In recent years, the air forces of the Gulf nations have undergone a dramatic transformation, growing in both size and stature. In the past few months, the Royal Bahraini Air Force, the Royal Jordanian Air Force, the Qatar Emiri Air Force, the Royal Saudi Air Force and the UAE Air Force and Air Defence have all participated in multinational combat operations alongside the USA, UK and French air forces, among other coalition partners. In doing so, they have demonstrated their professionalism and combat efficiency, and they are today widely regarded as being mature and competent air arms capable of undertaking a broad spectrum of air power roles.
Driven by post-Cold War budgetary pressures, the USA has increasingly disengaged from the Middle East.
Though the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet maintains an aircraft carrier in the area, and though the USAF deploys forces at a number of regional airfields, most notably at Al Udeid in Qatar, which hosts Central Command’s headquarters, the USA has replaced many permanently deployed force elements with shorter-term deployments. As it has done so it has demanded greater ‘burden-sharing’ from its allies, and the Gulf nations have responded by taking on a greater share of their own defence, and by reconfiguring to meet today’s real world threats.
A disproportionate reliance on US, British, French and Canadian air power during the first Gulf War (notwithstanding the useful contributions made by the air forces of Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) provided a wake-up call for Gulf air staffs, while the emergence of an Iranian ballistic missile threat added further impetus to the need to recapitalise and modernise Gulf air power.
Air and missile defence has thus been accorded a high priority, and fighter acquisition programmes are underway across the region, with most local air arms also looking to increase aircraft numbers. This is perhaps most striking in Qatar, where 12 Mirage 2000 fighters are to be replaced by two batches of 36 new fighters – a six-fold increase in the QEAF fighter force. In doubling its inventory, the RSAF is expected to introduce no fewer than 450 new aircraft over the next decade.
Size alone is not everything, and as well as increasing force size, the Gulf air forces have embraced new roles and adopted a range of advanced technologies, introducing sophisticated ISR platforms, AAR tanker aircraft and even AEW and AWACS platforms, becoming ‘full-spectrum’ air forces that can contribute more widely to coalition air operations, and that are more capable of autonomous operations.
Reduced reliance on foreign ‘advisers’
Gulf air forces are increasingly placing considerably less reliance on foreign advisers in the front line, and even in training and instructional roles, though some do remain in most of the GCC air forces. Gulf air forces are increasingly training their own nationals to carry out support roles, however, including the technician roles that are currently often undertaken by expatriate personnel.
In the UAE, about 30 per cent of the country’s 65,000-strong armed forces are still expatriates, though the UAE Air Force and Air Defence is the most ‘nationalised’ service arm, employing a significantly lower proportion of foreign personnel.
Intelligent acquisition One mark of a confident and mature air force is its ability to acquire aircraft, weapons and equipment tailored to its own requirements, rather than simply buying exactly the same equipment as is used by a larger ally (usually the US Air Force) ‘off the shelf’. Saudi Arabia provided an early example of this kind of procurement, by insisting that the English Electric Lightnings it acquired should be capable of ground attack missions, forcing BAC (as it then was) to develop a new variant of its until then dedicated air-to-air interceptor. A decade later, Oman made a similar procurement, requiring an air-to-air capability on its SEPECAT Jaguar fighter-bombers.
But the UAE has led the way in this kind of ‘intelligent procurement’, starting with its order for the Mirage 2000-9 (for which it was the launch customer). This marked a significant improvement over the previous Mirage 2000-5, with additional capabilities and new technologies – some of them resulting from the Rafale development programme.
The end result was that the UAE’s Mirages were more advanced and more capable than those operated by the French Armée de l’Air.
According to reports, the UAE invested almost USD3 billion into research and development of the Block 60 F-16 E/F Desert Falcon and, as a consequence, would be entitled to royalty payments if any other nation purchased an F-16 variant using the same technology. The first F-16 variant to be fitted with an AESA radar, the UAE’s Block 60 F-16E/F was described as being more advanced than the US Air Force’s own F-16s.
The UAE has integrated the GEC Al Hakim rocket-boosted glide bomb (a weapon that is unique to the UAE AF&AD) on its Mirage and F-16 fighters, and the Mirages also carry the MBDA Black Shaheen cruise missile (a derivative of the Storm Shadow), and will soon be operational with the indigenous Tawazun Al Tariq glide bomb. Saudi Arabia has integrated new targeting pods and weapons on its Tornados and Typhoons, replacing the Litening pod favoured by other operators with the French Damocles pod. The RSAF pushed the pace of the Tranche 2 Typhoon’s air-to-ground capability, dropping air-to-ground weapons from the variant before the British RAF did. Perhaps most telling is the fact that the UAE has gained the capability of obtaining and integrating its own ‘mission data’ on its fighter platforms – updating their threat libraries and tailoring and refining electronic warfare and radar system performance.
Gulf nations have shown a real willingness to accept help from allies and to burden-share – banding together with neighbours for mutual defence when required, and encouraging allies like the UK and France to base forces in the region, without this being thought of as being an affront to national pride.
The Gulf air forces have made great efforts to become effective operators of their advanced equipment and have regularly participated in major international exercises, including the USAF’s Red Flag, as well as conducting realistic exercises in the region with extensive foreign participation.
The UAE has had numerous Advanced Tactical Leadership Course exercises, while Oman has run regular ‘Magic Carpet’ exercises with the UK and squadron exchanges with the Indian Air Force. All this has strengthened interoperability.
It is perhaps unsurprising that these capable and well-equipped air forces have been ‘partners of choice’ in coalition operations against Libya and against the Islamic State (IS)/ Daesh group in Syria.
When the USA began mounting what it called ‘expanded air strikes’ against IS targets in Syria on 22 September, about one-third of the attacking aircraft were provided by the Arab partner nations. The force included two Royal Bahraini Air Force F-16Cs, four Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16MLUs, four Royal Saudi Air Force F-15S Eagles and four UAE Air Force and Air Defence Block 60 F-16E/Fs. It is unclear whether Qatar’s Mirage 2000s took part in the attacks, or just flew in an air defence or escort role.