UAE: building an arsenal

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After catapulting to the ranks of the world's third-largest arms importer since 2004, the United Arab Emirates is continuing to stockpile its rapidly growing arsenal of advanced weapons systems.

Lockheed Martin had barely completed deliveries earlier this year of 60 Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Block 60s, which joined about 60 Dassault Mirage 2000-9s, when the UAE signed another wave of high-profile weapons contracts.

New aircraft deals announced at the IDEX exhibition in February ranged from the Alenia Aermacchi M346 trainer/light attack fighters to Boeing C-17s and Lockheed Martin C-130Js. Those contracts followed an announced last September that the UAE would invest up to $9 billion to bolster its air defence systems, acquiring Lockheed's Patriot Advanced Capability system and terminal high-altitude air defence batteries.

uae f-16 us air force
 © US Air Force

As the Dubai air show opens its doors on 15 November, the world's arms contractors are gearing up for yet a third major around of acquisitions.

This next wave is likely to be as comprehensive - and expensive - as the preceding rounds. UAE officials are seeking to buy even more advanced fighters, stand up a battle management and command and control network, acquire a new fleet of light airlifters and - unique among Gulf states - locally design and manufacture a Predator-class unmanned aircraft system.

UAE officials are careful to defend themselves against accusations that the world's 51st largest economy, according to the CIA Factbook, spends a disproportionate amount on defence.

Among major arms importers, only China and South Korea spent more than the UAE's $7.1 billion on imported weapons from 2004-8, says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Forecast International predicts that spending on new defence acquisitions will rise to $7 billion in 2009. That means nearly 4% of the country's overall wealth is invested in weapons procurement.

UAE officials, however, may argue that the country is only catching up on decades of benign neglect in the defence sector. With regional neighbour Iraq embroiled in three major wars in the last three decades, continuing concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions and the persistent threat of domestic terror attacks, the response in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is not especially surprising.

The UAE and Iran remain in dispute over the sovereignty of three Persian Gulf islands - Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, Richard Russell, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, wrote in the latest issue of Joint Forces Quarterly magazine. Moreover, the UAE sits directly across the Persian Gulf from Iran and near the vital commercial chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz.

Amid so many sensitive security issues, the UAE is careful to balance its diplomatic interests as it pursues weapons. SIPRI estimates that the UAE's current arsenal is maintained with a mix of 60% US-made kit and 40% by other countries, mainly European.

While the preceding round of defence acquisitions were dominated by contributions from US industry, the UAE is likely to pursue a new round that involves greater imports from Europe and perhaps Russia and China. No matter where the kit is sourced, however, UAE will expect its purchases to support its growing domestic arms industry.

Perhaps no other deal is more significant - for both buyer and seller - than the UAE's next round of fighter acquisitions. Talks between the UAE, the French government and Dassault over the Rafale have dragged on since at least 2007, but could finally reach a conclusion with this year's Dubai air show.

A signed order for up to 60 new Rafale fighters would greatly strengthen the UAE's ability to penetrate deep into Iranian airspace, as well as protect its own aerial borders from intrusion. The deal would also restore the geo-political balance of the UAE's arms inventory.

saab erieye saab
 © Saab
The Saab Erieye AEW is a candidate for a major contract in the UAE

For Dassault, signing a contract for the Rafale could finally break the programme's export barrier, aggravated by near-misses to Russian or US competitors in Libya, Morocco, Singapore and South Korea. A successful deal with Abu Dhabi could pave the way for further sales in the Gulf region and elsewhere.

The road to a contract signing has so far witnessed many twists and complications, not least the status of UAE's existing fleet of Mirage 2000-9s.

It is widely presumed the UAE will require Dassault to take back the used fleet and find them new homes. For the transfer to work politically, the 2000-9 fighters may have to be picked by another Arab state, such as Egypt or Pakistan. However, Romania is reportedly also involved in talks for the UAE's used fighters.

The UAE also could make the Rafale sale part of its strategy to dramatically increase the capabilities of its domestic industrial base. In September, French president Nicolas Sarkozy promised Brazil local assembly for the F-X2 contract. If the UAE asks for equal treatment, Dassault could be hard-pressed to make the sums work.

Another contract hotly pursued by weapons makers is the UAE requirement for an airborne early warning and control aircraft. The UAE issued a classified request for information in 2006, drawing responses for the Boeing 737 AEW&C, Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and Saab 2000 Erieye.

The UAE has slowed the bidding process for its military to get better acquainted with the capabilities of an airborne command post.

A contract signing could be imminent, and could surprise many observers. Although the E-2D is widely considered the favourite to win the deal, the UAE has signalled to at least one bidder that it wants to take a different approach.

Egan Greenstein, Boeing's AEW&C senior manager, says the UAE is likely to adopt a two-phase acquisition strategy, with the first step to acquire an "interim solution" primarily for training. According to Greenstein, that system is likely to be the Saab Erieye, a radar that could be mounted on either the Saab 2000 or Saab 340 turboprops.

Greenstein says the interim system could be followed by a full solution, for which Boeing has submitted a proposal for the 737 AEW&C.

"We are the most capable, longest range and highest altitude platform in this market," Greenstein says.

Boeing is also proposing to match the airborne platform with a ground-based battle management network called Vigilaire, produced exclusively by Boeing Australia and therefore not subject to normal restrictions under the US international trade in arms regulations (ITAR) laws.

The UAE's spending largesse has not been lavished on only the French or US industry. Italy's Finmeccanica gained a foothold in the UAE market in February with the sale of 48 M-346 trainers, of which a portion will serve as light-strike fighters.

The deal seems to have opened the door for other Finmeccanica units to advanced into the Emirates with products. In particular, Alenia Aeronautica has identified the UAE as a potential customer for up to six C-27J light airlifters.

A C-27J deal would complement the UAE's sudden interest in airlift capability. The UAE has already signed a deal for 12 C-130Js medium transports. A contract to buy four Boeing C-17s remains in negotiations between the company and the UAE.

Signing that deal is critical to the future of Boeing's C-17 production line. The four aircraft are among 15 already in some stage of production based on orders signed or promised in the US government's fiscal year 2009. Boeing must complete the UAE deal or be stuck with four "white tail" airlifters with no customer.