x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A well-armed UAE military requires discerning buyers

In the high-stakes game of military procurement, the UAE has become known for canny buying, and for driving a hard bargain.

A stereotypical view of Arab arms acquisitions is that they are made on an ad- hoc basis to serve long-term political and strategic interests and to please their defence partners. But the UAE military has broken with this trend, consistently making informed and critical decisions about what weapons to purchase.

The most recent sign of this came this week, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces, said a French company's bid to supply the UAE with fighter jets was "uncompetitive".

Purchasing weaponry is a great responsibility. Buyer countries must make sure that they are able to operate, support and equip the weapons platforms they are investing in, and that these weapons platforms are relevant to their defence needs. Even countries as big as the US can make strategic errors when it comes to arms purchases.

But the UAE's armed forces seem to be a very difficult customer, utilising various methods to select the best weapons platforms and also to ensure as much technology transfer as possible.

And the armed forces have not been shy about playing off contractors against each other, and reducing dependence on any single contractor.

After the First Gulf War, in 1990-91, there was a spike in GCC states' defence spending, allowing regional governments to lavish funds on their ground forces in order to better defend their territory against threats of invasion.

When the UAE embarked on this path it first chose to purchase 388 LeClerc main battle tanks from France, paying in dollars (saving money, as the French currency and then the euro significantly appreciated).

The UAE then made some notable modifications to these tanks, installing much more robust German MTU diesel engines and insisting on the best possible network for communications among the tanks, noting the growing importance of net-centric capabilities.

When looking to purchase an accompanying armoured infantry fighting vehicle (AIFV) the UAE army again pursued a pragmatic policy; it evaluated several types of armoured vehicles to the point of breakdown, through extreme test conditions, eventually announcing (to everyone's shock) the Russian BMP-3 AIFV as the winner.

And there was again improvement to be made. UAE officers had taken note in 1991 of how Iraqi armoured forces, devoid of any thermal vision equipment, had been decimated in poor visibility by more sophisticated US armoured vehicles in Operation Desert Storm. So the UAE insisted that the BMP-3 be equipped with Namut thermal sights.

The UAE Navy's Baynunah class corvette programme is another example of how the UAE has pursued a defence acquisitions strategy with sustainability in mind.

Not only are these ships the first corvettes built in the Arabian Gulf, they are another example of the UAE's preference for customisation and usability. In this case, the Baynunah class was designed to operate in the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf, with an emphasis on manoeuvrability and an ability to carry helicopters.

Time and again this concept of function and value has taken precedence. When the Air Force had a requirement for Chinook helicopters, leadership in Abu Dhabi again took the smart and thrifty route. It bought 40-year-old Libyan Chinook helicopters from the pre-Qaddafi era military, and shipped them to Agusta helicopter in Italy (now AgustaWestland) for a complete rebuild and modernisation. This may have saved tens of millions of dirhams.

The F-16E/F deal concluded in the late 1990s was another example of a UAE actively seeking to maximise its bang for the buck. The F-16E/F is a fighter jet optimised for long-range strike operations, with highly advanced radar systems and well-developed targeting systems.

As recent press reports - including one in The National yesterday - have made clear, the UAE has driven the hardest bargain possible when discussing the potential acquisition of the French Rafale fighter jet.

This plane was widely expected to replace the single-seater Mirage 2000-9 fighter jets currently employed in the UAE Air Force, and which recently served in Libya. The UAE has insisted that Dassault, the company selling the jets, find buyers for all 58 Mirage 2000-9s, and then provide it with a heavily upgraded Rafale fighter - at no additional cost. The UAE is reportedly keeping its options open by expressing interest in the Eurofighter Typhoon and the F/A-18 and F-15E.

We will have to wait and see how this high-stakes contest to provide the UAE with its next generation fighters shakes out. But one thing is already clear: the UAE will get its money's worth.


Ahmed Al Attar is an Emirati defence affairs commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @AhmedwAlAttar