Wednesday, September 22, 2010

UAE May Turn Away from Rafale as Interest is Expressed in Super Hornet

The United Arab Emirates has requested technical information on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, indicating it wants competition in its search to replace its fleet of Mirage 2000-9 jets first purchased from French company Dassault in 1983. The UAE is considering a purchase of new aircraft worth about $10 billion.

This news is unlikely to be greeted with much enthusiasm in Paris, where French officials had hoped to lock down a sale of the Dassault Rafale combat aircraft to the UAE sans competition. France has failed to win an export contract for its new-generation Rafale and has pinned its hopes on several prospective markets, including Brazil, India, Kuwait and the UAE, with the latter deemed a likely candidate due to its familiarity with French aviation and traditional reliance upon French defense hardware.

The interest expressed in the Super Hornet by the UAE underlines the growing dominance of high-end U.S. defense exports to the oil-rich Gulf nations, a trend that threatens to crowd out French exports to a market considered crucial by Paris due to its ample oil wealth and military modernization needs. France has traditionally been a supplier to the UAE, selling everything from combat aircraft to helicopters to main battle tanks to the Gulf nation. Defense relations between the two countries have been close, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy making Gulf relations a priority for Paris and personally inaugurating a new French military base in Abu Dhabi on May 26, 2009.

The cause for the UAE's shift in attention solely from the Rafale to a U.S.-based option has led to speculation that UAE authorities are uneasy with the price and technology offered up by France. The opening granted to Boeing may be an attempt by the Emiratis to extract more from the French side than Paris previously was willing to grant.

The UAE is interested in a newer-generation model of the Rafale, an expense that the French side has asked Abu Dhabi to cover. UAE officials believe, on the other hand, that the Super Hornet offers an off-the-shelf option already equipped with the technologies it desires. French Defense Minister Herve Morin has stated that further developments of the Rafale - which would include a longer-range active electronically scanned radar (AESA), a more powerful engine, and a more capable Spectra electronic warfare suite - would cost the UAE about EUR2 billion ($2.6 billion), though France would be willing to bear some of the cost.

In the past, the UAE has been willing to invest in the development of a foreign-built aircraft, as it did with the Block 60 version of the Lockheed Martin F-16 (of which it now owns some of the technology). But considering its petro-wealth, price may not be the true factor in the UAE's consideration of a U.S.-built option. Politics, on the other hand, may be.

The U.S. is set to unveil a $60 billion military package to Saudi Arabia next week as it continues to help build up Gulf area defenses and improve its partners' military capabilities. The UAE is expected to get its own slice of the defense assistance pie in the near future after previously being green-lighted by the Pentagon in recent years for purchases of helicopters, Patriot PAC 3 air defense missiles, and the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) anti-tactical ballistic missile system.

American export dominance in the high-end Gulf defense market is being locked down through blocks of government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) to the region and should only tighten in the near future.

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