UAE to develop new fighter jet with Russia

Sunday 02/04/2017
Emirati fighter planes firing flares as they perform in an airshow above the Abu Dhabi Corniche, on March 2nd. (AFP)

Dubai - The United Arab Emirates and its Arab Gulf partners set records last month at IDEX, one of the biggest and most important inter­national defence exhibitions at Abu Dhabi, as they opted to maintain ro­bust military spending despite fiscal challenges created by depressed oil prices.

At the exhibition, Russian state corporation Rostec announced plans to co-develop a fifth-generation fighter jet with the UAE. The revela­tion caught industry executives and observers by surprise, prompting analysts to speculate why Russia’s largest defence company agreed to team up with the wealthy Gulf na­tion.

Often regarded as the single most important Arab partner of the United States, the UAE trades key military technology with the United States and has similarly strategic relations with France and Britain. For a number of reasons, political and otherwise, the UAE Air Force’s inventory of fighter aircraft is manu­factured by either the United States or France.

For many years, the UAE Air Force has expressed interest in acquir­ing the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the United States and its key NATO partners have put into service.

While the F-35 has been dogged by cost overruns and delays that have led to cutbacks in order quantities and even higher costs, it remains unparalleled in its class in terms of technology and perfor­mance specifications.

There are a number of reasons the UAE has not acquired the fifth-generation technology from the US: The aircraft’s hefty price, strong opposition from Israel, and more than anything, the fact that the F-35 production line is at least ten years away from being able to cater to the UAE’s customer base.

But for many, the question re­mains: Why is the UAE Air Force making the unprecedented move to bring a Russian fighter aircraft now?

Observers have suggested the UAE is conducting a strategic tilt towards Russia due to growing frustrations with the United States. Others have suggested the move is intended to serve as a message to Israel that it cannot deny next-generation tech­nologies to the UAE by effectively vetoing such a sale through its pow­erful lobby.

The UAE’s motivating factors may be far less dramatic.

While the countries announced to co-develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, there is a long way to go be­fore the UAE makes an acquisition decision. Much will depend on the final performance specifications of the aircraft, which are yet to be fi­nalised, the speed of development work and other important variables, such as whether the aircraft can at­tract future buyers.

For at least the next few years, the UAE and its industrial base will undergo a new and important learn­ing experience — how to produce an aircraft that can compete in a small but highly competitive global mar­ketplace.

Many analysts have predicted fifth-generation fighter aircrafts such as the F-35 may be the last manned fighter aircraft to be pro­duced. This means that the window of opportunity for countries such as the UAE is closing.

It is also important to remember that Mubadala, part of the UAE’s major state investment fund, re­cently bought a stake in Russian Helicopters, a subsidiary of Rostec.

While the UAE and Russia have political differences, they have often been decoupled from commercial interests, and their relations have never been characterized by ani­mosity. Likewise, the two countries’ differences in regional objectives have not resulted in constraints in collaborating for mutual commer­cial rewards and scientific progress.

If there is a lesson for the United States and other Western partners of the UAE and many other regional states, it is that future trade will re­quire a greater willingness to collab­orate, to support partner capacity development through technology transfer and technical assistance. This model has been embraced by the Chinese and the Russians, cre­ating a competitive advantage for them that is delivering rewards.

The UAE views the opportunity to co-develop a fifth-generation aircraft as feasible, given the fact that the US-led F-35 programme is already an international effort with little room to induct additional part­ners into the development or pro­duction process.

With Russia, which is the second largest global arms exporter after the United States and whose great­est exports come from military air­craft, the UAE may have positioned itself for a great financial windfall.