Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gulf Air Forces In Review

By Mohammed Ahmedullah

Air power has played a major part in recent and past conflicts in the Middle East, and remains a key element of the strategic balance in peacetime. As such, political decision-makers in the region are acutely aware of the importance of air assets and the need to upgrade them with better firepower and/or expanded numbers whenever required.

The two gulf wars in Iraq, besides Israel’s war against the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the recurring demonstrations of its overwhelming air power over Gaza and the West Bank in Palestine, have further helped to emphasize the importance of a well-equipped air force amongst Middle Eastern nations. Acquisition of the best air assets as politically and economically feasible - be these fighter aircraft, helicopters, transports or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - has thus become a priority in the Middle East. The number of contract announcements concerning such assets at major exhibitions in the region, such as the Dubai Air Show, is a testimony to the importance attached to air force procurement.

In particular, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar), which boast both the financial clout and political leverage to acquire the latest and the best products on offer, have made a string of procurement of air assets in the recent past, moving resolutely towards the creation of well-equipped and trained air forces, capable of meeting any and every challenge.

Some analysts fear that the economic downturn of 2008-09, which has affected the Gulf economies with the construction boom coming to an abrupt halt and reports of companies winding up businesses along with attendant job losses, may affect the defence procurement cycle in the coming years. Other experts, however, feel that defence spending will not see a significant dip. This is because the spurt in income from energy in the years prior to the 2008 recession, has given the GCC countries considerable spending power, and they had started defence procurement projects over the past 2-3 years which are still in the process of being implemented. “Not a single defence procurement project has been cancelled in the UAE”, a senior UAE defence official told this correspondent.

Fixed-Wing Aircraft Procurement

Military aircraft procurement continues to be strong in the GCC region, going by procurements initiated over the past couple of years and current negotiations and pitches being made various fighter aircraft manufacturers. Unlike many other countries in the world, the GCC countries don’t follow a strict tendering system in all cases of procurement. In some cases, procurement announcements are made after commercial negotiations with only one bidder.

Saudi Arabia

The Royal Saudi Air Force’s order, signed in 2007 for 72 Eurofighter TYPHOONs under the £8 billion Project “Salaam” is by far the biggest fighter aircraft purchase in recent times. The first 24 aircraft, to the Tranche 2 Block 8 configuration have been diverted from the RAF Tranche 2 order and are being manufactured by BAE Systems in Warton, while the remaining 48 will be assembled locally at a facility yet to be designated. The first aircraft in the 24-aircraft initial batch flew for the first time on 22 October 2008, and two aircraft were officially delivered in a ceremony at Warton on 11 June 2009. There are no indications so far as to the range of weapons that are to equip the RSAF TYPHOONs, but for a recent order for an unspecified number of IRIS-T short-range IR-guided air-to-air missiles.

Project “Salaam”, massive as it is appears to be but the first step in a wider effort. Indications are emerging about another order for 72 new-generation combat aircraft being in the pipeline, with the likely contenders being the TYPHOON and a Boeing offer for either the new proposed F-15 SILENT EAGLE or a configuration equivalent to the latest F-15SG for the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

In the meantime, the entire fleet of TORNADO IDS strike aircraft are being upgraded to a standard corresponding to the GR.4 in RAF’s service, while the F-15S are receiving AN/AAQ-33 SNIPER targeting pods. Data Link Solutions, a joint venture of BAE Systems and Rockwell Collins, has won a $35 million contract to supply 16 multifunctional information systems for the F-15s, while a $49.2 million deal signed with Boeing in August 2009 calls for Link 16 data links to be installed aboard five E-3 AWACS aircraft.

Moving to support assets, the RSAF has doubled its order for Airbus Military A330 MRTT transport/tankers, signed in 2008 from three aircraft to six. The first plane will be converted from a standard A330-200 airliner at Airbus Military’s facility in Getafe near Madrid for delivery in 2011, while aircraft #2 to #6 will be converted locally in a facility yet to be selected (either in Ryhad or Gedda).

United Arab Emirates

Having just accepted the last aircraft in a programme for the procurement of 80 F-16E/F Block 60 DESERT FALCON fighter/strike aircraft (55 F-16Es and 25 F-16Fs), the UAE is apparently pondering moving immediately forward with a follow-on programme.

