Rafale canards are a problem, and will escalate total lifetime programme costs by billions of Euros

Image result for pics of canards on rafale


The Indian Air Force has a proud 70-year record of BONE-HEADED acquisition decisions. Among them (1) the purchase of the under-powered British Jaguar DPSA at the expense of the entirely indigenously-designed but supposedly “under-powered” Marut HF-24 Mk-II (aka HF-73) and, in the process, registering a collateral kill — as intended — of the indigenous Indian combat aircraft industry for nearly two generations (until an indigenous capability was revived from zero baseline with the Tejas LCA; (2) preferring the MiG-23 BN rather than a squadron of the Tu-22 Backfire bombers painted with IAF roundels that were ready to take-off for India had the Air Marshal Sheodeo Singh mission in the early summer of 1971 made the decision to take it as the Russians were urging it to; (3) No Tu-22, so no follow-on aircraft to the medium range Canberra bomber, and hence, disastrously, the complete elimination of the bomber from the IAF fleet; a decision not corrected by leasing the Tu-160 Blackjack; (4) the contretemps over inducting the Tejas LCA and derivatives in large numbers as the main bulk aircraft and, most recently, (5) the Rafale buy.

Because IAF has been so critical about all the things ostensibly wrong with the Tejas, may be we should put the inordinately expensive Rafale combat aircraft, that makes no cost-benefit sense whatsoever, under similar scrutiny, and see all the things structurally and otherwise wrong with this French item.

Let’s focus in this post on the canards on the Rafale. Canards are the rear horizontal wings in normal planes that are moved forward to near the nose for better aircraft control and hence featured in some combat aircraft like this French plane. It can contribute to lift, replacing the horizontal stabilizer and, therefore, reducing overall drag.

So, what’s the problem? Unlike the Su-30MKI — IAF’s front line advanced air dominance/air superiority fighter, which also sports canards, but uses its 2-D thrust vectoring nozzle for braking operations, the Rafale uses its canards. Using the canards thus generates enormous stress and strain on that part of the aircraft frame and can lead to stress fracture in the canards and result in cracks. Not sure if the IAF flew the Rafale, during the MMRCA test trials, in a sustained fashion over months in summer to see how the aircraft stacked up against the competition. Had they done so, they’d have witnessed the canards starting to fall apart. Combat aircraft experts give it 2-3 months of regular takeoff and landings in the hot tropical conditions of the subcontinent, for this problem to become apparent. Then what?

Replacing fractured and disabled canards is not an easy thing and when the entire fleet is so afflicted, as it will be, the IAF will have more of the Rafale down, resting in their airconditioned hangars than pulling duty in the skies. Soon,  because it cannot be used too intensively or extensively,  it will be reduced to another grand and expensive piece of hardware that, in terms of actual ready use, cannot reasonably be counted in the air order-of-battle. So much for the Rafale’s low down-time and quick-turnaround capability!!!

IAF doesn’t see this awful problem heading its way — and that’s par for the course. But the plane’s producer, Dassault, must be licking its chops in anticipation, because every canard repair and refit will require the aircraft to be ferried to the company’s production line in France. One can safely assess the additional costs of this major structural flaw over the aircraft’s lifetime for the 36 Rafales to be in billions of Euros.  As Government of India is clueless, it will do what — grin and bear it?

Won’t the IAF then complain about a degraded fighter force and about not enough fighter aircraft in the air? Of course, it will but only to pitch in for more Rafales in the belief that one horrible mistake deserves a cascade of the same mistake!

Incidentally, thanks to the intervention by the IAF in the design stage of the LCA and insistence on a canard on the Tejas — a movement headed by an ex-test pilot Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, who retired as Deputy Chief at HQ Integrated Defence Staff, the entire project was delayed by several years. The insertion of the canard in the original design required a major reworking of it, and the ultimate decision by its designers, who knew better but tried to humour its customer, to do away with it, cost the project time and hurt the LCA delivery schedule. These delays were then used by the IAF and Matheswaran in particular, and an ignorant/illiterate press and media, in general, to slam the Tejas.

