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The Great Middle Eastern Fighter Jet Scramble

November 25, 2017

Via Wikimedia Commons.

By 2022 more than 500 advanced combat aircraft would have been delivered to Middle Eastern states. The majority of these assets are US-made fourth and fifth-generation fighters paid for by its regional allies. Smaller quantities of the same are arriving from alternate sources, such as France, Russia, and the UK. The volume of these transactions should rank among the largest collective arms deals ever recorded. Only India, with its manic urge to rebuild its air force, could come close to ordering as many airframes over such a brief period.

This ominous trend is undeniable proof the  region is preparing for a war whose form and shape remains difficult to ascertain. But what Gulf Arab states want isn’t any different from the privilege of stealthiness and precision that Israel has enjoyed for decades. The same qualities are cherished in Iran, which is laying the groundwork for a domestic aerospace sector, even if it can’t seem to find vendors.

What is now unfolding is a competition that will definitely have lethal consequences for millions of people, just like Yemen’s battered populace. So how is this scramble going to pan out? Here’s a convenient guide to all the action.

The F-16 and its variants have eclipsed the antiquated MiG-21 as the most prolific single engine fighter in the Middle East. Not only does it comprise the bulk of national air forces (see Egypt, Israel, and Turkey) but it’s a mainstay among US allies like Jordan, Oman, and the UAE. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bahrain

The tiny island kingdom off the Saudi coast finds itself in circumstances not so different from one city state’s security dilemma. Bahrain is rich but extremely vulnerable, with the threat of social disorder a little too close for comfort. For the country’s rulers the fastest way around these problems is a call to arms.

More like a call for new fighter jets, actually.

With a new administration in Washington, DC, Bahrain aggressively lobbied its main arms supplier to approve selling brand new F-16V’s for augmenting its modest air force. The deal was confirmed in September 2017 and Bahrain is now scheduled to receive a dozen of the lethal single engine jets before 2020. The Mach 2 capable F-16V is a beast, with a cockpit loaded with the newest avionics and a Sniper targeting pod for precision airstrikes.

In addition to hosting bases for the US and British military’s, Bahrain’s newest fighters is slowly making it impregnable.

Iran

It’s much easier to cast Iran as a regional villain by emphasizing its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and bloodthirsty tyrants such as Bashar al-Assad. But going by the sorry state of the Iranian air force, it would be difficult to imagine any Persian Gulf state feeling menaced by old F-4 Phantoms, F-5 Tigers, and F-14 Tomcats.

Iranian air power–and raw military strength–peaked during the last years of the Shah’s reign. After 1979, the principle of diminishing returns was the strongest influence on the regular armed forces, the Artesh. The Islamic Republic hasn’t acquired large numbers of new aircraft in decades, unless Iraqi MiGs, Mirages, and Sukhois surrendered by Saddam’s retreating pilots in the 1990s counts.

But Iran’s experience of maintenance, repair, and overhaul for its colorful fixed and rotary fleet is the basis for its aerospace manufacturing. The partial sanctions relief in 2015 buoyed the sector’s confidence and it now plans to build twin engine trainers and a “heavy fighter” based on the US-made F-5. But neither aircraft gives Iran an edge against its neighbors with their multitudes of F-16’s and F-15’s.

As for acquisitions, rumors of deals for Chinese and Russian multirole fighters proved baseless. Even a multibillion dollar order for Boeing passenger jets might not push through.  The hype surrounding the “Iranian stealth fighter,” by the way, is complete rubbish. So what does Iranian air power even mean?

Iraq

It can be argued that the country where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet has been in a state of constant war since 1980, when Saddam’s divisions attacked Iran. Matters aren’t any less difficult today as the battered Iraqi army mops up the remnants of ISIS, whose caliphate endured for three cruel years.

With government revenues enjoying a big enough surplus from oil exports, a combination of direct aid and military spending allowed Iraq to slowly rebuild its crumbling air force, which used to be the region’s largest before the 1990s. By 2010 the Iraqi government had laid down plans to acquire 36 F-16’s. In 2011 the US approved the sale of 18 F-16IQ Block 52 multirole fighters for $2.3 billion. Six of these aircraft are configured for training purposes. Two years later Baghdad dropped another $2 billion for 24 South Korea F/A-50’s.