Following the official visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the UAE in early 2009, when he reportedly opened talks for the possible purchase of 60 RAFALE fighters, considerable forward moment has taken place with the sides holding several rounds of discussions on the issue. An important step was achieved in mid-September 2009, when the Emirates reportedly submitted a detailed list of the technical specifications they would need to see satisfied for the RAFALE deal to proceed. While the original proposal, as tabled by President Sarkozy reportedly involved aircraft (arguably to the F.2 standard) being diverted from the French Air Force’s production line, the UAE now wants not only a complete technology transfer for local assembly, but also the right to further export the aircraft to third countries in the region - i.e., the same package as being offered to Brazil.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the French Government and Dassault Aviation would be willing to accept these conditions, and whether the infant aerospace industry in the UAE would actually be able to tackle a programme of this magnitude. Another major stumbling block is represented by the UAE’s insistence for any deal to also involve France taking back the 62 MIRAGE 2000-9 currently in service. This, however, is being strongly resisted by both Dassault Aviation and the French Air Force.

An adequate air refuelling capability is being established through the acquisition of three A330 MRTTs. Conversion of the first aircraft for the UAE Air Force will start at Airbus Military’s plant in Getafe in January 2010 for delivery in 2011, and unlike the approach being requested for the RAFALEs even the two follow-on aircraft will be converted in Spain.

Another new capability being created involves maritime patrol. Two DASH 8-315s were acquired on the second-hand market during 2007, and these are to be converted for maritime surveillance roles by Thales and Provincial Aerospace Ltd. (PAL) under a AED 1.071 billion (some €206 million) contract. The conversion package includes most notably a comprehensive mission system based on the Thales AMASCOS series.

The UAE Air Force is also to significantly expand its currently modest tactical airlift capability, and create a new strategic airlift capability through the planned purchase of twelve Lockheed Martin C-130J and four Boeing C-17 transport aircraft, at an estimated total value of AED 5.9 + 4.3 billion (some $2.8 billion). In a very innovative procedure for the UAE, this programme will run as a PFI (Private Financed Initiative) scheme, whereby Waha Capital PJSC holding company is expected to raise the required money for the purchase, acquire the aircraft and manage the fleet on behalf of the UAE Air Force. Deliveries are scheduled to start in three to four year’s time. The planned order is officially described as being intended to allow participation by UAE forces to humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations all around the world.

The only major remaining gap in the UAE Air Force’s coherent expansion plan, and one whose adverse impact is becoming more and more important in parallel to the acquisition of advanced combat aircraft, is the lack of AEW&C assets. Several subsequent programmes were formulated in this regard in the past, but for one reason or another they all failed to materialise. A renewed competition for up to eight aircraft is currently underway, and is reported to involve the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced HAWKEYE, the Boeing 767 AEW&C and the Saab ERIEYE.

[The UAE Air Force training aircraft programmes are covered by a separate article elsewhere in this issue - Ed.].

Some years ago, the Kuwaiti Air Force officially announced the intention to procure an unspecified number of F/A-18E/F Super HORNETs. No further developments were reported, however, and Kuwait is now understood to be toying with the idea of buying the French RAFALE. A batch of 14 (but possibly up to 28) RAFALEs could be delivered by 2012, in a package deal that would also include an unspecified French-made air defence system (most probably the SAMP-T) as well as naval vessels for the Kuwaiti Navy.

Speaking at a press conference in Kuwait City on 12 February 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that within the framework of a friendship agreement between the two countries, the respective defence ministers would hold talks to conclude a deal for the delivery of RAFALE frigates, and an anti-missile defence system that would "all contribute to Kuwait's security." A tentative deadline has been established, for the proposed deal to the formalised before the end of 2009.

Confirming the developments, the Kuwait Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Mnister Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah later said in a statement quoted by Kuwaiti news agency, "on the RAFALE deal, the issue will be looked at, as the French aircraft's high quality and advanced technology demands serious consideration with regard to buying them". Following the Minister’s visit to Paris in early March, a committee of high-ranking Air Force officers has been set up to assess the details of the French offer.However, there are reports that the US administration is not too happy with this proposed deal, and is applying some pressure on Kuwait to rather implement the original plan for the purchase of the F/A-18E/F. Also, a number of members in Kuwait’s National Assembly are reportedly of the view that with the threat from Iraq effectively neutralised, military procurement needs to be toned down, not intensified. They see little use for a squadron or two of advanced fighters which will spend most of their service life either in training sorties or on the ground.

