orders, which Dassault and other companies involved claimed impeded production management and led to higher costs, and delayed the entry of the aircraft into service. The French Air Force was reorganised, the Mirage 5F was completely phased out and a total of 55 Mirage F1Cs were upgraded to a tactical fighter configuration, redesignated as Mirage F1CT. The budget cuts prolonged the Rafale's development considerably.
To meet the various roles expected of the new aircraft, the Air Force required two variants: the single-seat "Rafale C" (chasseur, meaning "fighter" or literally "hunter") and the "Rafale B" (biplace, or two-seater). The prototype of the C model (designated C01) completed its first flight on 19 May 1991, signalling the start of a test programme which primarily aimed to test the M88-2 engines, man-machine interface and weapons, and expand the flight envelope. Due to budget constraints, the second single-seat prototype was never built.
The C01 differed significantly from the Rafale A. Although superficially identical to the technology demonstrator, it was smaller and more stealthy due to the gold-coated canopy, a re-design of the fuselage-fin joint, and the addition of radar-absorbent materials (RAM). This aircraft also saw extensive application of composite and other materials, which both reduced the radar cross-section (RCS) and weight. Moreover, Dassault opted to reject variable engine inlets and a dedicated air brake, which lessens maintenance loads and saves weight. The B01, the only prototype of the two-seat B variant, made its maiden flight on 30 April 1993. It was 350 kilograms (770 lb) heavier than the single-seater, but carried 400 litres (110 US gal) less fuel. The aircraft was used for weapon-systems testing. Later it was tasked with validating weapon separation and, specifically, the carriage of heavy loads. The aircraft's typical loadout consisted of two 2,000-litre (530 US gal) external tanks, two Apache/Scalp cruise missiles, in addition to four air-to-air missiles.
The Navy, meanwhile, sought a carrier-based aircraft to supersede its fleet of ageing Étendard IV Ms & Ps, F-8P Crusaders and Super Étendard Modernisés. While the Navy initially modernised the Crusaders, in the long term, the requirement was met with the navalised Rafale M. The M01, the naval prototype, first flew on 12 December 1991, followed by the second on 8 November 1993. Since France had no land-based catapult test facility, catapult trials were initially carried out between during July–August 1992 and early the following year, at NAS Lakehurst in New Jersey. The aircraft then carried out trials aboard the carrier Foch in April 1993. Flown by Dassault's chief test pilot, Yves Kerhervé, M02 made its maiden flight in November that year, while the first prototype completed the third round of testing at Lakehurst in November and December 1993.
Initially, the Rafale B was to be just a trainer, but the Gulf War showed that a second crew member was invaluable on strike and reconnaissance missions. Therefore, in 1991 the Air Force switched its preferences towards the two-seater, announcing that the variant would constitute 60 percent of the Rafale fleet. The service originally envisaged taking delivery of 250 Rafales, but this was initially revised downwards to 234 aircraft, made up of 95 "A" and 139 "B" models", and later to 212 aircraft. The Navy, meanwhile, had 60 Rafales on order, down from 86 due to budget cuts. Of the 60, 25 would be M single-seaters and 35 two-seat Ns, though the two-seater was later cancelled.
Production of the first aircraft series formally started in December 1992, but was suspended in November 1995 due to political and economic uncertainty. Production only resumed in January 1997 after the Ministry of Defence and Dassault agreed on a 48-aircraft (28 firm and 20 options) production run with delivery between 2002 and 2007. A further order of 59 F3 Rafales was announced in December 2004. In November 2009 the French government ordered an additional 60 aircraft to take the total order for the French Air Force and Navy to 180.
During the Rafale's design phase, Dassault took advantage of Dassault Systèmes' CATIA (Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application), a three-dimensional computer-aided design, manufacture and engineering software suite that would become standard across the industry. CATIA enabled digitisation and efficiency improvements throughout the Rafale programme, as it implemented recently developed processes such as digital mockup and product data management. It consisted of 15 GB databases of each of the Rafale's components, assisting with various aspects of the design, manufacture and through-life support.
Apart from several non-sensitive components sourced from the United States, the Rafale is manufactured almost entirely in France. Different elements are produced in numerous factories across the country, and final assembly takes place near Bordeaux–Mérignac Airport. For example, the flight control surfaces are fabricated in Haute-Savoie, the wings and avionics in Gironde, the centre fuselage in Val-d'Oise, and the engines in Essonne. Roughly 50 percent of the Rafale is produced by Dassault and the other half divided between two major partners, Thales and Safran, who rely on a network of 500 subcontractors. Altogether, the programme employs 7,000 workers. The fabrication process of each fighter took 24 months, with an annual production rate of eleven aircraft.
Deliveries of the Rafale's naval version were a high priority to replace the Navy's considerably aged F-8 Crusaders, and so the first production model for the French Navy undertook its first flight on 7 July 1999. Their first naval deployment was in 2002 on board Charles de Gaulle; by March 2002, the aircraft carrier was stationed in the Gulf of Oman, where its complement of Rafales undertook training operations. In December 2004, the Air Force received its first three F2 standard Rafale Bs at the Centre d'Expériences Aériennes Militaires (CEAM, Military Air Experiment Centre) at Mont-de-Marsan, where they were tasked to undertake operational evaluation and pilot conversion training.
The total programme cost, as of FY2013, was around €45.9 billion, which translated to a unit programme cost of approximately €160.5 million. This figure takes in account improved hardware of the F3 standard, and which includes development costs over a period of 40 years, including inflation. The unit flyaway price as of 2010 was €101.1 million for the F3+ version.