Rafale’s MBDA spears for Aerial Dominance

Designed for significant strike potential, Dassault Rafale (Squall) multi-role strike fighter still remains a formidable air superiority fighter. An excellent weapons platform for multi-dimensional warfare, Rafale's avionics and electronics are integrated through four Mil STD-1553B data buses and two Mil STD-1760 data buses operating in the ADA language. The associated highly sophisticated Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missiles (BVRAAM) will immeasurably enhance the combat potential of Indian Air Force (IAF) in the skies of the continent. To decimate hostile airborne platforms, BVRAAM missiles load usually includes six MBDA MICA RF/IR for air defence oriented missions. Missile d’Interception, de Combat et d’Autodéfense (MICA) BVRAAM forms the standard armament of Dassault Rafale and also presently selected for upgraded package of IAF Mirage 2000I/IH fighters. 3.1-metre long, 112-kg weight, MICA was originally designed as a "multi-aircraft" missile that could easily be integrated onto any modern fighter aircraft, without significantly reducing the aircraft speed or negatively affecting its aerodynamic characteristics. MICA is capable of both BVR (60km+) and close range interception thanks to dual active radar (as in MICA RF) and Imaging Infra-Red (as in MICA IR) seeker and Lock On Before Launch (LOBL) as well as Lock On After Launch (LOAL) capability. Minimum range is said to in the region of 500 metres.

Carried under the aircraft fuselage or under the wings, and fired by ejection or by rail, MICA is “permitted” to be ejected from the airframe points up to 4g while wings pylons can release MICA up to 9g. Products of research and development during 1990s and after, both MICA RF and MICA IR sport a range of excess of 60 km as the MICA IR version receive mid-course update commands from the radar to compare the target location with the location of its seeker's track for LOAL engagements. In case of MICA RF after the target has been designated by the host aircraft's radar, it makes the first phase of its fight in inertial guidance mode, and then latches onto the target in flight in fire and forget mode using its “4A” active-radar homing head.  MICA remains well reputed for its general level of sophistication and its reliability in terms of “kill percentage” even in European adverse meteorological conditions alongside dense electronic warfare environment infested with saturation jamming as the missiles in turn sports a formidable Electronic Counter Counter Measures (ECCM) system to burn through hostile jamming. The seeker is cooled by an onboard closed-cycle system, which is powered electrically and can be operated for long periods. Complex algorithms have been developed to provide the IR seeker with the ability to track at longer range and to reject flare decoys. When fitted to aircraft with track-while-scan radars the MICA weapon system is capable of attacking several targets simultaneously with individual missiles.

  Excellent manoeuvrability is aided by combination of long chord wings, efficient tail control surfaces while at short range Thrust Vector Control (TVC) facilitates High Off-Boresight Angle (HOBA) engagements. Interestingly, the seeker of MICA IR may also be utilised for discrete optronics monitoring prior launch. Again MICA IR with its angular resolution will be able to mount stealthy strikes at unsuspecting opponents especially if the launch platform gets well pre-positioned by friendly AEW&C platforms like IAF A-50EI, the lethal 12 kg high-explosive blast fragmentation warhead being triggered by a Doppler radar proximity fuse. Surprise had always been the key to successful execution in air combat, with as much as 50-percent of the shot down pilots totally unaware of the fact that they were under attack. 

Meanwhile the French armament directorate (DGA) has launched a development programme  that will modernise the MICA BVRAAM and Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM), introducing a new generation of the weapon (MICA NG). Maintaining the size, weight and electronic interfaces of the current missile, MICA NG will provide the most effective successor to MICA. With an improved seeker and new propulsion, it will have the agility and performance to cope with modern threats and countermeasures. This includes targets with reduced infrared and electromagnetic signatures, atypical targets (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and small aircraft), in addition to the threats normally countered by air-to-air missiles (combat aircraft and helicopters). 

Maintaining the same MICA RF and MICA IR versions, among the enhancements to the MICA NG are the use of a new infrared seeker that uses a matrix sensor providing greater sensitivity. The radio frequency seeker will use an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) antenna, enabling smart detection strategies. The reduced volume of electronic components within MICA NG will allow it to carry a larger quantity of propellant, thereby significantly extending the range of the missile. 

The air combat capability however is to increase substantially with the service entry of European MBDA Meteor active-radar homing BVRAAM with 80+ nautical miles range to provide an ultra-long range interception capability against fighter sized targets critical in attaining “first look-first shoot-first kill” capability alongside fulfilling the BVR role for “outer-air battles”, obligatory for IAF in response to proliferation of BVRAAMs in its neighbourhood including United States AIM-120C-5 variant of AMRAAM in Pakistani Air Force (PAF) service. A 3.65 metre long, stealthy, low drag, lightweight (185 kg) BVRAAM design from MBDA stable, the 80+ nautical miles ranged Meteor with a more linear velocity profile is presently undergoing demonstration phase. Born out of the multi-national Project S225X examining the future BVRAAM technologies and designed for a network-centric warfare (NCW) environment, the Meteor has a data-link capability to be guided not only by the launching aircraft but also by another fighter or even by AEW&C platforms. The extended range is ensured by Meteor’s solid Boron fuelled Variable-Flow Ducted Ram-rocket (VFDR) propulsion system also referred to as Throttle-able Ducted Rocket (TDR), along with a speed of more than Mach 4 and high terminal velocity. Thus even when launched from extreme stand-off ranges, the missile will retain the energy in the end game to defeat fast, manoeuvring targets. The control system consists of four small moving tail surfaces but at inherent high speed sufficient to perform sharp manoeuvres. The engine's two air intakes, positioned on the both sides of the lower part of missile's body, are shaped to reduce the missile's radar cross-section. 

  Meteor is capable of engaging wide range of airborne targets autonomously, including cruise missiles with less than 1 metre square Radar Cross Section (RCS). For mid-course navigation guidance Meteor utilises Inertial Navigation System (INS) combined with update commands provided by the launch, or any friendly aircraft via the two way secure microwave data-link, to adequately offset Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) complexities or challenges at long ranges. During the terminal phase the Ku-band (NATO: X band) active-radar homing seeker (advanced version of the MICA RF “4A”) employs advanced proportional based navigation software. Also rumours persist that the system can operate passively in the K-band given the consortiums previous research interests. 

As Meteor is designed for a NCW environment, it is suitable for the futuristic concept of “Cooperative Fighter Operations” or Mixed Fighter Force Concept (MFFC) that is essential for future BVR engagements and optimum performance and results. Conceptually in IAF colours pairs of Rafale will be data-linked; as one illuminates the other launches the missiles against the targets. In such engagements the “striker” fighter will be able to impart the greatest kinetic energy to the Meteor BVRAAM by accelerating up to Mach 2 and then manoeuvring out of the engagement. The illuminator with the powerful radar capable of performing like a mini Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) platform will remain firmly subsonic keeping a decent distance from the target, and providing either command-guidance updates alongside illuminating the target. 

For “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation the Rafale is equipped with a single 30 mm GIAT 791B cannon mounted on the right engine duct with a rate of fire of 2,500 rounds per minute carrying 125 rounds of ammunition.

Sayan Majumdar

MICA RF being loaded on a Rafale
Meteor on Rafale during PACDG campaign