A number of local Gulf air arms place some importance on being seen to be operating the latest and most capable fighters. But any new procurements will be driven by military necessity rather than prestige or a desire to keep up with the neighbours, writes Jon Lake
Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Eurofighter Typhoon makes it the first operator of a new-generation fighter in the region, and now aircraft manufacturers expect to see other Middle Eastern nations scramble to catch up.
In particular, developments in Iran are having a real impact on aircraft procurement programmes. Even before the 1991 Gulf War, Iran has made great efforts to revitalise its air force. Surviving F-14 Tomcats, F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tigers and Freedom Fighters inherited from the pre-revolutionary air force have been upgraded and improved for continuing service, and have progressively been augmented by fighters acquired from Russia, China, and, via defections, Iraq.
These have included MiG-29s, Chengdu F-7s, Su-24s, Su-25s and Mirage F1s. The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) has also made strenuous attempts to acquire more capable and more modern fighters, though these attempts have usually been officially denied.
But behind the denials, there are reports that Iran is close to signing an arms agreement with Russia’s Rosoboronexport that would cover the purchase of some 250 Su-30MK long range tactical fighters, augmented by as many as 20 Il-78 in-flight refuelling tanker aircraft. There have also been recent reports of an imminent deal with China covering the supply of the new J-10 fighter – a single-engined swing role fighter with a canard Delta configuration similar to the Eurofighter Typhoon, and reportedly developed using technology from the cancelled IAI Lavi.
Though denied by China’s foreign ministry, informed sources suggest that the deal covers the supply of 20 single seat J-10A fighters, and four J-10S operationally capable two-seat fighter trainers, with a comprehensive weapons package including 120 SD-10A medium-range self-guided air-to-air missiles and 120 PL-9C short-range air-to-air missiles.
Iran is also pressing ahead with a number of indigenous fighter programmes, and photos of two quite different local F-5 derivatives have been released by Iranian news agencies. There is some confusion as to how these relate to the names of known fighter projects, though an F-5 derivative with twin tailfins is believed to be the Saeqeh, and a single-finned aircraft with a mid-mounted wing and revised intakes may be the Azarakhsh, though this has been described as a ‘scaled up’ F-5 and as being fitted with the MiG-29’s N-019 radar, which would be too large for the aircraft photographed.
Three Saeqeh prototypes took part in a military parade on September 22 2007, while reports suggest that Iran has built six examples of the Azarakhsh.
These F-5-based aircraft may be technology demonstrators or risk-reduction exercises for a number of newly-designed indigenous fighter programmes, including the Aviation University Complex Shafaq, a prototype of which is expected to roll out next year.
Some believe that it is this resurgence in Iranian air power that lies behind the UAE’s recent elimination of the BAE Hawk from the nation’s ongoing trainer competition. While the Hawk is an excellent advanced trainer, there may be some pressure for any trainer acquired by the UAE to be fully capable of operational missions, should it ever be necessary to get the maximum number of aircraft into the air at once. Elimination of the Hawk leaves the Alenia M-346 and the T-50 in the competition, both of which are claimed to offer better frontline capabilities.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s 72-aircraft Typhoon order, and despite the UAE’s acquisition of 80 F-16E/F Desert Falcons, many see potential for further fighter orders in the region. BAE’s presentation of the Typhoon, MiG’s deployment of the MiG-29M OVT and Boeing’s presence with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15E Strike Eagle give some indication that the manufacturers see a real market in the region.
Though Dassault has chosen not to exhibit the Rafale at Dubai this year, and though the aircraft was recently rejected by Morocco, it remains an impressive machine, and is tipped to emerge from India’s fighter programme with its reputation enhanced, even if it is not selected.
Like their US and West European counterparts, many Gulf Air Forces are increasingly broadening their air power capabilities, with a greater emphasis on networked operations, and with an increasing provision of support capabilities which were once deemed unaffordable or unnecessary. There is a growing interest in AEW, AWACS and ISTAR capabilities, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ordered tanker derivatives of the Airbus A330 tanker, which will provide a dramatic boost in air defence and power projection capabilities, and which may allow the air forces to gain more influence in coalition operations, where tankers have so often been at a premium. Gulf air forces are also eyeing the new generation of UAVs and UCAVs with growing interest, and the Yabhon UAV (and BAE’s autonomous HERTI, fresh from RAF service in Iraq) are sure to attract attention.
One aircraft at Dubai that local air forces will not be procuring is Lockheed’s F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter. The F-117A is expected to give its last public air show display at Dubai, before the type is retired from USAF service in April.
The Nighthawk’s advanced technology renders it unexportable, and the aircraft are being retired to a secure ‘Boneyard’ at Tonopah, the F-117’s original highly secret operating base. The ‘Black Jet’ is still deemed to be too sensitive to sit with other retired airframes at Davis Monthan AFB.