This same Matheswaran after retirement was recruited by HAL as “adviser” for the LCA programme — why is not clear. He since jumped ship to something lots more lucrative — a sinecure with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence that has signed up with Dassault for offsets to produce some knick-knacks that will go into the IAF Rafales to be manufactured — minus any transfer of technology — wholly in France. Neat!

[Addendum: A Reliance Defence rep got in touch with me Dec 11, 2017, morning to say that Matheswaran, in fact, departed the  company a year back, and that he had thereafter joined SAAB India, which he no doubt reckoned stands a good chance — if IAF can help it — in its “single engine” aircraft race. This only proves my point. The Reliance rep also informed that other than some Rafale components, his company is into mainly producing with Dassault, a Falcon exec jet, as news reports have previously reported.]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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19 Responses to Rafale canards are a problem, and will escalate total lifetime programme costs by billions of Euros

  1. &^%$#@! says:

    The Su-30 family employs its large dorsal air brake to decelerate the a/c while landing:

    ADA did indeed experiment with canards, as can be seen by these two pretty rare wind tunnel models (one of them depicting the ill-fated and throttled HF-73):

    but found the compound delta (coupled with LERX in the MK2 whose future currently bleak) to be better. In general, the move from canards to LERX/LEVCONS is quite pronounced, as may be seen in the Su-57, J-31, F-35, F-22,…This simple article which for the most part is pretty accurate is worth reading:

  2. andy says:


    Rafale sevicability in the Armee d’aire is just 48.5%(even poorer than the SU30MKI in the IAF)just to increase this serviceability of Rafale to 75% India is paying through its nose to ensure this.The question is why not offer the Russians the same terms to increase the SU 30s sevicability beyond 75%.But of course the Russian kickbacks are miniscule or non existent therein lies the whole problem.

  3. TruthBeTold says:

    Rafale was designed by people who are much more intelligent than you. A dorsal airbrake = weight + maintenance + extra costs !

    • &^%$#@! says:

      You assume wrong as to who I am.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      Please refrain from personal attacks, and so will I. BTW, the F-15 has a dorsal brake In one sense you are correct. The Su-27 family did borrow a few features from the F-15. However, the Su-35 avoided the dorsal brake and instead added differential deflection of the vertical stabilizers. I commend you to read the works of Andrei Fomin which I believe are at http://www.sukhoi.org.

      If I correctly recall, awhile ago the FCS s/w of the Su-35 without TVC was modified, and demonstrated at an airshow (MAKS 2001 I believe). The Su-35 emulated the maneuvers of the Trust Vectored Su-37 perfectly, WITHOUT thrust vectoring. This demonstrated that any advantages that extra control surfaces and/or TV provide can in principle be emulated by a relaxed stability FBW.

      The decision to remove the canards is to improve it’s stealth signature. However, the canards are still offered as an export option Any additional surface reflects radar waves, and so the canards add to the aircraft’s RCS (see below for a possible counter-argument). The extent to which canards add to the RCS is difficult to estimate . Further, weight saving were another reason for the canard removal and it was found that the TVC is a better solution.

      You might want to get hold of he document in question is a Technical Memorandum 80230 by Jack E. Pennington and Alfred J. Meintel, Jr. at the Langley Research Center. This described tests on conducted on a plain vs. canard+TVC F15. The canard-no canard debate is far from over. Notwithstanding what I’ve stated above about stealth, I head that the F-35 had considered using canards, but this was rejected due to mass balance issues, and aerodynamic balance problems. Thus, one wonders about assertions that canards affect the RCS of a design. In all truthfulness, there is no hard evidence for that, just usual rumors

      • &^%$#@! says:

        The sentence above should read as:
        “You might want to get hold of NASA Technical Memorandum 80230 by Jack E. Pennington and Alfred J. Meintel, Jr. (Langley Research Center). It is of 1980’s vintage, but is a well researched and analyzed study.

