Dassault delivered Rafale serial number C137, the first production aircraft equipped with a Thales RBE2 AESA, to French defense procurement agency DGA on Oct. 2.
The aircraft will be used by the French air force trials center CEAM at Mont-de-Marsan for operational evaluation of the new radar. Development flight testing is complete.
Production deliveries to operational units will not begin until mid-2013, Dassault says, as another five or six Rafales with mechanically scanned RBE radars remain to be delivered.
U.S. manufacturers, meanwhile, are moving to tap a potential 1,000-aircraft market to upgrade Lockheed Martin F-16s with AESAs, beginning with Taiwan, South Korea and the U.S. Air Force itself.
Spurred by the expectations of the export market, European fighter manufacturers are moving to catch up with their U.S. rivals on offering active-array radars. Availability of Thales' RBE2 AESA on the Rafale was a key element in Dassault's January victory in India's 126-fighter medium multi-role combat aircraft competition.
In July, the four European nations behind the Typhoon fighter, which lost in India, asked the Eurofighter consortium for firm proposals to develop an AESA for fielding in 2015. Eurofighter and the Selex Galileo-led Euroradar consortium already are working on an AESA on industry funds, but a formal development contract is expected early next year.
Eurofighter, meanwhile, has begun flight testing the final set of Phase 1 Enhancements (P1E) for the Typhoon. Accomplished through two separate software releases, the P1E "robust simultaneous multirole capability" upgrade will establish the aircraft baseline for the AESA upgrade, Eurofighter says.
P1E upgrades to Tranche 2 production aircraft and structural changes in Tranche 3a will introduce provisions for the electronically scanned radar, the consortium says. The wing and rear fuselage for the first Tranche 3a Typhoon were delivered by Alenia Aermacchi to BAE Systems in late September.
Availability of an AESA is key in South Korea, where Eurofighter is competing against the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle and Lockheed Martin F-35 for a 60-aircraft order, with a decision expected as early as this month.
Korea plans to retrofit 134 F-16C/Ds with AESAs and has selected BAE Systems to lead the aircraft's upgrade, but is conducting a separate competition for the radar, with incumbent Northrop Grumman offering its Sabr AESA against Raytheon's Racr.
Lockheed Martin has been awarded the $1.85 billion contract to upgrade 145 Taiwanese F-16A/Bs, but Taiwan plans to use the AESA that the U.S. Air Force selects for its 300-aircraft F-16C/D Combat Aviation Programmed Extension Suite (Capes) upgrade.
"Taiwan has asked the U.S. government to select an AESA for them as part of the Air Force plan," says Jim Hvizd, who is leading Raytheon's Racr sales campaign. "Korea has a slightly different approach and is conducting its own competitive assessment."
"Korea is working loosely with the Air Force, but Taiwan is tightly coupled," says Joe Ensor, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems' intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting systems division.
A U.S. Air Force request for proposals for an AESA upgrade for domestic and international F-16s is expected "any day now," Ensor says, with award of a contract expected in the third or fourth quarter of next year.
Initial operational capability of the Air Force's Capes upgrade is planned for 2018, which will pace foreign military sales availability of an AESA for international F-16 operators. "The earliest Taiwan could get it is 2017," Ensor believes.
Both Northrop and Raytheon plan to offer a single baseline standard of AESA radar for both U.S. F-16C/Ds and Taiwanese F-16A/Bs, as well as subsequent customers, with Singapore in initial discussions to upgrade 60 F-16C/Ds.
For Europe, meanwhile, the availably of active-array radars in the Rafale and Saab Gripen NG could prove crucial in the Brazilian competition against the AESA-equipped Boeing F/A-18E/F for a 36-aircraft order, now expected to be decided by mid-2013.
-- This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.
-- by Graham Warwick