Between 2014 and 2015, however, the costs and timetables for additional US weapons forced Iraq to seek military aid elsewhere. Ground attack Sukhois were flown in from Iran and Russia for providing badly needed close air support. Iraq may never restore the past glory of its fighter corps, but if it wanted to, it can afford the latest single engine J/F-17 made in China.

Israel

Even the most level-headed discussion about Israel’s air force tends to err on the side of hyperbole. But fair is fair, and no other flying branch in the Middle East has ever fought against more terrible odds and undertook more dangerous missions than Israel’s own.

But it’s been technology, more than skill or daring, that’s driven the IDF’s fixed wing acquisitions since the late 1970s. The results, going by the IDF’s repeated forays into Lebanon, are nothing short of spectacular. This trend culminates with the F-35I Adir. Israel is a smaller recipient of the fifth-generation stealth fighter and its own variant, which have locally made parts from a half dozen subcontractors, began arriving in 2016 and Israeli pilots can’t stop gushing about it. A full squadron will soon be mustered at an airbase in the Negev desert and a total of 50 are expected by the air force.

Each F-35I reportedly costs $110 million but Israel intends to have these comprise just 1/4th of its air force before another next-generation model replaces the current fleet. The investment is sound, because the F-35 should remain a premier fighter platform beyond the 2050s.

Kuwait

The oil-rich kingdom wedged between Iraq and Saudi Arabia doesn’t pretend to command an outsized role in the region but it still cares about its national defense. Hence a subtle but persistent modernization program for the armed forces has been underway for several years now. The threat posed by terrorism and its obligations as a US ally proved all too convenient for accomplishing the same end.

2016 marked a watershed for Kuwaiti defense spending. In the beginning of the year it finalized a deal with an Italian aerospace firm for 28 Eurofighter Typhoons worth $9 billion. Talks then commenced for a large batch of F/A-18 Super Hornets that would comprise the Kuwaiti air force’s future inventory. The US government approved the sale of 32 F/A-18’s for $10.1 billion in November 2016 but the transaction has yet to be finalized since Kuwait might insist on a few more aircraft.

The F-35A has two customers in the region: Israel and Turkey. Both countries were allowed by the US to source specific parts and technologies from local firms. Turkey hopes to use its experience with the F-35A as a springboard for its own fifth-generation fighter. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Oman

The strategically located kingdom has remained a loyal British client since the middle of the 20th century. With Sultan Qaboos bin Said still in power this relationship won’t be ending any time soon. So it wasn’t surprising that Oman ordered a dozen Eurofighter Typhoons and eight Hawk trainers from BAE Systems for a whopping $4.06 billion in December 2012 .

The first of these cutting edge aircraft were rolled out in May 2017 and deliveries to the Omani air force began the following month. Once Sultan Qaboos’ royal air force have a squadron of new Typhoons these would help securing the national airspace, whose extremities couldn’t be more volatile–to the west is chaos wracked Yemen and the Horn of Africa, while the east is the Persian Gulf’s narrow entrance, where Iran’s presence looms near.

If it’s any consolation, none of Iran’s best fighter jets can match the Typhoon.

Saudi Arabia

It’s not surprising to learn the oil-rich kingdom is at the forefront of gigantic arms deals. At the beginning of the decade Saudi Arabia ordered $29.5 billion worth of jets and rotorcraft. Before that Riyadh ordered 72 Eurofighter Typhoons from the UK in 2007. The final price of the deal wasn’t agreed upon until 2014, when it was suspected to be in the $5 billion range.

The first of 84 heavily upgraded F-15SA’s for the royal air force began arriving in 2017 and are useful for theaters like Yemen, where the air forces of at least five Arab states have wrecked Houthi-controlled towns and cities since 2015. With new leadership trying to chart Saudi Arabia’s future, one that establishes its leadership over the Middle East, the kingdom’s reliance on importing weapons won’t end soon.

Besides, having 200 fourth-generation strike aircraft at its disposal, together with lots of tanks and artillery, should be enough to intimidate Iran. Unless it doesn’t.

Turkey

If all goes according to plan one of the Middle East’s ascendant regional powers can boast having its own locally made fifth-generation multirole fighter by the early 2020s. As a proactive NATO member and a longstanding Western ally, Turkey enjoys the privilege of being among the 11 recipients for the F-35A–with 100 (raised to 116 in late 2016) scheduled to join its air force.

