Skip to content

Beyond HIMARS, The UAE Is On An Arms Spree

October 31, 2014

Russian-UAE BMP-3

So far this year, the UAE already spent more than $4 billion on new weapons. These include 30 F-16 Block 61 multirole fighters, 12 additional HIMARS mobile rocket launchers, 10,000 Cirit anti-tank missiles from Turkey, and 4,569 MRAPs from the US.

While there is nothing out of the ordinary with an Arab state buying weapons, the UAE appears to be following a road map for turning its military into a regional balancer. The glaring question that arises is: Why?

Reviewing the UAE’s defense purchases–a shopping list of the world’s most advanced weapon systems–suggests its leaders are preparing for two contingencies:

  1. Arab Spring-type unrest
  2. A inter-state war in its neighborhood

Urban Combat

It appears the UDF is already in the second scenario with its contribution to the US-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq. On the other hand, the sudden bulk purchase of 4,569 Maxxpro MRAPs last September seems to be anticipating the need to enforce order in populated areas. MRAPs have little value in pitched battles and are more effective as transports for unsafe roads.

But the UAE has its own modular armored car–the Nimr. The government even paid for 1,800 Nimr’s in 2013 along with 700 additional US-made Oshkosh MRAPs. If these contracts are fulfilled by 2020, then the UAE’s army will have 7,000 personnel carriers at its disposal.

Via Navistar Defense

Via Navistar Defense

The UDF is also honing its conventional war fighting edge with standoff munitions and missiles. This is a leap forward from the 1990s when the army’s modest arsenal was boosted by two large armor purchases. In 1993, the UAE became the sole foreign customer of the French Leclerc MBT. 390 tanks and 46 recovery vehicles were bought for $3.4 billion. The last deliveries arrived by 2006.

In the same year the Leclerc’s were purchased, the UAE became the first customer for Russia’s BMP-3, the most powerful APC in the world. The amount paid for the UAE’s 600 BMP-3’s was never publicized.

The Regional Balance

The UAE traces its origins to the Trucial States. These were nine former British possessions along the Persian Gulf. When the UK let go of these territories in 1971, the wealthy emirates of Qatar and Bahrain became independent countries.

Unfortunately, only Abu Dhabi could boast of its disproportionate oil reserves compared to its neighbors Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, al-Fujayrah, Ras al-Khaymah and Umm al-Qaywayn. This advantage, as well as the primacy of Abu Dhabi’s ruling al-Nahyan clan, made it the founding member of the present day UAE. The al-Nahyan’s power is further secured by their control over the federation’s armed forces.

Since unification in 1971, what passed for the UAE’s military was a token force. Despite a long-term reliance on France and the UK for its defense needs, this preference began to change in 2009 when the 65,000-strong military’s deputy commander Sheikh Mohamed ibn Zayed al-Nahyan oversaw the widespread acquisition of US-made weapon systems.

The sheer volume of orders from the US may result in the UAE becoming the F-35 JSF’s twelfth buyer. Armed Predator drones are also on the horizon. Beyond imports, the UAE is already laying the ground work for self-reliance in its defense needs with the Tawazun Group, an indigenous defense contractor.

At the rate the UAE is buying weapons, the UDF’s arsenal will be–for lack of a better word–immense by decade’s end.