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DUBAI: UAE air combat debut hit by communications issues

The United Arab Emirates' (UAE) detachment of Dassault Mirage 2000-9s and Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60s returned last week from the country's air combat debut in Libya, with its air force planning to overcome communications shortfalls discovered during the operation.

The UAE's fighters were technically ready to participate in coalition air strikes from nearly the first day after arriving at their deployed location in Italy but were delayed because of the communications problems, said Maj Gen Ibrahim Naser al-Alawi, deputy air force chief.

Both the UAE and Qatar agreed to participate in air operations over Libya, bolstering the coalition's legitimacy by the involvement of two Arab states in strikes on another Arab government.

However, the UAE found that its fighters lacked the ability to integrate seamlessly into NATO's communications systems, and pilots were forced to quickly learn the coalition's language of encrypted messages.

The problems prevented the UAE's F-16s from immediately joining the air strikes, al-Alawi said on Saturday at the Dubai International Air Chiefs' Conference.

The extent of the delay was not fully described. Al-Alawi said only that the UAE fighters joined the NATO air strikes on "let's say, the second day" after they arrived in Italy. Its aircraft still managed to complete about 800 sorties during the operation, according to the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

But the delays clearly frustrated the UAE's hopes to contribute more during the campaign. Al-Alawi described sorties in which UAE pilots needed 15-20min simply to translate the encrypted messages providing coordinates and other information about possible targets.

Resolving the communications breakdowns is now a top priority, he said.

In addition to fighters, both the UAE and Qatar contributed their newly-acquired Boeing C-17 strategic transports.

Although UAE special forces personnel have accumulated combat experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia, the coalition campaign against Libya was the first opportunity for the UAE air force to deploy in combat.

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