Two Bombardier Challenger 650 business jets are being converted to an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) configuration by a newly-formed company in the UAE. They will join the UAE Air Force, as will two Bombardier Global 6000s that have been undergoing a protracted conversion in the UK. The UAE AF has also ordered three Global 6000s via Saab, which is providing them as GlobalEye multi-surveillance jets capable of monitoring airborne, maritime and ground-based activity.
The new company is Aquila Aerospace, which was formed early this year with majority Emirati ownership plus foreign interests and first unveiled the project at the IDEX show in Abu Dhabi. Aquila is based at Al Bateen airbase in Abu Dhabi, where it will shortly take delivery of the first "green" Challenger 650 airframe. It will be converted to carry an imaging synthetic aperture radar sensor, including moving target indicator (MTI) and inverse search and rescue (ISAR) modes, plus signals intelligence (SIGINT), and sensors. There will be four operator workstations inside the aircraft; mobile and fixed ground stations will also be provided.
The company says that it is the only special missions aircraft modification center in the Gulf region. A company official told AIN that it aims to provide “80 percent of the capability of other conversions, at a fraction of the price.” He said that the UAE was keen to benefit from the transfer of skills in order to establish an indigenous capability. He suggested that the UAE had become frustrated at the long delays and expense of converting the two Global 6000s abroad.
That effort is codenamed Project Dolphin and is being conducted by Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group at Cambridge in the UK. The company won the contract in 2013, but the first aircraft was not delivered until later last year. The second Global 6000 is still at Cambridge. They have been fitted with a Collins Aerospace DB-110 long-range electro-optical (LOROP) camera and a SIGINT suite that is believed to have been supplied by QinetiQ. There are also defensive electronic warfare (EW) systems onboard, and maybe also offensive EW. The contract also includes ground stations. Marshall has conducted a long series of test flights from Cambridge, and also from the UK Ministry of Defence test base at Boscombe Down, and from Doncaster Airport.
Project Dolphin has a complex contracting structure that includes a company owned by an Israeli businessman, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Quoting documents, some of which were leaked to the media as the so-called “Paradise Papers” in 2017, Haaretz reported that total payments of nearly $850 million are involved.
About 10 years ago, the UAE Air Force signed a contract with Abu Dhabi-based Advanced Integrated Systems (AIS), according to Haaretz. But the aircraft were purchased from Bombardier by Swiss company AGT International, which is owned by Mati Kochavi, an Israeli citizen. AIS then registered the two aircraft in the UK Isle of Man for tax purposes, and set up a subsidiary there. Marshall received a contract from AGT worth almost $100 million, according to Haaretz.
Informed sources have told AIN that Fokker Aviation Services was initially involved in the conversion plan, before Marshall. It is not clear what the Dutch MRO’s role in the process was, and why it played no further part. Marshall Aerospace declined to comment.