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Dubai Airshow 2021: All relatively quiet on the F-35 front

19th November 2021 - 12:45 GMT | by Leonid Nersisyan in Dubai

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USAF F-35A Lightning II pictured in August 2019 at Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE. (Photo: USAF/Staff Sgt Chris Thornbury)

A planned $23 billion FMS package for the UAE has still not been fully approved, 12 months after it was first proposed.

There were no official updates from the Dubai Airshow 2021 on a proposed sale to the UAE Air Force of US fifth-generation fighter aircraft and MALE UAVs, although sources indicated to Shephard that Washington remains committed to a proposed FMS package.

Following strong indications that the UAE wanted to buy Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II aircraft and General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian UASs, the US State Department notified Congress in November 2020 that it intends to authorise FMS deals for these aircraft.

Since then, the prospective package (worth more than $23 billion in all to include air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions) attracted strong political scrutiny in the US. A Senate vote to block the deal failed in December 2020 and the FMS proposal remains alive after the arrival of Joe Biden as US president in January 2021.

However, the UAE deal has still not been formally approved. Shephard understands from sources close to the State Department and Congress that the main complication is a push from the Biden administration to stop the UAE from signing contracts for Huawei 5G telecommunications equipment, with the FMS package being used as a bargaining chip in this situation.

General Atomics and Lockheed Martin each exhibited at the Dubai Airshow 2021 on 14-18 November, but neither company was able to shed light on the status of the FMS proposal as it lies in the hands of government-to-government negotiators.

General Atomics displayed a model of its MQ-9B SkyGuardian UAV at the Dubai Airshow 2021. (Photo: Leonid Nersisyan)

A representative from General Atomics did emphasise that the UAE remains ‘very interested’ in buying 15 SkyGuardian UAVs plus an option for three more, adding that there is interest from the UAE Armed Forces in the SeaGuardian optional mission kit that includes a multimode 360-degree maritime surface search radar and Automatic Information System monitoring capability.

The FMS proposal calls for the sale of 50 F-35As to the UAE. The aircraft featured in neither the static display nor the demonstration flights at the Dubai Airshow, although Lockheed Martin did exhibit a mock-up of the F-35A.

Unless or until the FMS package is fully approved, other aircraft types are still in with a chance of meeting the UAE multirole fighter requirement. Examples include the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70/72 (F-16V), Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Sukhoi Su-35 and even the Checkmate export variant of the new Su-75.

Indeed, Checkmate was a more prominent presence at the Dubai Airshow than the F-35A with a prototype aircraft on static display; and it should be remembered that Russia and the UAE signed a Letter of Intent in 2017 to co-develop a fifth-generation fighter.

Shephard Defence Insight notes that Israel is one other factor that may influence the timeframe for any F-35A sale to the UAE. Traditionally, the US has kept a five-year gap between the US offering advanced capabilities to the Middle East once it has been acquired by Israel. This is to preserve Israel’s 'qualitative advantage' in the region.

As Israeli F-35s became operational in 2017, deliveries of the same aircraft type to the UAE would be unlikely before 2023 even if the US does fully approve the FMS package.

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