Sunday, April 19, 2020

Circuit breaker Day 13 pix: Next Fighter Replacement Programme Rafale & Eurofighter Typhoon

Test cell: An unpainted Rafale having its engines tested in a hush house. The Rafale lost out to Boeing's F-15 Strike Eagle in the final evaluation of Singapore's Next Fighter Replacement Programme that sought to find a replacement for the A-4 Skyhawk.

As a journalist, I covered Singapore's Next Fighter Replacement Programme (NFRP) when it started in 1998 with six candidates - Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle & F-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Aviation Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16E/F (or Block 60) and Sukhoi Su-30 - and wrote the NFRP's concluding news release seven years later when the F-15 was picked as the winner.

Six candidates became three after Singapore's Ministry of Defence and Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) downselected the F-15 together with the two European contenders, the Rafale and Typhoon. Then it was F-15 versus Rafale in 2005. In September 2005, Boeing F-15T was declared winner of the seven year long evaluation (the designation was later changed to F-15SG).

I visited the aircraft production lines at Boeing, BAE Systems (which was testing the then-new Typhoon) and Dassault Aviation. Sitting through separate briefings by rival aircraft makers was an interesting experience. The opportunity to see three different production lines was also an eye-opener as it allowed one to compare different approaches to aircraft design and manufacturing philosophy, combat roles, and life cycle support.

Along the way, one can piece together the strengths and weaknesses of the NFRP candidates based on tidbits of information shared by rival campaigns during on-the-record briefings and informally.

When NFRP became a two horse race, I had hoped Singapore would pick the Rafale. A diversified fleet of frontline fast jets would have immunised the RSAF against issues that might arise from situations when dealing with a sole source supplier. Some Arab air forces operate a diversified fleet successfully with American-made F-16s or F-15s flying alongside frontline fighters from elsewhere. Looking at the Rafale's combat record, the warplane is no slouch in combat and would have been a worthy A-4 successor.

The Eurofighter Typhoon was another promising candidate. Alas, the platform was too new and, in my opinion, the lack of maturity counted against it. BAE Systems fronted the marketing campaign for the Eurofighter consortium. Their marketing and engineering teams did their best. But in the end, Typhoon's capabilities were based largely on promises of what was to come rather than what you could see. In hindsight, Typhoon achieved or exceeded every campaign promise. From a cold start, few platforms can beat Typhoon in QRA and its combat record has validated every claim BAE made.

It's interesting to think about what capabilities Rafale and Typhoon might have brought to the RSAF had either platform been selected. Even today, I track the combat experience of the NFRP candidates out of personal interest. I would compare what I read or see in videos with what was shared by the respective manufacturers more than 15 years ago to see what has changed since then.

Year 2000: I met the Rafale at Dassault's flight test facility in Istres (below) and also at Dassault's aircraft plant near Paris where heaps of Mirages were being overhauled.

Year 2002: With BAE Systems and an early model Typhoon.

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