Bahrain's Blockbusters

David Oliver looks at how the small Royal Bahraini Air Force is big on using new technology.

In September 2017, the US State Department approved a possible foreign military sale (FMS) to the Government of Bahrain for the latest variant of the Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, with a support package worth an estimated cost of $2.785 billion.
The island-state of Bahrain is the smallest member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Along with Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it has signed a defence pact to consider an attack on one of them is an attack on all.
The belt of cooperation (HAT) aircraft identification and tracking system links the respective national air defence systems of the six GCC members.
The Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF) was originally the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) Air Wing and then the Bahrain Amari Air Force (BAAF) from 1987 until 2002. Although small in numbers, it has a record being one of the first Middle East nations to introduce new types of aircraft into its inventory.
In 1990, it became the first operator of the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 40 fighter aircraft, when an order for eight single-seat F-16Cs and four two-seat F-16D Fighting Falcons was placed under the Peace Crown I programme.
Deliveries began in May 1990, just before the country became involved in the Gulf War, and the F-16s flew their first offensive Gulf War missions in January 1991.
The F-16 units, the 1st and 2nd Fighter Squadrons, were based at the newly constructed Shaikh Isa Air Base.
A second batch of 10 F-16Cs, with upgraded AN/APG 68(V)8 radar and AIM-120 AMRAAM capability, commenced delivery in 2000 under the Peace Crown II programme.
One F-16C was lost in September 2003 when it crashed into the Persian Gulf following the pilot’s loss of control while, on December 30 2015, an RBAF F-16C crashed in Jizan Province, Saudi Arabia, while supporting the Saudi Arabian-led Operation Decisive Storm intervention in Yemen. The pilot was recovered safely and the crash was attributed to technical issues.
The RBAF F-16s have also been involved in anti-ISIL operations in Syria.
Bahrain had planned to replace its F-5E/F Tiger II fighter fleet with additional F-16 orders in the short term, while looking for a more capable aircraft to be acquired to add to or replace the F-16 fleet.
Eight F-5E and four two-seat F-5Fs were delivered in 1985, assigned to the 6th Fighter Squadron at Shaikh Isa Air Base. They are now used as lead-in fighter trainers (LIFT) and air adversary trainers for the F-16s.
However, in September 2016, it was announced that an FMS request for up to 19 late model F-16s had been submitted to the US Congress for approval. At that time, the White House advised that it would not complete the approval unless progress was shown on human rights issues arising from the Bahraini protests of 2011.
BAE Systems then had high hopes of selling the Eurofighter Typhoon to Bahrain, which had acquired Avro RJ85 and RJ100 transport aircraft and Hawk Mk.129 jet trainers. Bahrain’s close ally, Saudi Arabia, had already chosen of the Typhoon.
Six Hawk Mk.129s were delivered in 2006 and assigned to 5 Squadron, also at the renamed Isa Air Base. They form part of the RBAF’s Training Wing, which was established in 2002. Additional training is carried out at the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh on Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) Pilatus PC-9s, while basic training is also conducted at the Etihad Flight College at Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates.
Former RBAF fighter pilots have also been training at the Barcelona Flight School in Spain to obtain civil EASA licences to fly the Bahrain Royal Flight’s Boeing 737-800.
In the meantime, Lockheed Martin received a direct commercial sale contract from the BDF in July 2017 to provide Sniper advanced targeting pods (ATP) for its existing F-16C fleet. Under the $22.45 million contract, Lockheed Martin will deliver ATPs, spares and support equipment for integration with deliveries beginning in early 2018.
Under the Trump administration, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency approved the sale of up to 22 F-16V Block 70 aircraft to Bahrain in September 2017, as well as the sale of 20 upgrade kits for Bahrain’s existing F-16 fleet to F-16V Block 70 configuration.
The sale of a total of 16 new aircraft was confirmed in October 2017 at the Bahrain International Defence Exhibition and Conference (BIDEC) by the Commander of the Royal Bahraini Air Force, Major General Hamad bin Abdullah Al Khalifa. He said that Bahrain had made a wise choice with what he considered to be a fourth-plus generation aircraft and that the decision was influenced by the excellent record of the F-16C/Ds that the RBAF has operated for more than 25 years.
The FMS contract, worth $3.8 billion, covers weapons, sensors and training with first deliveries scheduled for 2021.
The F-16V Block 70, the latest variant that has been offered to India, features Northrop Grumman’s advanced APG-83 scalable agile beam radar (SABR) active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar with a new avionics architecture, and structural upgrades to extend the life of the aircraft by more than 50% beyond that of previous production F-16 aircraft.
Operational capabilities are enhanced through an advanced datalink, targeting pod and weapons, precision GPS navigation and the automatic ground collision avoidance system (Auto GCAS). New cockpit displays and avionics are based on F-35 technologies.
Also included are General Electric F-110-GE-129 engines, improved programmable display generators, modular mission computers (MMC), embedded global navigation systems, ITT AN/ALQ-211 advanced integrated defensive electronic warfare system (AIDEWS) self-protection pods and jamming suites, UTA Aerospace Systems DB-110 reconnaissance pods, and AN/APX-126 advanced identification friend or foe (AIFF) systems.
In addition to M61 Vulcan 20mm gun systems and LAU-129 launchers, Bahrain also requested Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-33 Sniper ATPs, DB-110 advanced reconnaissance systems, Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and AIM-120C advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs), AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs), and kits for small numbers of various other air-to-surface munitions, among them the GBU-24 Paveway III laser-guided bombs (LGB) and Boeing GBU-38 joint direct attack munitions (JDAM).
The extant fleet of RBAF’s Block 40 F-16C/D aircraft to be upgraded to F-16V configuration will include the AN/APG-83 AESA radar, new MMC, cockpit and avionics.
The first aircraft are planned to be upgraded by Lockheed Martin in the United States with the remaining F-16C/Ds to be worked on by RBAF technicians in Bahrain, although no delivery date has yet been confirmed.
It is not only combat aircraft that the RBAF has bought into the region for the first time; it was also the first international customer for the Sikorsky UH-60M Black Hawk multirole medium helicopter in 2007.
Nine UH-60Ms were procured by an FMS contract worth $252 million that included spares, support equipment, technical support and personnel training.
Entering service with the 3rd Helicopter Squadron at Riffa Air Base in 2010, the RBAF Black Hawks are used for search-and-rescue and anti-smuggling operations, as well as supporting the Bahrain Royal Guard Special Forces, who have recently participated in Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope operations in Yemen, with high-altitude-low opening (HALO) free-fall parachute training.
The RBAF has also had a requirement to replace its aging fleet of Bell AH-1E/F Cobra combat helicopters, operated by 8th and 9th Squadrons, also based at Riffa.
On April 27 2018, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced that the US Government had approved the sale of 12 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters to Bahrain with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and advanced precision kill weapons system II (APKWS-II) WGU-59B precision-guided rockets, worth an estimated $911.4 million.
Once again, Bahrain will be the first country to operate the AH-1Z in the region.