Hunting for New Markets

The Dubai Air Show will be known for a major break in US military convention with regard to the sale of the F-35 fifth-generation fighter to the UAE

Issue: 12 / 2017By Bikram Vohra, DubaiPhoto(s): By USAF

The raising of the curtain on talks between the UAE and the US on an early sale of the F-35 JSF, may have been placed on hold thanks to the unholy haste with which President Donald Trump has signed off on accepting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. However, Israel might just be told to suck it up if Capitol Hill and the Congress believe that strengthening these allies in the crucial Middle East is an imperative that cannot be ignored and deals signed and delivered. The recently concluded Dubai Air Show goes down in the books for the largest ever deal for aircraft with Airbus bagging the IndiGo Partners order for 430 A320neos at a price tag of $50 billion. But it might also be known as the venue for a major break in US military convention with regard to the sale of the F-35 fifth generation fighter what with the first tentative talks being very positive.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

The F-35 is described not so much as a fighter plane as it is a highly integrated air system. The elements in the integration include avionics, weapons, logistics and propulsions. There is nothing else like it up there and it literally makes fourth generation fighter obsolete. According to Lockheed Martin, The F-35 also changes the way data are displayed for pilots. The full Panoramic Cockpit Display enables data from all sensors to be shown on one screen in integrated form. Each pilot can customiSe the size and layout of the single display, much like we do with our home computers. All of this greatly improves the pilot’s capabilities and enhances his combat options.

BOTH SAUDI ARABIA AND UAE HAVE COME OUT STRONGLY IN SUPPORT OF THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE AND CONDEMNED THE MOVE BY PRESIDENT TRUMP TO ENDORSE JERUSALEM AS THE CAPITAL

Except that you cannot go shopping for an F-35. Presently sold only to Israel (24) Republic of Korea (40) and Norway (52), it needs an act of Congress to clear a foreign sale. Even President Donald Trump cannot unilaterally decide a new market and in the current situation, it could go either way. There was clear indication on the final day of the Air Show that the UAE was the most likely first nation in the Middle East to get the nod. Perhaps that concession would also extend to Saudi Arabia As it would be part of the US big picture policy on Iran to keep its neighbours strong. With the UAE reportedly seeking 24 units, even Congress would be amenable, seeing as to how it is the most advanced nation in the region in terms of stability, lifestyle, forward thinking administration and cutting-edge technology.

Implications of Decision on Jerusalem

After the signing of the charter accepting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Washington could well have upset its own applecart. Until now, it did have a five-year gap in the selling of any weaponry or military hardware to Israel and any other country in the Middle East. This November, there was a softening of this 60-month hiatus which may have made Israel pretty teed off; but was on the cards in the initial negotiations at the Air Show.

Whether President Donald Trump will try to address the collective wrath of the region by offering this deal to selected countries by telling Israel it has won a big round and must now back off, is still an unknown factor. Lockheed Martin and the nine nation consortium that built the F-35 at a programme cost of $1.5 trillion (unit cost $100 million approx.) into 2070 with deliveries till 2037, would be very keen for the deal to go through and open fresh markets. But with Israel fighting hard to block any such move Congress might slow things down. Especially since a senior Israeli officer Major General Amos Gilad, when asked how long Israel would expect to have the only fifth generation fleet in the Middle East snapped, “forever.” So far a little over 215 F-35s are in service.

Both Saudi Arabia and UAE have come out strongly in support of the Palestinian people and condemned the move by President Donald Trump to endorse Jerusalem as the new capital. The refusal of his administration to reconsider the decision and revoke it, seals the pact and opens a not-so-pleasant chapter in US-Arab relations. Riyadh called it ‘irresponsible’ and the UAE pledged its unqualified support for the Arab identity in Jerusalem and cautioned that this step is an encouragement to extremists and ‘throws them a lifeline.’

At this moment, it seems unlikely that the talks on the modalities of selling the 24 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will gain the expected traction. However, a Congress, concerned about its possible alienation of this strategic region, might seek to balance out the pro-Israeli stance by placing the F-35s on the scales and giving it the nod for these two friends and allies. While retaining its traditions and customs, the UAE is one of the most progressive nations in the world. Saudi Arabia is now swiftly opening its windows to the winds of change and its fight against the ISIS as the head of the coalition of which UAE is a part, gives it common purpose with the US. From that point of view, batches of F-35s would strengthen coalition firepower to a major extent and the air strikes would be more potent.

The US Congress would also like to show President Donald Trump that it can, as a political body, snub his unilateral moves and make some decisions on its own. Paradoxically up until now, even President Donald Trump seemed favourable towards closer ties with these two countries and had visited Saudi Arabia and supported its recent anti-corruption crackdown. So even he would not mind.

The trick lies in allowing Congress to make the move. If President Donald Trump at this moment tries to play hardball, members of the Congress may dig their feet in and block his initiative. The US president, for all his bluster, has the savvy to wait for the main chance and let Congress run with the ball. The Hill knows that the UAE sees a fifth-generation fighter as an imperative and when stopped from being a partner in the consortium, was even open to the idea of working in partnership with Russia on such a development programme, so important is the need for such an aircraft. With Iran expanding its integrated defence and air systems, the fourth-generation fighter may not be able to cut the mustard.

Among the provisions it would seek would be Advanced Identification Friend or Foe capabilities, (AIFF) navigation systems and digital multifunction displays. If there is some anxiety, it is over the F-35 integrated central computer systems falling into wrong hands.

What Makes the F-35 so Special?

The F-35 ‘brain’, the process that combines this stellar amount of information into an integrated picture of the environment, is known as sensor fusion. At any given moment, fusion processes large amounts of data from sensors around the aircraft plus additional information from data links with other F-35s in the air and combines them into a centralised view of activity in the jet’s environment, displayed to the pilot.

Whether the current equation is something that will hasten the deal is something that cannot be foretold. If the UAE and Saudi Arabia are seen to be holding back on any other purchases to augment air power, it will indicate that the negotiations are still on the table. Deliveries of the 152 Boeing F-15SA (Saudi Advanced) Eagle fighters to Saudi Arabia have already begun. Meanwhile the UAE is looking to build a light attack fighter and has a $1.6 billion programme to upgrade its F-16 fleet.