Moving Beyond Its Legacy Fleet of Mirages and F-16s: The UAE Adds Rafales to Its F-35 Buy


By Pierre Tran

Paris – The United Arab Emirates signed Dec. 3, 2021 contracts worth a total €17 billion ($19 billion) for 80 Dassault Aviation Rafale fighter jets, MBDA missiles, and 12 Airbus Helicopter Caracal H225M helicopters, the armed forces ministry said.

The UAE Tawazun arms acquisition authority signed Rafale orders worth €14 billion with Dassault, and with MBDA contracts worth €2 billion for Mica Next Generation air-to-air missiles and Black Shaheen cruise missiles, the private office of armed forces minister Florence Parly said in a telephone press conference.

There was also a deal for 12 Caracal military transport helicopters worth a further €1 billion.

President Emmanuel Macron was in Dubai for the contract signing, on a two-day visit to the Gulf. The UAE was the first stop, then Qatar later on Friday, and on to Saudi Arabia on Saturday.

“This is an historic contract: I am proud to see the excellence of French industry at the summit,” Parly said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a UAE official said the negotiations on the Rafale had been held in strict confidence, with the talks separate from UAE plans to acquire the F-35 joint strike fighter. The UAE’s interest in the Rafale hit headlines just last month after lengthy silence.

The UAE has been in talks with the U.S. for a prospective order for 50 F-35s, after the then president Donald Trump authorized the sale to Abu Dhabi. That green light for a big U.S. arms deal followed the UAE agreeing to open bilateral ties with Israel.

The Biden administration pursues negotiations with the UAE on the F-35, although the pace of talks has slowed, Reuters reported.

Washington sees Abu Dhabi’s ties with China as too close, particularly the use of Chinese 5G communications and data networks, permission for local port access for the Chinese navy, and Chinese offers of sensitive military technology.

The French arms deals with the UAE will not require authorization under the U.S. International Trade in Arms Regulations, the French defense ministry official said.

ITAR, which clears overseas sales of U.S. components, had previously held up delivery of the Scalp cruise missile to Egypt.

France eventually managed to clear that hitch and shipped the airborne weapons, part of Cairo’s initial order for 24 Rafales. Egypt went on to confirm an option for a further 12 Rafales.

The then French president François Hollande, on a visit to the White House, had to ask his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama to get clearance for delivery of the Falcon Eye spy satellite to the UAE, after ITAR withheld authorization for shipment of US components.

More Than a Decade in Waiting

France has been in talks on and off with the UAE on the Rafale for more than a decade, with presidents Nicholas Sarkozy and Hollande in pursuit, until Macron sealed the mega-deal, the largest single export order for the French fighter jet.

Talks on the Rafale deal started a year ago, the defense ministry said. The first delivery will be in 2027, with the last in 2031.

The Rafale will be in the F4 version, which is under development for the French services.

The UAE has requested for the same standard as that operated by France, the Gulf official said.

The fighter is now more capable than it was 10 years ago, the French ministry official said.

A key feature of the Rafale F4 will be connectivity, for sharing information among pilots, based on the Thales Contact software defined radio network.

This capability aims to cut dependence on voice communications and allow data, such as targeting information, to be shared with fellow pilots over the network.

The F4 is also to be equipped with a Multi-Function Array, combining radar, electronic warfare, and communications.

Thales worked on the MFA in a feasibility study for the Future Combat Air System-Development Program, a joint Anglo-French project launched under the 2010 Lancaster House defense treaty.

Another F4 feature includes satellite communications.

The UAE deal secures a decade of activity, with output of the Rafale rising to two or three per month from the present one per month or 11 per year. Dassault closes the production line in August for the annual company holiday. A Rafale takes three years to be built.

Dassault has looked into that increased production for some time, following export deals signed with Egypt, India, and Qatar.

More recently, deals for second hand Rafales flown by the French air force were agreed with Greece and Croatia. The former has added a further six Rafales to an initial batch of 12 units, with the latter is acquiring 12 used fighter jets in a deal worth almost €1 billion.

France has sold a total 236 Rafales in foreign markets, after failing to sign export orders for many years, beaten by orders for the F-15 and F-35.

France ordered a 12-strong batch of Rafales to replace those being sold to Greece.

The UAE has long been a client nation for French weapons, being the only other operator of the Leclerc tank.

The UAE bought the Mirage 2000-9 in the 1990s, which flew alongside the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60.

France last year won arms export orders worth €4.9 billion, down from €8.3 billion in the previous year.

The forecast for this year was to rise above €10 billion, the defense ministry spokesman, Hervé Grandjean, said June 2.

Black Shaheen is the export version of the French Scalp cruise missile, co-developed with the UK, where it is known as Storm Shadow.

The major contractors on Rafale are Dassault, electronics company Thales and engine builder Safran.

Featured Photo: The French Air Force participating in the Trilateral Exercise in 2015 held in Norfolk VA and the Rafale was photographed by Second Line of Defense during the exercise.