x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Fighters in for major upgrades

Dh400m for Mirages and F-16s, but no word on Rafale deal.

ABU DHABI // The UAE will spend more than Dh400 million to modernise its existing fleet of Mirage and F-16 fighter jets, the military announced yesterday.

The deals involve weaponry and software upgrades for the Mirages, and reconnaissance pods and other equipment for the F-16 Desert Falcons.

The two aircraft types are the mainstays of the UAE Air Force, which has 60 Mirages and almost 80 F-16s.

The pods would give the UAE's F-16s, already among the most advanced of their kind in the world, improved surveillance capability.

Major General Obeid al Ketbi, the spokesman for the International Defence Exhibition (Idex), also announced yesterday deals totalling nearly Dh4 billion. Idex ends tomorrow.

"As part of the effort of the Armed Forces to raise the capability of the Mirage-2000 planes, the French Dassault Aviation company has been contracted to develop its weapons systems," he said.

The contract is worth Dh112.4m. Dassault Aviation is the manufacturer of the Mirage and the more advanced Rafale fighter.

The F-16 project was awarded to Goodrich Corporation, an American company, in a deal worth nearly Dh300m.

The announcements raise questions about whether the UAE, which has said it intends to replace its existing Mirage fleet, is instead extending the life of the Mirages. The questions come amid speculation about when the country might conclude a deal for the Rafale, one that has been pending since 2008.

The Mirage "is a modern plane and one of the best fighter planes in the world," said Maj Gen al Ketbi, when asked whether this indicated the UAE wanted to extend the life of its Mirage fleet. "These are improvements in its performance. With any military equipment, there is constant development."

Boeing, the maker of the F-16 and the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, the latter of which is a competitor to the Rafale, denied that it had received requests for technical information on the Super Hornets, concerning a possible UAE purchase.

"If the UAE did ask for technical information, they will have asked the US government," said Paul Oliver, the vice president for Middle East and Africa at Boeing. "F/A-18 sales have only been conducted government-to-government. We have not had any requests from the US government."

Dassault said earlier in the day that the Rafale talks were ongoing, but that part of the company's commitment to the UAE involved upgrading the current Mirage fleet.

When asked about the Rafale deal, Maj Gen al Ketbi said technical committees were studying the Rafale, but had not made a decision about whether it would be an appropriate choice for the UAE.

"The Rafale plane is one of the modern planes available globally today, and we are always studying … modern armaments around the world," he said. "The studies are continuing but there has been no decision."

He would not say whether the Rafale was facing competition from other fighter jets.

Asked about the UAE's defence budget, Maj Gen al Ketbi said it varied annually, depending on the needs of the Armed Forces and whether new contracts were delayed.

But he added that all weapons deals were conducted strategically. "We do have an armament plan," he said. "All the procurement depends on the requirements of the Armed Forces, so there is no specific plus and minus figure for this. It depends on the different situations."

While there was a rough estimate, the exact figure depended on the status of negotiations, he said.

Maj Gen al Ketbi also said there was "no indication" that ongoing protests in the Middle East, including those in Libya and Bahrain, had affected Idex.

"As far as I know, all the delegations arrived on plan, and left on plan according to their business schedules," he said.

kshaheen@thenational.ae

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