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The UAE Just Ordered A Brand New Air Force

January 31, 2022
Via Wikimedia Commons.

What could become either the second or third largest arms deal of the 2020s was announced on December 3 last year and looks like it will prolong the trend where advanced combat aircraft are transferred to the Middle East in serious numbers. On that day Dassault Aviation revealed France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) formalized the purchase of 80 Rafale F4 twin engine fighter jets and 12 Caracal heavy transport helicopters. The dollar value of the deal is estimated between $17 and 18 billion and comes a year since the departed Trump administration signaled its willingness to deliver F-35A’s and Reaper drones to the Emirates.

Dassault Aviation spun the deal as “…a tool capable of guaranteeing sovereignty and operational independence” for the Emiratis. The aerospace manufacturer highlighted the economic benefits for France, where 400 suppliers are involved with Rafale assembly, once the orders are made and the production line grows. Only two other Arab countries, notably Egypt and Qatar, have purchased the Rafale–although Iraq was rumored to be discussing their own acquisition–and when adding the UAE’s sizable order the fighter jet’s reputation as a premium “defense” export is secure.

But there’s more to this gargantuan Rafale deal than friendship between Abu Dhabi and Paris in the face of Washington, DC’s strict arms export controls. France’s military-industrial sector (with the full cooperation of its government) has been an all-weather friend for the region’s militaries going back to the 19th century and helped build several modern Arab armies in the late 20th century. In the UAE’s case what began with armored cars and artillery in the 1960s blossomed to Leclerc tanks and Mirage 2000’s by the 1990s. Now the relationship is proving how long it can endure.

Since the 1980s Abu Dhabi laid careful plans to build its military power. For two decades its search for viable twin engine fighters proved a frustrating one even when it flirted with Moscow in the hopes of clinching a fighter deal. At one point the possibility of assembling a “light” fighter/trainer with Russia’s help was openly discussed. Although the US approved billions worth of contracts for its best known aircraft such as the F-16E/F no more than 56 of these fighters were delivered. Until 2020 the rumor of the BAE Systems Typhoon being the preferred model in a new deal for 60 fighters was deemed credible. Of course, this rumor is now dead.

If everything goes as planned the UAE’s air force will have a robust deterrent versus Iran by decade’s end as its fleet reaches an intimidating size with the arrival of so many Rafales and a new generation of combat drones. In historical terms the French haven’t fulfilled an order of this magnitude since the 1980s when Iraq’s cash-rich air force splurged on a hundred Mirage F1’s to augment its Soviet fighters. The ironic part is some of these Mirage F1’s are now flown by Iran’s decrepit air force. The UAE’s rivalry with Iran is in its most dangerous phase yet. While Israel and the US are now committed to protecting the Gulf state the persistence of attacks by Ansar Allah in Yemen has tested the Emirates’ defenses.

It will be interesting to see whether the UAE enlarges its own domestic military-industrial sector, now consolidated under the management of EDGE Group, so that locally made ordnance is carried by the Rafale F4’s. Abu Dhabi hasn’t reported its military spending per year since 2014 and, while it’s understandable if the amount since 2020 is trimmed because of the pandemic, the goings on at the IDEX 2021 arms show and the latest Dubai Air Show indicate a strong focus on breakthroughs in aerospace. The manufacturer known as Halcon, one of the subsidiaries of EDGE Group, unveiled a subsonic anti-ship missile the HAS-250 for its precision ordnance catalog. It’s only a matter of time before either an air-launched variant or an extended range cruise missile is rolled out based on it. Should this happen the Rafale F4 can serve as its best delivery platform.

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