Dubai 2007: Middle East states look for defence efficiency gains

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After years of building up their armed forces, Middle Eastern states are now likely to focus spending on technologies to get the best out of their arsenals

The build-up in the Middle East of combat-capable military hardware, from fighters to armoured vehicles and tanks, during the past decade may have run its course. The task for the region's arms buyers who will assemble at the Dubai air show next week is shifting to buying technologies that make their arsenals more effective in modern warfare.

Since 2000, for example, the United Arab Emirates has procured 30 Boeing AH-64A Apache helicopters, 30 Dassault Mirage 2000-9 fighters, 80 Lockheed Martin F-16E/F fighters and hundreds of tanks and troop transports.

However, a greater share of defence spending in the region is expected to focus on technologies that enable surveillance, command and control and real-time networking. The model for this trend can be found in Jordan, which contracted Northrop Grumman in 2005 to launch a $230 million, five-year programme to modernise the country's command and control, networking and surveillance systems.

An armed confrontation with Iran and the ongoing struggle against domestic terror networks serve as the backdrop for the new phase of modernisation. "The issue at hand is the rise of Iran in that region," says Dan Darling, a Middle East specialist for the Forecast International consultancy. The six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], Darling adds, are "in essence, trying to band together loosely to build up a deterrent".

The threat from Tehran is fuelling demand for point missile defence technologies. Lockheed Martin is marketing the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense missile and is offering to integrate a second-stage booster rocket for foreign customers seeking greater exoatmospheric range. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is a reported candidate to buy the latest version of the Lockheed Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile.

Forecast International estimates that the GCC - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - will spend $50.6-51.6 billion on defence in 2008, which is about $1-2 billion more than in 2007, Darling says. The greatest concentration of military spending will remain Saudi Arabia, which alone accounts for $33.5 billion of the estimated $49.6 billion combined GCC budget in 2007.

Several high-profile aircraft procurements have been made recently, but there remain several opportunities. A prime example is the UAE's ongoing plan to buy a fleet of advanced fighter trainers, with the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 and Korea Aerospace Industries/Lockheed Martin T-50, among prime candidates.

The selected aircraft may feature an advanced mission suite, including perhaps advanced electronically scanned array (AESA), to conduct an adjunct border security and maritime surveillance mission.

Kuwait, meanwhile, is expected in the near-term to have a need to replace its ageing fleet of Boeing F/A-18A Hornets.

But the balance of activity will shift to supporting technologies, such as the UAE's plan to select an airborne early warning and control platform. Boeing and Northrop Grumman have separately responded to a request for information issued in August, offering the 737 Wedgetail and the E-2D Hawkeye, respectively.

An increasingly key point for arms sales in the region is partnerships with local companies, as the GCC states especially seeks to improve the sophistication of domestic industries.

Airlift is another sector that may yield major opportunities for defence contractors, with Oman, Qatar and the UAE each needing to replace Lockheed C-130 transport fleets. Boeing confirms potential interest from Qatar in the C-17 airlifter, but the C-130J and Airbus Military A400M are also candidates across the board. If some countries prefer a mixed-fleet solution, the Alenia C-27J or the EADS Casa C-295 may be bought in small deals.