Saturday, November 14, 2009

UAE could place order for Rafale in 2010

UAE Air Force officials are patiently hammering out the details of a deal to replace their 63 ageing Mirage 2000-9 fighters with the top-line Dassault Rafale multi-role aircraft, experts said yesterday, but the implications for the nation’s security could be huge.Retired Gen Khalid al Buainnain, the former chief of the UAE Armed Forces, said the deal could be in place by early 2010, with the first aircraft arriving in 2013.

“The brothers at the Air Force are taking their time to make sure that all the operational requirements as well as technical and logistical requirements are considered,” said Gen al Buainnain on the sidelines of the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference, organised by the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma). The UAE Government had confirmed in June 2008 that it was in talks with the French government to acquire the Rafale, a jet fighter aircraft built by the French firm Dassault.

The deal is expected to be worth between €6 billion (Dh32.2bn) and €10bn.Gen Jean-Paul Palomeros, chief of staff of the French air force, said the UAE’s purchase of a French-built fighter made sense given an already close military relationship between the countries. Using similar or interchangeable hardware made battlefield co-operation easier, he said.

“We work together on improving security and air capability,” he said. “So any improvement that can be done on that field, using the same weapon, the same aircraft, is a nice move towards better efficiency for both of our air forces.”

France is one of the UAE’s major suppliers of military hardware. In 1994, the army bought more than 400 Leclerc tanks from the French firm Giat Industries. In May, France opened a 500-soldier military base in Abu Dhabi and upgraded a defence co-operation agreement that was first signed in 1995.

A key requirement for the aircraft is “interoperability” or the capacity to work with other systems and weapons platforms such as the US-made F-16 Block 60; the UAE ordered 80 F-16s in 2004. Experts say inter-operability is a technical requirement that most defence contractors can handle.

Major General Mohammed bin Swaidan Saeed al Gamzi, Commander of the UAE Air Force, declined to comment yesterday on the possible purchase of Rafale aircraft. Gen al Buainnain called the deal “very complex”.“It … is connected to a lot of operational and technical details, therefore there is no rushing for signing a deal because the capability of the Mirage 2000 and the F-16 is very strong,” Gen al Buainnain said.

Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of INEGMA, said that if the French jet met all the standards the UAE laid out for it, it could serve the UAE Air Force for the next 20 years.“This is a new, almost fifth-generation fighter, and that’s exactly what the UAE is asking for. It’ll help them cover their needs for the next 20 years and be a good backing for the F-16.”

The UAE has a long-standing policy of diversifying its sources of arms and military hardware. In addition to France, other suppliers include Britain, Germany and Russia.Experts said some countries were easier to buy weapons and machines from than others, as well.“US technology [for example] falls under certain rules for exports; France doesn’t have that,” said Dr Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at Inegma.

Another issue that makes European suppliers more attractive than the US is parliamentary restrictions.“The UAE understands how the French operate and that they can sell them whatever system they want without having to go through the Congress or the lobbying groups” as in the US, Dr Karasik said.Gen al Buainnain, who has direct knowledge of the negotiations, said France would be responsible for taking the 63 outdated Mirage fighters off the UAE’s hands.

That could be difficult, Mr Kahwaji said. “The French government needs to find a solution for the Mirage 2000 in order for the UAE to be able to purchase the Rafale,” he said, adding that Oman or Eastern European nations could be potential buyers.“There are a number of countries that could be looking for a good fighter like the Mirage,” he said.

Gen al Buainnain said he did not expect the issue to be a sticking point.“One of the conclusions that the French government reached was that the Mirage 2000 are advanced enough that the French air force wants to keep them; that’s one of their best available options.” Gen Palomeros said his UAE counterpart had given him positive feedback on the Rafale.

“We work hand-in-hand with General Gamzi,” he said. “He knows [the Rafale] very well. He flew in the aircraft, he likes the aircraft. I hope we are very close to working together on this aircraft.”Last month, Kuwait’s minister of defence and deputy prime minister, Sheikh Jaber al Hamad al Sabah, repeated his country’s desire to buy the Dassault Rafale combat jets.

It is expected that if a deal is signed the Rafale aircraft delivered to the UAE Air Force will be more advanced than those flown by the French air force. A more powerful engine, a new air-to-air missile and cutting-edge radar systems are some of the requirements the UAE has made to Dassault and its French partners, Safran, Thales and MBDA, according to media reports in September.


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