Dubai 2007: Stealth fighters may prompt Middle East arms race

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New arms race ahead

Israeli acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is likely to drive Arab states into purchasing similarly stealthy fifth generation fighter aircraft

Stealth technology is poised to become a key feature in the next wave of fighter sales to air forces of the Middle East, but recent events reveal that it introduction could be much sooner than expected.

After completing a handful of major fighter acquisitions during the past decade, Middle East defence chiefs are now expected to focus on improving the strike capability of those assets rather than purchasing new types. However, reports in the Israeli and Russian press warning of massive fighter deals being negotiated in Iran for either Sukhoi Su-30s or Chinese Chengdu J-10s, or both, appear to be spurring a rethink of expectations for the timing of fifth-generation fighter sales.

The Israel press has reported that US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates struck a deal in late October in Tel Aviv to allow the sale of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as early as 2012. Foreign sales for operational F-35s were not expected until after 2014, but the Israeli reports indicate a change of heart.

The F-35 programme is under pressure to stay on track to deliver enough aircraft to field the first operational unit to the US military by 2012. Flight tests have been suspended since 3 May after a wiring problem in the electronic flight controls. Israel has also expressed interest in the Lockheed F-22, which the US Air Force had considered displaying at Dubai - the stealth fighter's international air show debut.

If Israel's interest in the F-35 is confirmed, the delivery of the first stealth jets in the region may spark a new arms race, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia likely to want to refresh their fleets.

In 2000, the UAE signed an $8 billion deal for 80 Lockheed F-16 Block 60 fighters with Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range air-to-air missiles, Raytheon AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missiles and a sophisticated sensor suite. The UAE also has completed deliveries of a batch of Dassault Mirage 2000-9 fighters.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has ordered the Eurofighter Typhoon, a deal marred by charges of bribery, although BAE Systems denies any wrongdoing.