Moving to airlift, in July 2009 Kuwait requested the sale of eight KC-130K multi-mission cargo/refuelling aircraft, at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion. In a different sector, an aerostat-based surveillance system is on order, including the 71M LASS (Low Altitude Surveillance System) blimp carrying both the AN/TPS-63 radar and AR-900 ELINT system.

The Qatar Emiri Air Force’s development plans are heavily conditioned by the country’s position as the host to the US CENTCOM Forward Headquarters, with pre-positioned materiel to equip two armoured brigades (the largest such pre-positioning of US Army materiel outside the US). The overall protective umbrella by US forces that stems from this situation tends to reduce the need for very capable own forces, but on the other hand it also has a certain impact on the type of aircraft Qatar would wish to procure and from whom.

Qatar is still trying to sell its fleet of twelve MIRAGE 2000-5 fighters, which were withdrawn into storage after a very short service period (thus leaving the Air Force without first line combat planes) reportedly because it was not felt appropriate to have French technical assistance personnel and advisors on the very same base that houses the CENTCOM forward HQs. A tentative deal with India collapsed in mid-2009 as the price offered by India ($375 million) proved to be less than half the Qatar’s request.

On the other hand, the Air Force is implementing a very significant programme for the expansion of its airlift capabilities. A direct purchase agreement (i.e., outside FMS channels) was signed with Boeing in July 2008 for two C-17 GLOBEMASTER III strategic transport aircraft and associated equipment and services, with an option for two additional aircraft. The two C-17s were delivered in August and September 2009, respectively. Another direct purchase contract with Lockheed Martin covers four C-130Js, with deliveries to begin in 2011.


The Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) has a requirement for a new generation multi-role combat aircraft to replace its JAGUARs. This is not known having taken the form of an official competition, but as already indicated, by the region’s standards, this does not necessarily mean that no activities are underway.Reports in mid-2008 suggested that Oman is in talks to buy up to 24 TYPHOONs from BAE Systems in a deal worth at least $2 billion. Other reports said that Oman is rather considering the purchase of additional F-16s fitted with phased array radar, but this seems to be a separate programme that would replace the older F-16s or add to the fleet. Latest indications are that France is also making a strong pitch for the RAFALE.

Airlift capabilities are being expanded with a order, signed in June 2009 for three C-130J-30 (stretched airframe). It is not immediately known whether these aircraft, to be delivered by mid-2012, will replace the C-130Hs in the current inventory or rather supplement them.

Recent Helicopter Procurements

• Royal Air Force of Oman (RAFO) placed an order in July 2004 for 20 NH90 tactical transport helicopters, thus becoming the first Middle East country to purchase the type. Deliveries started in 2008, and the NH90 is progressively replacing the bulk of the RAFO’s helicopter fleet but for the Royal Flight and the Super LYNX 300s.

• Qatar Armed Forces signed a contract for 18 AW139 helicopters in early 2009. The contract value is in excess of $260 million and includes crews training and initial spares package. The helicopters will be used for troop transport, SAR, border patrol and homeland security roles.

• Saudi Arabia: Reports surfaced in mid-September 2009 about Saudi Arabia having signed, or being negotiating a $2 billion deal with Moscow to purchase 30 attack helicopters (arguably Mi-35s, but perhaps the new Mi-28s) and 120 transport helicopters from Rosoboronexport. However there is no official confirmation from the Saudis or the Russians as to the specifics of the deal. The Russian media has interpreted a statement by Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko "We are working in this direction, we can confirm this," to mean confirmation of the deal. Nesterenko also spoke of a military-technical cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia similar to what Russia has with India, with among other things gives preferential access to Moscow in certain types of defence procurement in exchange for local manufacturing and technology transfer.

Earlier reports spoke of Saudi Arabia talking to Russia for the purchase of 30 Mi-171B helicopters, with the deal being tentatively planned for signature before the end of 2009.

• The UAE has 14 UH-60M BLACKHAWK helicopters on order, to be modified for combat roles with HELLFIRE missile (390 AGM-114N HELLFIRE missiles on order).

