French Rafale Performs First Operational Flight With Live Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-To-Air Missiles

The first operational flight of a Rafale with a Meteor last week. (Photo: Armée de l'Air et de l'Espace)

The Meteor long range air-to-air missile will be used alongside the MICA EM, which is also radar-guided.

The French Air and Space Force declared the Meteor Beyond Visual Range (BVR) radar-guided air-to-air missile operational after the first operational flight with live missiles on Mar. 4, 2021. The aircraft, a Rafale B (353/4-FT) assigned to the Escadrille SPA 167 “Cigogne de Romanet” of the Escadron de Chasse 2/4 Lafayette and stationed at the Base Aérienne 113 Saint-Dizier-Robinson, was armed with two Meteors under the rear fuselage pylons, two MICA-EM radar-guided missiles under the wings and two MICA-IR IR-guided missiles on the wingtips, in addition to an external fuel tank on the centerline hardpoint.

“This flight made it possible to validate the routing process from the ammunition depots to the armament zone, then to validate the know-how during a first deployment of the missile by the gunsmiths and to confirm the operational preparation of the weapon crews”, said a tweet posted by the French Air Force after the flight.

The Meteor is the latest capability introduced with the F3-R upgrade, which achieved the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on Dec. 6, 2019. The Rafale F3-R includes some major enhancements like the new Thales RBE2 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, the Spectra (Système de Protection et d’Évitement des Conduites de Tir du Rafale or, in English, Self-Protection Equipment Countering Threats to Rafale Aircraft) electronic warfare system, an Auto-GCAS (Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System) and the new laser-guided variant of the Sagem AASM “Hammer” (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire “Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range”).

A Meteor shortly before the first launch from a Rafale in 2019. (Photo: French MoD)

In early 2020 the Rafale was scheduled to receive the MBDA Meteor missile and the Thales Talios targeting pod, however they were delayed, with the Talios becoming operational in November 2020 and the Meteor becoming operational this month.

Here is what we wrote about the Meteor air-to-air missile in a previous article here at The Aviationist:

The missile was developed by a group of European partners led by MBDA to meet the needs of the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Sweden. Considered one of the most lethal BVR missiles available today, Meteor is powered by a ramjet propulsion system, a solid fuel, variable flow, ducted rocket.

The advantage over a standard rocket motor, like the one used by the AIM-120 AMRAAM, is that the ramjet is throttleable, meaning that the missile can throttle back its engine during cruise and then throttle up at close distance from the target to obtain the highest possible energy state during the terminal attack.

This way, Meteor can provide a larger No-Escape Zone without losing precious energy while countering the target’s defensive manoeuvres. A datalink provides mid-course updates about the target sent by the launcher aircraft to increase the Probability of Kill (Pk). The missile is equipped with both impact and proximity fuses and a fragmentation warhead to maximise the lethality. Meteor has currently been integrated on the Typhoon, Gripen and Rafale and is scheduled to be integrated on the F-35.

The Dassault Rafale becomes the third aircraft to be declared operational with the Meteor BVR missile, after the Saab Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Another aircraft scheduled to be integrated with this missile is the F-35 Lightning II.

“From now on, the Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace sees its air-to-air missile capability strengthened in the context of air defense, conventional or nuclear attack missions. A true “game changer”, the Meteor brings a considerable capability gain to the Rafale, reinforcing in an unprecedented way our ability to ‘enter first’”, added the French Air Force in a follow-on post on Twitter.

Meteor will be used alongside the MICA EM missile, which is also radar-guided, during engagements at longer ranges, while the two MICA variants will be used for medium ranges and self-defense.

About Stefano D'Urso
Stefano D'Urso is a freelance journalist and contributor to TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. A graduate in Industral Engineering he's also studying to achieve a Master Degree in Aerospace Engineering. Electronic Warfare, Loitering Munitions and OSINT techniques applied to the world of military operations and current conflicts are among his areas of expertise.