November 11, 2013
Credit: Kevin Flynn/Boeing
Two years ago, the Dubai Airshow was the scene for an unprecedented dressing-down of Dassault by the air show's host and the region's second-largest defense customer, the United Arab Emirates government.
Despite the support and lobbying of France's then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, Gen. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, took a very public opportunity to throw cold water on the prospect of an early Rafale sale, saying: “Regrettably, Dassault seems unaware that all the diplomatic and political will in the world cannot overcome uncompetitive and unworkable commercial terms.”
The presence of two Super Hornets at the 2013 air show indicates that the UAE still has an open fighter requirement, probably the biggest single order in play in the region. Dassault remains a leading candidate, but Boeing and Eurofighter are also very active.
One executive involved in the campaign suggests that the UAE may be influenced by experience with its two latest fighters—the Dassault Mirage 2000-9 and the Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Block 60. Both are UAE-unique configurations and approaching their first midlife update point. “The UAE learned that being the sole operator of a very cool aircraft means that it becomes ridiculously expensive (even for the UAE) to do the next upgrade cycle 10 years later,” the executive comments. “They have to find the required engineers, who are very busy somewhere else combing through 25 million lines of flawed code on another program or have decided to build a Neuron.”
It was reported in April that the UAE was looking at the acquisition of 25 more F-16s in addition to new weapons, but so far the only confirmed buy —via a Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notification to Congress last month—involves an up-to-$4 billion package of new weapons, comprising 300 AGM-84H SLAM-ER cruise missiles and 5,000 GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs from Boeing and 1,200 Raytheon AGM-154C Joint Stand-Off Weapon glide bombs with GPS/imaging guidance.
Absent from the DSCA notification are both the extra F-16s and the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. The latter has become a hot potato, cleared for sale to Poland and Finland but not for South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The SLAM-ER, a smaller and less stealthy missile derived from the AGM-84 Harpoon, is apparently a compromise. That decision may turn the UAE's attention back to the Typhoon and Rafale.
Meanwhile, the region's biggest customer, Saudi Arabia, is proceeding with the massive acquisition program announced in late 2011. The centerpiece of the project, the modernized Boeing F-15SA, started flight tests this summer. The fighter has a new fly-by-wire system, an all-digital electronic warfare system from BAE Systems and an advanced cockpit, which (interestingly enough) is based on Elbit hardware. In addition to 84 all-new aircraft off the St. Louis production line, Saudi Arabia plans to modify 70 older F-15s in-country to the F-15SA standard.