Since 2010, however, the Undersecretariat for the Defense Ministry had an agreement with Turkish Aerospace Industries, Inc. (TAI) to plan, conceptualize, and assemble both a fighter jet and an accompanying trainer for the air force, which relies on an enormous fleet of F-16C/D and F-4D Phantoms. The R&D costs for just a single stealth fighter could reach $5 billion, with tens of billions more once it enters serial production.

But Turkey’s strained relations with the EU and the purge of the civil service and armed forces after 2016 are endangering its ties with the West. Without access to foreign suppliers providing avionics, engines, software, and technology transfer, it’s doubtful Turkey can deploy F-35A’s and even its own mysterious TF-X/TFX in the near future.

Qatar

The Arabian Peninsula’s upstart gas exporter is in a lot of trouble. Not only has its ambitious project to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad gone nowhere but its immediate neighbors have conspired against it. As its squabble with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) dragged on for months, evidence emerged that its neighbor the UAE was planning regime change against Doha’s rulers.

It seems hosting a giant US military base isn’t protection enough for the al-Thanis and there’s been a rising tempo of arms deals to equip their tiny kingdom with excessive firepower. In 2015 Qatar wanted something better than its unimpressive fleet of Mirages and ordered 24 Dassault Rafales worth $6 billion. During a high profile visit by French President Macron in late 2017, however, it was announced Doha wanted dozens more Rafales to boost its air force.

The preference for Rafales might eclipse the 2016 deal for 75 F-15QA’s–Eagle variants tailored for Qatari use–worth $21 billion that was approved by the US government. Qatar’s slide to pariah status since June 2017 casts doubt on whether the acquisitions pulls through. But the F-15QA deal did receive the Trump administration’s blessing for a $12 billion payment on 36 aircraft.

Doha still negotiated a deal for 24 Eurofighter Typhoons and six Hawk trainers for an unspecified amount in late 2017. A multilateral hedging strategy could have motivated a sudden pivot to Russia, with Moscow promising help for the gas-rich island grow its tiny armed forces.

UAE

The former Trucial States have gone a long way from their humble origins under a British protectorate. Beyond its close alliance with the US, the Emiratis took advantage of every opportunity that could enhance its stature. The quagmire in Yemen and its role rolling back ISIS in northern Iraq has taught its armed forces the value of fighting abroad.

It isn’t surprising the UAE’s leaders are acting in a manner that seeks to put their federation ahead of the other Arab kingdoms. One aspect of this effort is a huge military build up where multirole fighters have a major role. The multibillion dollar purchase of 60 fourth-generation fighters to strengthen the UAE’s F-16 fleet was the aerospace industry’s holy grail for a few years. It was believed that either the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Dassault Rafale were the main contenders.

But the UAE demurred on both and began vacillating between newer Block 61 F-16’s and a possible joint venture with Russia for co-producing a “light fighter.” Since 2014, rumors have swirled the UAE went as far as lobbying for F-35A’s while discussing a bulk order of Su-35’s. These acquisitions are supposed to help overhaul the Emirati air force.

Whatever the outcome, the clear winner is the company who lands the deal, which could reach upwards of $3 billion.

The Eurofighter Typhoon has managed to make a splash in the Middle East, which is its only viable market outside Western Europe. Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have collectively spent almost $18 billion on their respective orders. Via Wikimedia Commons.

POSTSCRIPT

The enormous demand for modern armaments in the Middle East is undoubtedly connected to the extreme concentration of wealth produced by fossil fuel exports. But neither of these trends have fostered accountable governments who subscribe to democratic values and represent their citizens’ best interests. Rather than establish a lasting peace that brings about regional consolidation along the lines of the GCC, local regimes are readying themselves for ill-defined wars.

Given the propensity for vicious intrigues and quarrels among Arab states, it isn’t too controversial when forecasts of the region paint a gloomy picture as far as the medium-term. This much is clear: the Gulf monarchies (with tacit support from Israel and the US) are trying their best to contain Iran’s growing influence over the Levant and the Arabian periphery. A vital component of this effort is air power, whose current applications are ideal for punitive raids outside national territory.

As proven by the US-led Gulf Wars, Israel’s campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah, and the Libyan intervention in 2011, being able to dominate the skies is of paramount importance for modern armies. This valuable lesson has been driven home by the global coalition against ISIS and the concurrent demolition of Yemen. So everyone in the Middle East understands why air power matters–a lot. No wonder the region is the world’s biggest market for combat aircraft.

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