The Lockheed Martin F-35 is the story that won't happen at the Dubai Air Show, which opens Sunday, and we're not entirely sure why.
There is of course no shortage of big headlines at what is now the world's third-largest aerospace event and rising quickly.
It's possible the United Arab Emirates will finally sign a check to buy some number of Dassault Rafales, although the total could be fewer than the stated requirement of 60. We may also hear more about the UAE's postponed deals for large airborne early warning aircraft and advanced jet trainers. Around the region, we will surely ask for updates about Oman's fighter competition, even as we pressure Boeing for more details about the long-delayed possibilty of a major F-15SA order by Saudi Arabia. And the money will continue to flow for helicopter gunships, airlifters and missiles. (Our Middle East procurement round-up feature is here.)
But we can almost guarantee that nothing will be said or written about the F-35.
This is an omission that never fails to puzzle us. The F-35 story is so ubiquitous we feel sometimes that it haunts us no matter where we travel in the world -- no matter where, that is, except the Middle East, which, by the way, is currently one of the most active markets for new fighters.
The F-35 is clearly wanted in the Middle East. We remember attending a global air chiefs conference at the Dubai Air Show in 2009. With the commanders of the US and French air forces seated in the front row of a fashionable Jumeirah Beach auditorium, the UAE's deputy air force chief explicitly stated the country's hopes to acquire a fifth generation fighter. Images of the Lockheed F-35 and F-22 flashed on the screen behind him.
But the UAE's interest continues to be mysteriously neglected. We expect to find no trace of the F-35 in the exhibit halls of the Dubai Air Show on Sunday. Nor do we expect to bump into representatives of the well-traveled F-35 marketing staffs of Lockheed and the joint programme office. Questions about the F-35 will be greeted by shrugs. If we even see a poster of the F-35, that alone may be cause for a minor headline -- "F-35 sighted in Dubai" -- somewhere in the show's daily newspaper.
Its omission is even more curious in light of the US government's behaviour towards India, where the State Department continues to offer the F-35 for a requirement (delivering 18 fully operational aircraft in 2014) that Lockheed can't possibly meet. The eternally optimistic Marine Corps doesn't expect to receive its first F-35B until 2015 at the earliest.
Two years ago, the unstated excuse for the F-35's absence in Dubai was Israel, which seeks to retain a qualitative military edge in the region. But that does not mean Israel is allowed a monopoly on advanced fighters. The UAE operates the world's most advanced F-16s. Saudi Arabia flies a large fleet of F-15Es, and has been offered more.
Two months after the 2009 Dubai Air Show, a Lockheed official in Bahrain was quoted by a local reporter saying the F-35 would be offered to Arab governments as soon as Israel signed a contract. Well, that happened one year ago when Israel agreed to buy 19 F-35As. At the moment, negotiations are ongoing over the cost of integrating Israel's unique equipment into the F-35.
But Israel's role does not explain the absence of even a token marketing effort on behalf of the F-35 in Dubai. We've seen a more aggressive sales push by the F-35 programme at arms shows in Brazil, where the F-35 has never been seriously considered to replace that country's aging F-5s, A-4s and Mirage IIIs.
Maybe this year we'll get to the bottom of the story about this non-story. Feel free to share your theories.