Europe odds-on to supply new UAE fightersPosted: 10/12/2012
By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace
The end of this year could well be marked by the sale of a European fighter to a Gulf Cooperation Council state: Oman. A long-awaited deal may well be concluded for Muscat to buy 12 Eurofighter Typhoons to complement its existing fleet of US-built F-16s. With US and European defence budgets under pressure for the foreseeable future, combat aircraft manufacturers are pursuing any export opportunity with increasing vigour. And there remains the tantalising possibility for the four Eurofighter nations – Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK – of a larger order in the United Arab Emirates.
Of course, neither the sale to Oman or the UAE is guaranteed. Just over 12 months ago there was widespread anticipation that the UAE was on the brink of an order for the Dassault Rafale, perhaps for up to 60 aircraft. However, that deal unravelled at the last moment, when the UAE took the highly unusual step of publicly criticising the French aerospace company for offering an ‘uncompetitive and unworkable’ bid.
Despite warm relations with the UAE royal family, then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy was unable to bridge the gap. President Francois Hollande, who succeeded Sarkozy in May 2012, is not thought to have yet forged a similarly close relationship with the UAE, and it is hard to tell what the effect will be on the company’s fortunes in the Emirates when Dassault’s robust chief executive, Charles Edelstenne, retires in January 2013.
While the Rafale remains a clear contender for the UAE, its 2011 rejection has given rivals renewed opportunities to approach the UAE Defence Ministry.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has visited the UAE twice since 2010, reportedly faring much better than his Labour predecessor, Gordon Brown, did on a trip in late 2008. Closer defence ties between the UK and UAE were discussed during Cameron’s most recent visit in November 2012, when a ‘defence industrial partnership’ was signed that focused on the Typhoon and other unspecified ‘new technologies’. But while the language was encouraging on the Eurofighter, it was far from a commitment to procure the aircraft.
The UAE air force currently operates a mix of 70-plus F-16 E/F Block 60 and 67 French Mirage 2000-9 combat aircraft. It is believed that whichever aircraft is selected will at least notionally replace the Mirage, although the two could operate side by side depending on the size of the overall fleet the UAE plans.
The US remains the UAE’s main defence partner, and American combat aircraft manufacturers also continue to pursue opportunities in the Emirates. Upgrades to UAE F-16s are in the offing (with an additional attrition and top-up buy of airframes an option) and manufacturer Lockheed Martin also has ambitions to offer the F-35 in the medium term. Boeing, meanwhile, has offered the F-15 and the F/A-18E/F.
However, it is normal for combat-aircraft purchases nowadays to include weapons acquisition and/or integration, and this may pose problems for any US bid to succeed the UAE’s Mirages.
The UAE first used its Black Shaheen cruise missile, a variant of the MBDA SCALP/Storm Shadow, in operations during the Libyan air campaign. The missile was launched from a Mirage 2000. Washington opposed the original sale of the weapon to the UAE in 1998, arguing that it breached the Missile Technology Control Regime, but France and the UK adopted a more liberal interpretation.
In the UAE, Black Shaheen has, as far as can be ascertained, only been integrated on Mirage aircraft. Given US concern over the original sale, it seems a reasonable assumption that its integration on the F-16 Block 60, or another US fighter type, would remain problematic.
The US has yet to approve the sale of the ATK AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM), which the UAE is interested in fitting to its F-16s. The AARGM is designed primarily to engage and destroy air-defence radars, but can also be used against a broader range of surface targets.
US uncertainty over the release of some defence technologies continues. Meanwhile, the UAE has historically drawn its fighter fleet from US and European manufacturers, to avoid reliance on a single source. Taken together, these facts suggest that the Emirates’ next large fighter procurement will probably be European – assuming, of course, that the present procurement process does not suffer the same fate as last year’s ill-starred Rafale purchase.