Recent UAV Developments

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are understood to be evaluating the possible procurement of UAVs both for reconnaissance/surveillance and attack roles. However, while buying reconnaissance UAVs might be easy, getting their hands on attack platforms will not as the US considers this a front-line technology. Indeed, back in 2002 the US Government turned down a UAE request for the sale of ten PREDATORs. Be this as it may, BAE Systems is understood to have made a number of presentations to defence officials in the Gulf regarding its UAV family.

The UAE has identified UAVs as an area it can build a manufacturing base in and export its products to other Middle Eastern countries. A research centre under the name of Air Force UAV Research and Technology Centre at the Dhafra Air Base, Abu Dhabi, was established in February 2007 and has been working on two models with the help of two European companies. The first model is in partnership with Schiebel of Austria. It is based on the S-100 design and has been branded the AL SABER UAV by the Air Force, which has placed an order for a first batch of 40 systems. The second model is being built in partnership with CybAero of Sweden based on their APID 55 design. In a more ambitious effort, a joint venture between Finmeccanica unit Alenia Aeronautica and Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments (ADASI) to design and develop a MALE (medium altitude long endurance) UAV was announced at the Paris Air Show 2009.

Recent GBAD/Anti-missile Procurements

Recent developments in ground-based air defence procurement in the Gulf are heavily focused on anti-missile capabilities, which is quite obviously in reference to a perceived Iranian missile threat. This trend is being spearheaded by the UAE, which is building an entire nation-wide ATBM (Anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile) network. The programme includes the purchase of both the THAAD system (three fire units with a total of nine launchers, six fire control and communication stations, four radar sets and 147 THAAD missiles) as well as the PATRIOT PAC-3 system (nine fire units with a total of ten radar sets, ten engagement control stations and 37 launchers). The contract for the PATRIOT systems is already operational, while the $6.9 billion THAAD deal has been cleared by the US Congress and its commercial aspects are currently being negotiated. The purchase of the SL-AMRAAM system is also being negotiated.

In Kuwait, the existing PATRIOT systems are being upgraded with ATBM capabilities through the purchase of 80 PAC-3 missiles and 60 upgrade kits for PAC-3 missiles to the GEM-T standard, while the radars will receive the REP III upgrade. As regards anti-aircraft assets, the ASPIDE systems are being upgraded to the SPADA 2000 configuration.

In a move that if confirmed will have far-reaching strategic implications, Saudi Arabia is reported to be negotiating the purchase of the Russian S-400 TRIUMF anti-aircraft/anti-missile system. Opinions vary as to whether Riyadh is implementing a deliberate policy of moving away from too close a dependence on Western and most particularly US suppliers for its defence needs, or rather it tried to obtain a similar package as the UAE but met with a Washington’s refusal. Another alternative possible explanation is that Saudi Arabia is offering to buy an expensive arrays of Russian weapons, in exchange for Moscow taking a commitment towards stopping deliveries to Iran and most particularly cancelling the deal for the supply of the S-300 system.

Be this as it may, it would be interesting to see whether or not Washington would try and derail the proposed deal by using the same argument that was successfully employed against the UAE’s earlier tentative interest towards the S-300 - namely, the threat that with a Russian-built SAM system deployed, US aircraft would not intervene to defend the country in case it is attacked.

Oman is understood to be the first export customer for the ground-based version of the MBDA VL MICA surface-to-air missile system. The deal was announced at the Bourget Air Show in June 2009 (minus the name of the customer), but no details were unveiled.

The article contains additional notes and comments by Dr. Ezio Bonsignore.


United Arab Emirates:

The proposed standard is not a F2 but a non-nuclear capable F3+, the F2 standard is no longer produced.

There is no question of a deal similar to that proposed to Brazil as the UAE doesn't posses the necessary aerospacial industry nor the infrastructure to handle it.

Finaly the question of M 88-ECO 9K have been forgoten. Regards, SM

Still a good read. Reports like this are the reason I keep coming back. Good on ya!

Middle east was,is and will remain one of the most robust of defence markets.All advanced weaponry is found here from e-3 awacs to f-15.

A Gulf report minus Iran? Iran has the longest coastline of all bordering the Persian Gulf. In some ways, it also has the most interesting AF.

Middle east was,is and will remain one of the most robust of defence markets.All advanced weaponry is found here from e-3 awacs to f-15.

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