Despite their deep pockets and a history of snapping up advanced fighter jets from America, the Arab Gulf states are yet to get their hands on the US-made fifth-generation stealth fighters. This has left them in quite a quandary.
- F-18 SH redeployment to Kuwait will be carried out by Boeing
- US decided to pit the F-22 against the Su-35 over the oil wells
- Boeing produced the last two of 36 F-15QA fighters for Qatar
If the coveted US-built F-35 eludes them, they might pivot towards other fifth-generation fighters or join multinational initiatives to develop one. However, technical hurdles and political complexities could prolong their quest for stealth jets.
Sebastien Roblin, a highly regarded military-aviation journalist, told Insider that the Gulf states face a tricky situation. They must find exporters indifferent to their political regimes and human rights records, and devoid of political interests that could potentially lead to conflict.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, the front runners among the wealthy Arab Gulf states and three of the top 10 arms buyers from the US, have purchased some of the most sophisticated F-15 and F-16 variants in the past thirty years. They’ve also shown interest in buying the F-35. However, Washington seems inclined to sell the F-35s under specific conditions.
In January 2021, the UAE agreed to purchase 50 F-35s and 18 MQ-9 Reaper drones in a staggering $23 billion deal. This came after the UAE established diplomatic relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords. However, negotiations were halted by Abu Dhabi in December, citing restrictions imposed to safeguard US technology against Chinese espionage. It’s unclear when or if talks will resume.
Saudi Arabia, too, has sought certain concessions from the US, including fewer restrictions on arms sales, in exchange for potentially setting up official ties with Israel. Yet, it’s uncertain if acquiring F-35s is part of this proposed deal.
Without joining the Abraham Accords or a similar initiative, it’s unlikely the US would sell F-35s to Saudi Arabia or Qatar. This leaves these Gulf states to consider non-US alternatives which, for now, aren’t looking too promising.
On March 1, Saudi Arabia announced its participation in the UK-led Future Air Capabilities System program, which is developing a sixth-generation fighter aircraft called Tempest. The UK later clarified that its collaboration with Saudi Arabia was separate from British multinational efforts to develop next-generation fighters.
Roblin pointed out that not all stealth fighters are created equal, with the F-35 and likely the future Tempest and FCAS designed to superior stealth standards. He remarked that currently, exporting to the Gulf states is viewed as politically sensitive in the US, although the UAE might have a better chance of acquiring F-35s than Saudi Arabia.
France, on the other hand, might have fewer reservations, but it is partnered with a “more scrupulous” Germany in a separate FCAS project, Roblin added.
Roblin also mentioned that Britain, which had earlier partnered with Turkey and had discussions with the Saudis, seems less concerned about political risks and reputations. However, they were quick to retract their announcement.
In 2021, Russia offered to co-produce its in-development Su-75 fighter with the UAE, shortly after unveiling the jet. However, unverified reports in late 2022 suggested the latter has halted funding.
Russia has yet to produce a full-fledged stealth fighter in large quantities. The Su-57, while in service, and the Su-75 are not considered “top-tier,” according to Roblin.
Roblin also highlighted that the political risks of supporting the Su-75 projects currently seem quite grim, due to restrictions on the import of microelectronics to Russia and the sanction regime. However, he suggested that the UAE might “jump back in” if the situation in Ukraine improves or if Western sanctions are eased.
Emily Hawthorne, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with the risk-intelligence company RANE told Insider that Abu Dhabi’s involvement in the Su-75 project was more about leveraging its position with Washington than equipping itself with Russian jets.
Abu Dhabi also has several plastics and advanced-materials companies developing aircraft components. They are keen to secure more long-term contracts for aircraft like the Su-75, Hawthorne added.
The Gulf states may look beyond the US for a next-generation fighter in development and seek a co-production deal to acquire the finished product. Both Roblin and Hawthorne suggested they might turn to South Korea for its stealthy KF-21 Boramae.
Hawthorne noted that the Gulf Cooperation Council states are showing an increased interest in South Korean military technology. She described Seoul as the “ideal partner” for these states as they try to balance their strengthening strategic ties with Russia and their valuable strategic relations with the US.
The KF-21 program, however, might face some challenges. Roblin said that Seoul would sell to anyone, but the fact that its components are sourced from the West could complicate matters.
He also pointed out that the KF-21 isn’t truly “stealth” as its weapons are externally mounted, but it might transition to a true stealth design in the future.
China might eventually offer its FC-31/J-35 stealth fighter for export, but it must first prove the jet’s effectiveness to attract serious buyers.
Roblin suggested that the Gulf states might eventually invest in Turkey’s nascent TF Kaan. He said it was similar to the KF-21 and wasn’t likely to produce an aircraft “at the level of an F-35” but would come with fewer limitations and “human-rights reservations.”
According to Hawthorne, the Gulf states still have their hearts set on the F-35, which he described as “the absolute cream of the crop.”
However, as long as these countries maintain strategic neutrality between the US and Russia, and while Israeli normalization is incomplete across the region, the US will remain cautious about offering a fifth-generation fighter, Hawthorne concluded.
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