Opinion: Learning the lessons of Gulf defence procurement
This is the latest hint from the UAE as to where it sees its future fighter aircraft programme going, coming on the back of years of intense competition from Eurofighter, Rafale and theF-16 to act as their next generation fighter aircraft. Most recently in early 2017 the UAE announced its intent to partner with Russia on the development of a fifth-generation fighter.
The announcement of an interest in the F-35 is not unexpected, and reflects the constant desire by the Persian Gulf states to acquire the latest and ‘best’ military equipment for their armed forces.
Announcements by Gulf states on potential interest in new aircraft or weapons are nothing new. For many years the carrot of large arms deals has been dangled in front of governments and manufacturers alike.
The prospect of securing huge multi-billion-dollar deals that would sustain tens of thousands of highly skilled domestic jobs for decades is a potent foreign policy tool, used to enormous effect.
It is also a tool that rarely sees many actual contracts signed. Far easier to run a competition on a regular basis to keep Western governments keen to engage in the region and thinking about how they can put together a compelling offer to support the sale.
Even if no deal is signed, its future potential is enough to keep the West coming back for more.
In recent years some Gulf states have diversified their equipment holdings, relying on a diverse mix of European and US fast jets in numbers out of proportion to their need.
Qatar for instance is likely to operate three fleets of F-16, Typhoon and Rafale aircraft soon – each needing its own supply chain, training pipeline and maintenance arrangements. For a tiny nation with a small population, the ability to find the aircrew and ground staff to keep this fleet flying, let alone genuinely operational poses enormous challenges.
The potential for the UAE to operate both Russian and Western aircraft marks a wider shift in alliances and interests in the Middle East. Russia has over the last few years sought to increase its share of the Middle Eastern arms market, signing (on paper at least) large deals to provide equipment to most Gulf states including fighters, helicopters and air defence systems.
The appeal of Russia is different to the traditional relationship Gulf states had with the West. There is unlikely to be any expectation that large equipment purchases will translate into hard military or diplomatic support in a crisis.
Gulf states have been frustrated by what they perceive as the double standards of the West.— Author
Unlike with the West, the Gulf is unlikely to be able to call on Russia to help in a military crisis. What Russia does offer though is cheap military equipment, helpful at a time of declining oil revenues, and more importantly there are likely to be no strings attached about how the equipment is employed.
Gulf states have been frustrated by what they perceive as the double standards of the West, which is keen to sell them highly capable military equipment, yet condemns them for using it in anger.
The ongoing inquiries and media articles in the UK over support provided by the British Government to Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen has raised real questions over the reliability of the UK as a credible partner. Why buy from someone who may switch off the export licences to provide the equipment you need during a war?
Russia, and to a lesser extent China are far less likely to condemn use of military hardware, or withdraw export licences. If anything, an ongoing war fought using their equipment is good for business, presenting opportunities for resupply deals.
Yet despite this, many Gulf nations want to remain close to the West, recognising their ability to defend themselves against high end threats, such as an aggressive Iran, is limited. This explains a continued determination to source at least some support from Western nations, coupled with an increasingly broad look at other suppliers.
For the West the challenge is what do you offer a nation such as the UAE? There are real concerns about what would happen to the JSF if it was operated by a nation that was also an operator of Russian or Chinese jets – how do you prevent compromise of closely guarded secrets and information?
Do you want to support your national economy but as the cost of raising the prospect of peer competitors having access to capabilities that could be flown against them?
The cost of developing and manufacturing a new fighter jet is enormous and realistically beyond the resources of one nation alone. The easiest way to reduce unit cost and through life support costs are to sell as many airframes as possible and increasing the pool of nations who can fund upgrade and development work.
This is why the West has long been keen to sell equipment to the Middle East – nations with deep pockets and a deep-seated desire to purchase only the best equipment.
If the Gulf nations shift towards mixed forces, it becomes significantly harder to export high end equipment to them. Even if one nation were willing, the multi-national nature of procurement these days means every partner nation has a voice, and a vote as to whether to support the sale.
Further, the very real concerns about compromise of secrets will make it hard to get support for an export campaign, even when jobs are at stake.
The problem for the West is that there is not an alternative airframe that could easily be offered for sale instead. The Gulf states are unlikely to want to take on a new design that is not already in use by a major Western air force (so that they can utilise existing training and logistics pipelines).
As Western air forces transition to force structures built around one or two fixed wing fighter aircraft types, there are simply not the plethora of aircraft designs to be exported anymore.
This is one area where the West may still have an ace card to play over Russia.— Author
Looking ahead this poses potential challenges for the future of aerospace design in the West. Producing exceptionally capable high-end aircraft helps keep national aerospace industries in business, but they need a credible long-term plan to survive.
The West will have to balance off the needs of sustaining a business built on ever fewer numbers of aircraft ordered at home, as budgets shrink, without the potential compensation of overseas exports in previously lucrative markets.
Alternatively, there may need to be national acceptance of reducing capability, but in doing so opening up the potential export markets for fighter aircraft – selling to medium powers who do not need all the capability offered by a fifth-generation fighter, but who do need some form of fast jet capability.
The market and budget though are unlikely to exist to develop both designs, and this is without even considering the potential impact that unmanned systems could have.
This challenge also needs to be coupled with a growing desire for indigenisation, with those countries who are investing in large purchases abroad wanting to see it benefit their own population too.
Expectations of technology transfer; establishment of manufacturing plants and industry to help grow their own national capability is now seen as an implicit part of any deal. To the Gulf states, a major weapons procurement project is as much about working out how much investment can be placed into their country, as it is about acquiring military hardware.
This is one area where the West may still have an ace card to play over Russia. Willingness by Western industry to invest heavily in the region and develop local industries could play well with rulers keen to create jobs for their increasingly young population, many of whom are unemployed.
Rulers may need to decide between cheap capable equipment supplied without preconditions on its employment, and investing in highly complex first-rate equipment that can integrate with Western militaries and which will pay dividends for their wider national development.
It is hard not to contemplate that the Gulf is on the verge of a strategic realignment, shifting its relationships with the West away from being the dominant force, and into one where it is prepared to negotiate and deal with any nation in order to acquire military equipment provided without caveat or moral lecturing.
For the West, the lesson should be that it cannot take future exports of advanced military equipment for granted. For the GCC, the lessons of the war In Yemen are also clear – namely that the West is not a reliable partner, and should be treated with caution.