UAE Cleared to Buy F-35A Fighters and MQ-9B Drones

 - November 11, 2020, 11:14 AM
U.S. Air Force F-35As have been operating from Al Dhafra in the UAE for some time. These aircraft from the 421st Fighter Squadron are seen at the base near Abu Dhabi in May, having deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

On November 10 the U.S. State Department approved three possible Foreign Military Sales to the United Arab Emirates. The three packages, potentially worth in excess of $23 billion, cover the sale of Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters, which the UAE has sought for some time, and the acquisition of the General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones. The third approval is for a huge package of fighter weapons.

The $10.4 billion F-35 purchase covers up to 50 F-35A conventional takeoff/landing aircraft, complete with Pratt & Whitney F135 engines and four spare powerplants. Related equipment includes electronic warfare, command and control, and computer/navigation suites. Training and logistics support is covered, as is delivery, including the provision of aerial tanker support.

Assuming that the purchase is completed, the UAE Air Force and Air Defense will become the second air arm in the Middle East to acquire the F-35, following the Israeli Air Force, which has been flying the type for some time and has already employed it in combat. The F-35 will give the UAE a considerable edge over potential adversaries, notably Iran. The nation had earlier evaluated a number of fighter types, including the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, but it had hinted strongly that it would rather wait for the opportunity to buy the F-35.

The potential $2.97 billion MQ-9B sale is also noteworthy as it represents a change in U.S. export policy. The UAE, along with other West-leaning Gulf nations, had previously been denied the opportunity to purchase armed remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) from the U.S. and had turned in the interim to China to provide that capability. In the meantime, the UAE had bought the General Atomics Predator XP, an unarmed version of the MQ-1 Predator, but now has the opportunity to buy what is widely considered to be the most capable armed RPA available.

Included in the approval are up to 18 MQ-9B RPAs, with 25 Raytheon MTS-D multi-spectral infrared/electro-optical turret systems, and 19 General Atomics APY-8 Lynx synthetic aperture/radar ground moving target indication radar sets. The MQ-9Bs are described as being “weapons ready," and the deal includes 515 AGM-114R Hellfire missiles, with tail kits and Paveway II guidance kits that can turn 250-pound and 500-pound general-purpose bombs into laser-guided precision weapons.

The MQ-9B SkyGuardian is the certifiable version of the Predator B, and the UAE deal includes due regard radars for sense-and–avoid capability as well as a comprehensive system of ground control stations and communications links. Interestingly, the sale also includes the SeaSpray 7000 multi-mode radar and Sage 750 electronic support measures system from Leonardo, plus a range of sonobuoys and acoustic work-stations for anti-submarine warfare operations, inferring that the MQ-9Bs will be used for maritime patrol duties.

Covered by the third approval, the UAE plans to buy a large package of air-launched weaponry potentially worth $10 billion. On the shopping list are AIM-120C8 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs, AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missiles (AARGMs), AGM-154C Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) missiles, and the extended-range AGM-154E JSOW-ER derivative. Large numbers of Mk 82 (250-pound), Mk 83 (1,000-pound), and Mk 84 (2,000-pound) bomb warheads are included, along with the tailkits and fuzes necessary to modify them into Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) GPS-guided bombs.

The approvals have come in the wake of the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords, which were announced on August 13, signed on September 15, and ratified by the Israeli government on October 12. They bring about a normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, which thus becomes the third Arab nation—after Egypt and Jordan—to recognize the state of Israel. Telephone lines between the countries were unblocked within days of the initial announcement, and by the end of the month, a direct commercial air service had been established.