F-35 drone and fighter contract in the spotlight for Dubai Air Show

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A pair of MQ-9 Reapers from the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron are parked on the runway at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, June 9, 2020.

Senior Aviator Isaiah J. Soliz | US Air Force

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Advanced technologies and geopolitics are expected to feature in military deals at this year’s Dubai Air Show. And some arms sales – or the lack thereof – are major sticking points for the United States and its Gulf allies, particularly the United Arab Emirates.

Fighter jet fleet upgrades and new counter-UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) technologies will likely be major themes at the industry show, especially given the increase in drone attacks. in the region in recent years.

But many eyes will be on whether earlier deals made under the Trump administration to sell certain U.S. weapons systems to the United Arab Emirates will materialize – deals that have stalled since taking office. the Biden administration.

The sales in question are of the coveted Lockheed Martin F-35 II joint fighter jet and General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone, which, if made, would mark the first sale of the F-35 and manufacturing armed drones. American to any Arab country.

“For a while the UAE had a tremendous need for fighter jets heading towards an F-35 purchase but, you know, terribly fraught with complications,” Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group. spectacle.

The deal signed on January 20, Donald Trump’s last day in office, was for a whopping $ 23 billion sale to the United Arab Emirates, the majority of which consisted of 50 F-35 jets and at least 18 armed drones. .

Previously, US export regulations prevented Washington from selling deadly drones to any of its Arab allies. And a sale of F-35s to the Sheikh of the Gulf Desert was initially unsuccessful due to a legal obligation for the United States to reserve its most advanced arms sales to Israel, in order to maintain “the military advantage.” quality ”of Israel in the Middle East.

But that all changed after Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed the Abrahamic Accords in August 2020, normalizing relations and paving the way for cooperation and trade in almost every sector. And restrictions on the export of armed drones were relaxed by the Trump administration in July 2020 to allow certain drones – including the deadly Reapers – to be sold to friendly Arab states.

Losing technological space to the benefit of China?

What motivated this change? Geopolitics and competition, say defense experts.

Washington “was sort of trying to get into the pragmatic reality of what the current global environment is for unmanned systems,” said Charles Forrester, senior defense industry analyst at IHS Jane’s.

He highlighted a point that many U.S. industry executives have warned about: losing market share to China, which sells its own armed drones to Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates.

“The Trump administration realized that if it did not adjust its policies, it would lose power, influence and technological space to China,” Forrester said.

“Drones, drones, drones”

When asked which segment of aerospace China attracts Gulf customers the most, Aboulafia of Teal Group said, “Oh, definitely drones. Absolutely. Drones, drones, drones. And you know. , there is no such thing. as a passive platform plus. Everything sucks data. It is therefore a real concern.

Participants walk past a Chinese-made Wing Loong drone on display at the Dubai Airshow on November 14, 2017, in the United Arab Emirates.

KARIM SAHIB | AFP | Getty Images

The UAE and some of its neighbors have purchased Chinese-made Wing Loong armed drones, but these purchases come with their own challenges. Other than some performance issues, Chinese technology cannot be integrated with UAE command and control systems, as these are designed by American companies.

“They don’t have interoperability. It’s very important,” Forrester said. “But the UAE is still using them anyway. They were able to use them enough despite that, because they were not given the opportunity to do otherwise.”

Biden’s back and forths

Biden announced a review of the massive arms deal with the United Arab Emirates early in his presidency, saying later in April that the sale could take place. But progress was frozen again soon after, apparently due to US concerns over growing ties between the UAE and China.

The Biden administration has pressured the United Arab Emirates to cut Chinese Huawei technologies off its telecommunications network and to ditch its other Chinese weapons technologies, industry experts say due to the security risk and espionage that Washington thinks they represent for American technology in the country. Already in 2020, a Pentagon report stated that China “is very likely already considering and planning additional military logistics facilities abroad,” in the United Arab Emirates, among other countries.

The UAE government dismissed the concerns, with its Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, saying in a statement earlier this year: “The UAE has a long and consistent experience in protecting US military technology, both in served alongside the US military and inside the United Arab Emirates where a wide range of sensitive US military assets have been deployed for many years. ”

China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

Negotiations are said to be ongoing, with a fair amount of back and forth over how the deal should progress. The current deal would see the F-35 jets begin delivery to the UAE in 2027; a stronger Chinese presence in the UAE could delay this indefinitely.


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