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Will air forces in the Middle East look to new sources for advanced equipment?

29th December 2023 - 12:36 GMT | by Edward Hunt


GCC nations such as Bahrain have traditionally turned to Europe and the US for supplies of combat aircraft. (Photo: US Air Force)

Amid a tense strategic situation and the absence of advanced indigenous products, Gulf Cooperation Council states have come to be regarded as a priority export destination for most new air, land or sea systems.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have often used the offerings of new air, sea and land systems from outside of the region to maintain international friendships and trade relations. In the aviation sector, the polyglot forces of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are an example of this political hedge-betting, ensuring no single supplier has control over their military capability.

This is particularly true at the most advanced end, where exported platforms such as combat aircraft are usually downgraded to some degree.

Traditionally it has been US and European companies that have competed for these prizes, but this may be starting to change. Several new providers have arrived on the stage and are seeking to build their own bridgeheads in the region.

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Until February 2022, Russia was making determined steps to regain some of the market share but the political landscape – particularly its support of Syria and Iran – meant that it was always unlikely to achieve much.

Following its invasion of Ukraine even previous customers are likely to have reservations. The ability of Russian industry to supply high-end products has also been severely compromised.

With the absence of a previously strong competitor, the way is open for newer providers. Turkey has made no secret of its objective of becoming a major defence supplier, while South Korea’s KAI has been quietly building a strong customer base with the T-50 attack/trainer jet series and its Surion medium-weight helicopter is also offered.

More interestingly, the uncertain contribution of Indonesia to the KF-21 fifth-generation fighter programme opens the door for other partners. Such participation would be of definite interest to the more industrially advanced states in the region.

India has also been active and is keen to achieve exports of its own indigenous products. Meanwhile Japan’s transport and maritime patrol aircraft are likely of interest, and the same is true of Embraer’s C-390.

Fifth-generation fighters from South Korea and Turkey could prove attractive to air forces in the Middle East. (Photo: Republic of Korea DAPA)

The elephant in the room, however, is China. With lines clearly drawn between the US and the CCP, the politically tempered procurement approach would be tested should one of the GCC countries procure an armed Chinese product.

The joint (with Pakistan) JF-17 fighter aircraft is an obvious item for export and might be accepted by Washington. But should China – with its more relaxed attitude to defence exports – begin to provide advanced UAVs or missile defence systems, US allies may find themselves in a position similar to Turkey and its S-400 saga.

The strategic importance of the region means that US and European governments will not simply accept a new political player crowding them out. But with many local politicians wishing to keep relatively neutral relations between the major world powers, growing Chinese or Indian imports is a strong possibility.

So far France (and especially the Rafale) has been the major beneficiary of US limits on certain technology sales, plus Russia’s pariah status and the desire for a mixed supplier base. But its selling point as ‘not America’ seems likely to be challenged by other states that can also advertise more flexible export positions. This may be particularly relevant if collaboration continues with the far more conservative Germany.

The desire to develop local industry is also likely to be a significant determinant of future advanced suppliers. The importance of intellectual property rights and domestic input have been climbing over the last decades and this is only likely to increase further.

Becoming a valued partner for an advanced programme would be a definite coup for states traditionally seen merely as purchasers. Transport aircraft, UAVs or light combat aircraft are an obvious starting point, and there are several examples of each on offer.

In the short term, strong involvement with programmes is relatively unlikely for many countries in the region. But the examples of Turkey or South Korea, where component supply became assembly, then local modification and finally indigenous products, are compelling.

If the US is unwilling to provide such a path, there are likely several alternative exporters more inclined to offer such a prize.

Edward Hunt


Edward Hunt

Edward has worked in the aerospace and defence Industry since 2005, initially for Jane’s and then …

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