  4. &^%$#@! says:

    Another article on the “exceptional availability” of the French AF:
    The figures for the Rafale and the various versions of the M2K are pretty poor!

  5. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    MTOW of Rafale is 24500 kg with a wing of 45.7 sqmtr and canards
    MTOW of EF Typhoon is 23500 kg with a wing of 51.2 sqmtr and canards
    MTOW of Su-30MKI is 38800 kg with a wing 62 sqmtr and canards and horizontal stablizers and TVC.

    Though the Su-30MKI is not strictly comparable to either of the first two but goes to show how to make things easier on the airframe. Europeans are already moving towards TVCs or are merely held up for extraneous reasons of the kind of politics and funding. Russians too had adopted for a while the MKI improvements only to drop them in the Su-35. On the other hand the latest version of all fighters are dropping the canards all together except the J-20. So there is a lot of movement by everybody in all directions. May the best technical solution win.

    While not strictly related to canards and also not affecting immediate flightworthiness, the EF Typhoons have faced structural issues esp. the vertical stabilizer. Not to doubt this Raptor killer’s build or the maintenance schedule of the respective air forces that host the EF Typhoon, but issues like these can be expected to crop up if sufficient margin of safety and redundancy is not allowed for.

  6. sanman says:

    There are news reports that China is constructing refugee camps near its border with North Korea, due to fears of unavoidable conflict.

  7. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    &^%$#@! says:
    December 10, 2017 at 10:22 pm
    If I correctly recall, awhile ago the FCS s/w of the Su-35 without TVC was modified, and demonstrated at an airshow (MAKS 2001 I believe). The Su-35 emulated the maneuvers of the Trust Vectored Su-37 perfectly, WITHOUT thrust vectoring. This demonstrated that any advantages that extra control surfaces and/or TV provide can in principle be emulated by a relaxed stability FBW.


    The maneuvers may be emulated correctly but will that happen for a sustained period or for a sustained combat advantage?

    For example the study you cite (which I have only glanced at in a cursory manner and hence I may be wrong on things) says on page 20 21 how the Average TOA or average time on offence with advantage increases substantially for the vectored F-15 for a 180 second block even when it is supposed to be 706 kg heavier (page 14).

    Vectored one is almost always on offence. Values range from 112 seconds vs. 9.7 seconds to 115 seconds vs. 6.9 seconds for modified vs. unmodified. Compare that to to 35.9 seconds vs 40.4 seconds for two unmodified F-15s.

    Which is why the Su-30MKI despite being heavier and older killed two Typhoons in one go in WVR. The other side (actually more important) being that a rookie would also be at a lesser disadvantage against a better experienced pilot leveling the killing field in the process for a lesser air force.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      My friend, you are largely correct. I will post more a detailed and careful reply,to avoid being caught by the “shorts and curlies”. TVC is indeed critical, which is which is one of the reasons the Su-30 MKI is lethal. The 3-D TVC on the MiG 35 and Su 35 makes things even worse for a prospective opponent. BTW, in your above post, one of the reasons the J-20 has canards is because it owes much to the MiG 1.44. This is a fact which is even admitted by the Chinese (depending upon who you ask).

      • As an aside to the ongoing discussion — the MiG 1.44 was first offered to India with full and complete TOT by the MiG Bureau desperate for custom. As usual, India missed the bus and China bought it in toto.

      • &^%$#@! says:


      • &^%$#@! says:

        This is yet another instance of the famous “great Indian rope trick”. We will fashion the most efficient and elaborate hangman’s noose, and then slip it around our own necks. It’s a tragedy of gigantic proportions..

  8. &^%$#@! says:


    • &^%$#@! says:

      There are two errors in the above video I posted First, to the best of my knowledge, there was never any Marut Mk 2 (HF-73) prototype built. Next, at around 01:30 mins, the HF-73 is shown in what appears to be PAF colors. The rest seems pretty much OK.

  9. Ellis Mann says:

    Thannk you for sharing this

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