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Stealthy and fast aircraft, next generation air defence systems, high velocity weapons… The speed of technological change is redefining the pace and shape of air warfare. Gaining and retaining air superiority is no longer a dog fight; it is a situational awareness battle.


Chasing ghosts


Over the past few years, the progressive resurgence of peer-to-peer competition has triggered a technology race around the world and across all domains. Speed and stealth have become central to this race. For fighter pilots engaged in air warfare, they are redefining combat tactics.


Dog fighting, as close-range air combat manoeuvring is often referred to, may still be an option, but the real tactical advantage now lies in maintaining superior air superiority in Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat. As stealthy next generation aircraft challenge traditional air warfare sensors, fighter pilots must rely on new sensors to detect without being detected.


Silent detection


Stealth fighter jets are designed and built to have a very low Radar Cross-Section (RCS). As jets’ shapes and coating materials continue to evolve, these jets will become increasingly hard to detect, challenging adversaries’ ability to retain superior situational awareness.


Yet, despite these technological advances, there remains one feature that can be used against them: the heat generated by their engine, which creates an IR signature.


“Adversaries may be able to develop stealthy fighter jets, but because they are powered by an engine they will always have a IR signature,” says Laurent Royer. “Exploiting that weakness can contribute to retaining tactical advantage.”


Leveraging 50 years of experience supporting air forces in their battle for superior situational awareness, Thales has introduced the Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) capability in the Rafale’s Front Sector Optronics (FSO) system. Fitted with this new passive, long-range detection and identification sensor, Rafale fighter pilots can detect, track and engage targets using adversaries’ IR signature.


Featuring a dual-band system, it provides unique tracking capabilities both day - through a TV band - and night - through an IR band. And because IRST functions as a passive system, pilots can seek their targets with complete peace of mind, knowing they are not emitting and, therefore, cannot be detected.


Quiet identification detection


Fighter aircraft, such as the Rafale in France, are also a key asset for national airspace sovereignty. If an intrusion is detected and serious security breach suspected, Rafale are deployed to identify the potential threat.


Thales’ FSO-IRST function will be significantly enhancing the Rafale’s airspace protection capabilities. When used in high-resolution Electro Optic (EO)/IR mode, it provides unmatched imagery allowing positive identification.


“With the FSO-IRST, fighter pilots will be able to distinguish, night and day, the nature of their target, whether it is armed and what with,” adds Royer. “Ultimately, this new capability in the Rafale’s FSO system will provide pilots with the ability to detect, track, and identify targets any time, in any type of mission.”