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IDEX 2019: Royal Bahraini Air Force battles on all fronts

11th February 2019 - 12:00 GMT | by Alan Warnes in Bahrain

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The Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF) has ‘some serious issues to address right now’, the service’s commander, Maj Gen Hamad bin Abdullah al Khalifah, told Shephard

‘We are still engaged with the Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition in Yemen, where our F-16s provide close air support along Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen. We have flown more than 10,000 hours and in excess of 3,500 sorties in that role over the past three and a half years,’ the commander explained.

Along with its allied partners, Bahrain is also combating terrorism, and this is all being played out in the face of budget pressures and ageing equipment.

‘But we will still modernise our systems and maintain high readiness to face the challenges of our more aggressive neighbour [Iran] which continues to threat and destabilise the region.’

On the threat from Iran, he argued that: ‘They have been threatening for a long time not only as a country but through militias who are followers or believers of Iran. The GCC is doing much better to counter that threat and we are pleased the international coalition now understands.’

It is not surprising, therefore, that the shadow of Iran is playing a major role in shaping the RBAF, which, along with its Gulf state allies, recognises the importance of defending air, sea and land with the help of its western allies. 

‘In order to strengthen the role of the future GCC air power, we must continue to integrate in all aspects of operations, leadership, doctrine, training, personnel facilities and materials,’ the commander continued.

‘And we need to modernise because the security challenges we face today cannot be addressed with yesterday’s capabilities.’

In a major step to upgrade the RBAF’s combat air capabilities, the commander announced a $912 million deal for 12 AH-1Z Vipers at the Bahrain International Air Show in mid-November.  

Al Khalifa told Shephard ‘that the world’s most advanced attack helicopter will continue to secure the country’.

‘Deliveries will start in the second half of 2022 and completed in early 2023, they will significantly improve our share in the growth and security of the Gulf region,’ he explained.

‘They will work alongside the current Cobra fleet and help to improve our share of the responsibility in the growth and security of the Gulf region.’

The existing fleet of AH-1s is currently made up of 18 AH-1Fs and around six TAH-1P Cobra trainers. The commander noted that the AH-1Z has been marinised to protect the systems and fuselage from salty sea conditions. 

‘We decided to add the AH-1Zs to the fleet so we could have an additional maritime capability, which the others do not.’

Turkish Aerospace is upgrading the existing 18 AH-1Fs as part of a $25 million deal agreed in June 2015, with an avionics upgrade based on systems already operational on Turkey’s T129 advanced attack and reconnaissance (ATAK) helicopter

The commander confirmed he was upgrading the older Cobras ‘to give them a better night fighting capability,’ adding ‘we are half way through the process and that by the end of 2019, all would be modified’. 

Integration of the ASELFLIR 400 turret into the attack helicopter’s nose is one major improvement as well as an enhanced weapons delivery set-up and an NVG compatible cockpit.  

The commander was not too keen to discuss the upgrade because of the deterioration in the relationship between its ally Saudi Arabia, which is likely to be paying for the work, and Turkey after the deal was done. He would only tell Shephard that the deal covered a ‘good number’ of helicopters.

In a further procurement, in July 2018 the Bahraini government signed a $2.8 billion FMS deal with its US counterpart for 16 new Block 70 F-16C/Ds and their support. The major general, who has been the air force commander for more than a decade, is looking forward to their arrival in 2022. 

‘These new F-16s will add to our current capability and will be integrated with the assets of other allied air forces.’

Lockheed Martin had aspirations to upgrade the kingdom’s existing 20 F-16C/Ds to a similar standard as the new Block 70s, known as the F-16V.  However, the RBAF baulked at the $1.1 billion price. 

‘Our priorities lie with the 16 new Block 70s. Our current fleet has been modernised to a very high standard and are extremely capable, until the Block 70s arrive. What happens after that we don’t yet know.’

The funds which might have been earmarked for the upgrade appear to have been spent on acquiring attack helicopters.

With all these new acquisitions, the chief acknowledge that he needs more pilots. 

‘The selection process is now underway, and we have a good number now being trained.  We started preparing for the arrival of new F-16s two years ago, and on the Cobras we started a few months ago with the selection of pilots and technicians.’

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