PARIS --- Having long put off purchases of modern combat aircraft, the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf have jumped back into the market with a vengeance, just as Daesch terrorists have begun to replace Iran as their biggest external threat.
Renewed regional interest in tactical air power could well be influenced by the relative success of the United States and France in reducing the military threat posed by Daesch though air strikes, which may be seen as an alternative to putting “boots on the ground.” If this is indeed the case, it will likely lead to future disillusionments, as the Gulf monarchies have neither the capability nor the human and financial resources required to maintain air strikes over several months.
It is ironic that this recovery of the Persian Gulf fighter market should happen as oil prices, on which regional purchasing power is based, have dipped to their lowest level in a decade, and show little sign of improving.
These small nations must also rue day the huge amounts of money they invested to buy the latest US-made anti-missile weapons to defend against missile attacks from Iran, thereby showing impeccable mistiming on both financial and operational counts.
Several dormant fighter acquisition programs have been revived in the past few months, covering well over 200 modern fighters in the Gulf region alone. However, even if these sales go through, customer countries will face two successive hurdles: getting their new aircraft delivered, and finding enough combat-capable pilots to operate them.
While the pilot shortage could be fixed by hiring foreign pilots, deliveries are likely to prove a bigger headache, as US combat aircraft (F-15 and F-18E/F) are nearing the end of their production runs while their European competitors, long produced at low, drawn-out production rates, will take several years to ramp up.
Here is a review of the current status of major combat aircraft procurement in the Persian Gulf region:
In September 2015, Kuwait surprised many observers by signing a Letter Of Intent (LOI) with the Italian government for the purchase of 28 Eurofighter Typhoons worth €7-8 billion.
At the time, the two governments expected to sign the complex deal “in a matter of weeks,” but as successive dates have passed, weeks have turned into four months with little sign of progress.
Surprisingly, Reuters reported Jan. 21 from Bahrain that “Kuwait's air force is sticking to plans to purchase Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet to replace ageing fighter jets, despite a lengthy congressional approval process in Washington that has frustrated industry players.”
The agency quoted the commander of the Kuwaiti Air Force, who seems to have forgotten his country’s government had signed the Typhoon agreement. "The Super Hornet is one of the best solutions for us," Abdullah Al Foudary, commander of the Kuwait Air Force, told Reuters. "We have the legacy F-18s that we have to find a solution for in 2030-2040," he added.
Al Foudary told Arabian Aerospace Jan 21 that “the $12.2 billion deal for 28 Typhoons, announced in September 2015, had not yet been signed, among suggestions that Boeing will still be pushing its Super Hornet,” adding that Foudary is himself an F-18 pilot.
“Other sources in Kuwait confirmed the contract had not been signed but fully expected the formalities to be completed soon,” Arabian Aerospace added.
However, U.S. industry executives and military officials have grown increasingly concerned about delays in approving the sale of 28 Boeing F/A-18E/F fighter jets to Kuwait, a deal valued at around $3 billion, Reuters said – one-fourth the price it quoted for the Typhoon deal.
United Arab Emirates
The United Arab Emirates’ long-deferred purchase of 60 Rafale fighters has in recent years been suspended because Dassault Aviation refused to buy back the Mirage 2000-9 fighters that are currently in service.
A solution now is in view, however, as Iraq seems to have been accepted as a satisfactory buyer by both sides, as Defense News reported Jan 23 from Dubai that the UAE “is awaiting final assurances from France and the Iraqi government to sell its fleet of Dassault Mirage 2000-9s before completing their deal for 60 Rafale fighters.”
Quoting local and French sources, the report said “the intended deal would see the UAE initially provide 10 aircraft to the Iraqi Air Force, with the funds paid directly to Dassault as part of the down payment for the UAE's Rafale deal. The deal’s total cost is estimated at $15 billion, now that the French government has decided to pay the cost of “training, maintenance support and other services” provided by its military, and reduced its service fees.
Despite having ordered 24 Dassault Rafales last year, Qatar seems to still be in the market for a large number of Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles. However, just like Kuwait’s request to buy Super Hornets, Qatar’s request for Strike Eagles has been ignored by the United States for over two years, Defense News reported Jan. 22, noting that “two powerful US senators have begun raising questions” about the delays.
It added that “according to a congressional source, the Defense Department and State Department both support the sales, while the White House has put on the brakes.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain “has questioned the delay at a time when America's Sunni allies are looking for reassurance while diplomatic relations are improving between the US and their chief rival in the region, Iran.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker “said he expected the White House to make a decision in the next month or two, then seek Congressional approval. According to Corker, Qatar is seeking 73 jets, 36 in the first tranche, a buy that would take 42 months to be delivered.”
Unlike Kuwait, which still has not confirmed its Typhoon order, Qatar made its down payment in December, seven months after the contract was signed in May 2015, thus clearing the way for full implementation of the contract.
Now that the Iran Nuclear Agreement has been implemented, “there are high hopes the deal may finally be allowed to move forward,” the Foxtrot Alpha blog reported Jan. 23.
The reason? “Strike Eagle’s ability to carry a heavy weapons load—and fly over long distances and at extremely low-level if need be—would have posed a threat directly to Iran,” and maybe dissuaded it from signing the nuclear agreement.
Although it is upgrading its fleet of Boeing F-15 Eagles to the latest F-15ASA standard, of which it has also ordered 72 new-build aircraft, Saudi Arabia was long expected to order a second batch of 72 Eurofighter Typhoons.
However, the signature has been allowed to slip for several years, leading some financial analysts, including one at Crédit Suisse, to conclude that the recent spat between Riyadh and London regarding Saudi executions have put it off indefinitely.
In fact, British Prime Minister David Cameron planned to travel to Saudi Arabia this month to lobby for the contract, which would be a lifeline to both BAE Systems and to the Eurofighter program, but, faced with vocal public opposition in the UK, called off his trip after the executions were announced.
Even though exports to Saudi Arabia are managed by Britain, further Eurofighter sales are likely to be complicated by the German federal security council’s Jan. 20 decision to stop arms sales to the kingdom. The decision was reported by Bild on Jan 24.
Recent Middle East fighter stories in January
-- US Approves $1.9Bn Weapons Package for Iraq’s F-16 Fighters
-- Israel Will Upgrade Its F-15s – Why Can’t the US Air Force?