January 28, 2013
Credit: Credit: USAF
One of the world's biggest arms markets, the Arab Middle East, has lagged as a developer and producer. That is in part because oil-exporting nations do not have to worry about the balance-of-payments impact of importing expensive weapons, and partly because of a lack of industrial infrastructure and experience. However, that dynamic is slowly changing, starting with arrangements in which Middle Eastern companies, often government-backed, are becoming active partners in the development of systems tailored to local needs.
The United Arab Emirates, through the Mubadala and Tawazun groups and Abu Dhabi Shipbuilding, has led the trend. Both Mubadala and Tawazun are involved in a major new program, announced in July 2012, under which the Italian-built Piaggio P180 Avanti business aircraft is being enlarged and upgraded into a compact maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). Mubadala is part-owner of Piaggio, while the program is being managed by Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments (Adasi), a subsidiary of Tawazun. At the end of 2012, Saab was awarded a €15.5 million ($20.6 million) contract to integrate the MPA's mission system, based on its 340MPA demonstrator, which will include internal consoles, a radar and electro-optical systems.
Piaggio is building two prototypes, with the first to fly in 2014. The Piaggio MPA will have a bigger wing than a standard P180, greater takeoff weight, more fuel capacity and more power, retaining the 350-kt. cruise speed and 41,000-ft. service ceiling of the basic aircraft. As such, it will occupy a unique market slot, with higher performance than other modified light commercial aircraft. The first version will be a maritime patrol aircraft, but Piaggio says it is being designed so it can be equipped for ground surveillance, tactical ISR or communications/signals intelligence.
Adasi has played a similar role as partner and venture capitalist in the adoption by the UAE armed forces of the Austrian-developed Schiebel S-100 Camcopter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The UAE was one of the first customers for the S-100, while Adasi helped adapt the system to local requirements, integrating payloads with the air vehicle and ground control system and providing training and logistics support. Additionally, Adasi has signed agreements with Boeing's Insitu subsidiary and iRobot, covering UAV and unmanned ground vehicle applications in the region.
Another Middle East-sponsored UAV program is the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator XP. The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the UAE's International Golden Group at the 2011 IDEX to offer the Predator XP for the UAE government. Discussions between the three parties are continuing, and there will be a full-scale model of Predator XP at Idex this year. Long-term support would be carried out locally by a joint venture involving Tawazun and other local companies, and regional customers are showing interest, according to General Atomics.
The XP itself is tailored to the local market (where Global Atomics' main global competitors are, for obvious reasons, not active) by the removal of all weapons capabilities banned under the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the replacement, where possible, of technology controlled by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations with commercial off-the-shelf equipment. It also features improvements such as small winglets, which restore some lost endurance due to changes required for export and accommodate new UHF/VHF antennae.
In the missile field, the UAE has been one of the leaders in funding improvements to the Raytheon Patriot surface-to-air system. Big-ticket investments by the UAE and South Korea have funded 90% of a recent modernization effort to upgrade the radar, battle management system, missile and launcher, as well as a touch-screen display. With leaps in technology, the system has even more room for growth in processing capacity.