The Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter promises to bring advanced operational capabilities to those air forces that operate it, and to allow a previously unknown degree of interoperability and harmonization with the US Air Force. Advanced sensors, low observability (‘stealth’) and connectivity combine to give unmatched mission performance and survivability, and the aircraft is increasingly being seen as something that no air force that aspires to ‘full spectrum’ capability can do without.
At the same time, development of the F-35A has been beset by technical, political and cost difficulties, and Lockheed Martin and the US Government have been keen to export the type in order to recoup the costs and ‘share the pain’!
Before President Trump took office, requests for the F-35 from Gulf and Middle Eastern air forces were firmly rebuffed, with the US agreeing to export the aircraft to only one regional air force. The US has followed a long-standing policy of ensuring that this one particular nation in the Middle East maintains a Qualitative Military Edge and has historically provided that nation with the weaponry and assistance required to allow it to defend itself against any combination of regional foes, while denying that nation’s neighbours and near-neighbours weapons that might threaten its military dominance in the region. Emirati requests for the F-35 have been rebuffed since 2011.
But the Trump administration has tacitly recognized the importance of the United Arab Emirates as a vital regional ally, which provides basing and port facilities for the US military and which hosts thousands of Americans deployed with the US Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.The UAE is also the only Arab country to have participated in six US-led coalition operations since the 1991 Gulf War, supporting the US in the Balkans and Afghanistan as well as in the region. In a recent report, the US-UAE Business Council highlighted the UAE’s material contribution to US interests and security in the Arabian Gulf and globally, including counterterrorism.
Danny Sebright, the Council’s President, pointed out that: “The UAE has become not just a consumer of security, but also a provider of security in the Gulf region and the wider Middle East.”
Perhaps even more importantly, the UAE could be of pivotal importance in US attempts to counter nuclear and non-nuclear threats from a resurgent Iran.
But recently there have been strong signs that the UAE could increasingly turn to non-Western countries for major military procurements in the future, despite an underlying preference for US weaponry. When the UAE’s attempts to procure armed Reaper UAVs were unsuccessful, the Emirates purchased armed Chinese UAVs as a supplement to unarmed Predator drones, while Russia has claimed that the UAE is interested in a potential purchase of Sukhoi Su-35 fighters. In February 2017 the UAE and Russia signed a letter of intent to jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter based on the MiG-29. The UAE is among the world’s biggest defence spenders, and has long been one of the largest customers for the US Foreign Military Sales programme. The US has no wish to lose this lucrative market for its weaponry.
The Trump administration is therefore actively pursuing enhanced strategic co-operation with the Emirates, building on the expanded 15 year US-UAE Defense Co-operation Agreement that was signed in May 2017. At the same time, Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s is understood to have raised the subject of the F-35A during his meetings with President Trump and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington DC.
At the Dubai Air Show, American and Emirati officials confirmed that the UAE was in preliminary discussions with the United States centred around a future purchase of ‘two squadrons’ of Joint Strike Fighters (probably about 24 aircraft). The USAF’s vice chief of staff, General Stephen Wilson said that he expected the UAE would soon be briefed on the F-35, but could or would not provide any information as to when that might happen.
Wilson acknowledged that Middle Eastern nations shared the same threats, interests and responsibilities, and said that the US would: “explore options for those nations and partners to benefit from this capability. So the discussions are ongoing now with the new administration on selling F-35s to partner nations that need them and require them. They’ve started the process. Now with that you need discussion bilaterally between nations ... so further things on that will have to come from the UAE.”
The UAE Air Force and Air Defence (UAE AF & AD) has made no secret of its interest in acquiring fifth-generation fighter aircraft.
Brigadier General Rashed Al Shamsi, deputy commander of the UAE AF & AD, described the need to strengthen the UAE’s air capacity during a briefing at the Dubai air show, explaining that the Air Force “required connected multi-role platforms with the ability to share data, which had enhanced intelligence collection and distribution capabilities, and that was capable of timely and reactive dynamic targeting.” This, he said, meant that “to have a fifth-generation capability is something of interest to the UAE Air Force and Air Defence,” noting that he had “heard that the United States could now be willing to sell the UAE the F-35.”
The UAE Air Force and Air Defence has seen the advantages of fifth generation aircraft at first hand, training and exercising with USAF F-22As and F-35As on numerous occasions, both in the USA and in the UAE itself. It has watched as regional rivals have acquired the kind of advanced, ‘double-digit’ SAMs and integrated air defence systems that threaten the survivability of ‘conventional’ fourth generation fighters and that make Low Observable aircraft worth their weight in gold!
The UAE could use the F-35A as a powerful intelligence gathering platform, even during peacetime training missions. F-35As could also provide an invaluable deterrent against any overt Iranian aggression, since they would be able to mount limited retaliatory air strikes, without necessarily having to mount a major air campaign to take down all enemy air defences.
Staff Major General Pilot Abdullah Al Hashimi, Assistant Undersecretary for Support Services in the UAE Ministry of Defence, explained that: “We in the UAE already live in a fifth generation environment and have a fifth generation mindset; so acquiring the F-35 fighter jet is just a step forward.”
Any Emirati F-35 purchase would be limited to the purchase of two squadrons of F-35As (24 aircraft), at least in the first phase. This would require a major restructuring of the UAE AF & AD, perhaps requiring the procurement of a second aircraft type. A specialized committee is assessing the risks, threats and needs of the air force and to work out how a future fighter force might look.
The UAE has continued to consider a range of re-equipment plans, including the acquisition of advanced fourth generation fighters instead of, or augmenting F-35As. These options include the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon (now in service or on order with four of the six GCC air forces). In the meantime, contracts have been placed with Lockheed Martin and Thales for upgrades to the Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Desert Falcons and Dassault Mirage 2000-9s now in service.
If negotiations are eventually successful, the United Arab Emirates would become the first GCC nation to operate a Low Observable, fifth generation combat aircraft. Though other air forces in the region hope to persuade the USA to supply F-35As, it would seem unlikely that a UAE purchase would necessarily lead to approval for other requests.
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