Even while waiting for new fighters, the UAE has rapidly increased its military capabilities in the last five years. The worry of a threat from Iran just over the Arabian Gulf, as well as a need to play a greater role in world events have prompted what is still a secretive air force to invest heavily in new, high-technology platforms.
Perhaps the greatest investment has gone into the UAE air force's transport capability. New Airbus A330-200 multi-role tanker transports (MRTT) have given the country's forces a new ability to project air power and support coalition operations, while the purchase of six Boeing C-17s has allowed it to support multinational operations.
At least one UAE C-17, with its UAE national marking removed, helped to support the French Operation Serval airlift between France and Mali. F-16E/Fs and Mirage 2000-9s supported the NATO-led efforts over Libya in 2011, at first flying air-superiority sorties, before flying air-to-ground missions. Pilots from both the UAE F-16 and Mirage 2000 communities have deployed to the Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nev., and the air arm regularly plays host to other air arms that deploy to the UAE to participate in the Advanced Tactical Leadership Courses (ATLC) held at Al-Dhafra airbase near Abu Dhabi.
Significant investment has also been injected into the country's special forces, and the UAE now has one of the largest helicopter fleets in the region. All the country's battlefield helicopters are now under the command of Group 18, the Presidential Guard Command. Investment in this organization in recent years has included bolstering the already-large Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk fleet with direct buys of the deeply modernized UH-60M.
The UAE was the first foreign operator of the Boeing CH-47F and is in the process of upgrading its existing fleet of AH-64D Apaches to AH-64E standard, as well as doubling the size of the fleet with new-build aircraft from Boeing. Supporting special forces operations are a large number of fixed-wing types, including de Havilland Twin Otters, while Air Tractor AT-802U counterinsurgency aircraft have also been procured, and are being equipped with the Turkish-made Roketsan 70-mm guided missile. Group 18 has Apaches and Black Hawks deployed in Afghanistan, supporting coalition operations. It is unclear whether UAE operations will come to an end toward the end of 2014, along with many other ISAF partner countries, however.
The UAE remains in the market for a new lead-in fighter trainer, since plans for a buy of Aermacchi M346s were put on hold in 2011. Pictures show that some of the UAE's Hawk Mk65 trainers have been withdrawn from use and stored at Al Ain AB. The air arm is also looking for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. The UAE is using a pair of ex-Swedish AF Saab 340s fitted with the Erieye airborne radar as a stop-gap airborne early-warning system, but is keen to purchase a more permanent solution.
The UAE air force is also likely to be the operator of the new General Atomics Predator XP UAV, ordered at the 2013 Idex defense show. UAE sponsorship and partnership—via Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments (Adasi), a subsidiary of the royal-family-owned Tawazun engineering and defense group—has already been the key to launching the Schiebel Camcopter unmanned air system on the world market.
Since the 2011 Dubai show, the UAE has funded another, more-ambitious ISR program, the ISR version of the Piaggio Avanti II business aircraft, expected to fly next year. Adasi is the overall manager of the project, while the UAE's Mubadala group is a part-owner of Piaggio. Saab provides the mission system, including sensor integration. The first version being built is for maritime patrol, with a Telephonics radar. It is a major modification of the basic aircraft, with a 69-ft. span, high-aspect-ratio wing and fuel for a 10-hr. endurance mission.
For the UAE air force, expansion has required significant investment in new facilities. Al-Dhafra AB, a major hub for USAF operations in the region, is the main UAE fighter base, while a new facility called Al-Safran, built in the desert near Madinat Zayed, is home to Mirage 2000 units. Al-Minhad south of Dubai supports coalition aircraft, but also the UAE's C-17 fleet and more recently, Group 18 helicopters, while Al Ain supports training operations. The rapidly expanded Sas Al Nakhl, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi is home to many of Group 18's helicopter operations and Special Forces aircraft.