UK Prime Minister David Cameron made an unexpected stop here at the Dubai Airshow on his way home from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka. Speaking to assembled UK aerospace industrialists, he encouraged them to compete in what he termed the "global race."
"If we play to our strengths we can be a real winner," he said. "And one of our strengths is aerospace. It's an industry we're good at." But, he added, "It's not a zero-sum game where one country has to win and another loses."
Cameron did not refer specifically to the possibility of selling Eurofighter Typhoons to the UAE, but did say that he was "incredibly proud to stand up and promote the aircraft around the world." He later stated his hop that the UK could be entering into a partnership here in the UAE on more general aerospace matters.
His arrival last evening undoubtedly reinforced the British-led bid to sell the Eurofighter Typhoon to the UAE and added fuel to the speculation that a deal could be imminent. British defense secretary Philip Hammond and defense procurement minister Philip Dunne are also expected to attend the airshow during the week.
While interest this week is obviously on the potential UAE deal, the Typhoon could be sold to three more Gulf nations over the next few years, British industry and government officials are saying with increasing confidence. Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar could also choose the jet, which is being promoted personally by Cameron in meetings with leaders of those countries, both in the Gulf and the UK. Saudi Arabia is already taking delivery of 72 Typhoons and might order more, while Oman signed up for 12 last December.
If the Typhoon is successful here it will be a bitter blow to the French government and aerospace industry, since the Rafale was for so long the front-runner to secure an order for 60 from the Emiratis, as a replacement for a similar number of Mirage 2000-9s. In a thorough evaluation by the Swiss air force (see page 18), the Rafale’s multi-role maturity could not be matched by the four-nation jet, and at the time it was rated superior on most counts.
The French negotiations with the UAE faltered in 2010-11 despite commitments by Paris to station its own warplanes and warships in the UAE. In an attempt to revive the fighter deal, French defense minister Yves Le Drian had lunch with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy head of the UAE Armed Forces, during the IDEX defense show last February.
However, British defense diplomacy seems to be paying off. The Royal Air Force established an expeditionary air wing at Al Minhad airbase last January and has been cycling Tornado and Typhoon squadrons through there. Further, the more flexible British approach to fighter deal-making is proving effective. For instance, BAE Systems has been delivering a second batch of 24 Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, despite not having finalized their pricing with the Saudis. Finally, British government and industry negotiators have also been promising significant local industrial participation to the four Gulf states. In part, this is made possible by the wider industrial base that is represented by the Eurofighter, Eurojet and Euroradar consortiums. Of particular note, AIN understands that BAE Systems has offered the UAE some participation in its future development of Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV technology.
Beyond the UAE, AIN has been told that Bahrain is closest to making a commitment to the Typhoon. This could come as early as next January, during the Bahrain Air Show. The Bahrain air force wants to replace a squadron of ageing F-5 fighters from 2018. It is considering a second batch of F-16s, but Bahrain’s King Hamad expressed a liking for the Typhoon when he met PM Cameron in London last August. But there will be opposition to such a sale from British human rights groups, after Bahrain’s strong response to civil unrest in 2012-13.
In Qatar, a request for information (RFI) for a new fighter has been issued, after it seemed for a time that the Rafale was a shoo-in to replace that country‘s Mirage 2000s. The RAF Typhoon solo and Red Arrows display team that are appearing here performed in Doha last week. But the French have not given up yet, and the U.S. is offering the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet–and maybe even the Boeing F-15 Strike Eagle–to Qatar. It has been reported that the U.S. asked for, and received, an RFI response deadline extension to allow it to complete its offer, to be submitted around the end of this year.
The Italians have the lead in marketing the Typhoon to Kuwait. That country has also issued an RFI for a new fighter to replace F-18C/Ds. A squadron of Italian air force Typhoons participated in last week’s Air Tactics Leadership Course at Al Dhafra airbase, UAE. Boeing will likely be pushing the Super Hornet in Kuwait, too.
As for Lockheed Martin, supplier of F-16s to the UAE as well as Bahrain–and the maker of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, some media reports have speculated that the U.S. is ready to sell the stealthy, fifth-generation fighter to countries in the Gulf. But a Lockheed Martin official responsible for the region told AIN last week that he was not aware of any classified briefings being given to such countries. The official added that the UAE’s intended order for an additional 25 to 30 F-16 Block 60s, revealed by U.S. secretary of defense Chuck Hagel last April, was still being negotiated, with the legally-required notification to Congress in process. “We are also discussing more F-16s with other countries in the region,” he added. Unless these orders are firmed up, the last F-16 will roll out of the Fort Worth, Texas factory at the end of 2017.
Some senior leaders of air forces in the Gulf see merit in choosing the same new fighter–namely the Typhoon–as a way of increasing the operational integration of defense forces in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). “Eurofighter might well clean up in the Middle East,” a veteran fighter salesman who is still working for one of the other European OEMs told AIN last week. “The UAE is certainly not going to buy the Rafale unless there is another export customer,” was his opinion of the situation. Rafale has been selected by India, but negotiations continue over obtaining a final signature there.