The UAE, Serbia and European Defense: An Update on the Rafale


By Pierre Tran

Paris – The United Arab Emirates has paid a down payment for its order for 80 Rafale fighter jets, aircraft builder Dassault Aviation said in an April 19 statement.

“Today, we received the first down payment of the contract for the acquisition of 80 Rafale by the United Arab Emirates,” the company said, pointing up the “the strength of the strategic partnership” between France and the UAE.

The UAE signed Dec. 3 the contract, worth €14 billion ($15 billion), for the Rafale and the related deal worth €2 billion for missiles from MBDA, a European maker of guided weapons.

The down payment, usually 15 percent of the total amount, means the contract goes into effect and allows Dassault to add the UAE deal to its order book.

Dassault reported a 2021 order book of €20.8 billion, up from €16 billion in the previous year. The family controlled company said the 2021 order book excluded the UAE deal, which was expected to be entered in 2022.

French president Emmanuel Macron and Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attended the contract signing, pointing up the political weight of the largest export order for the Rafale fighter.

“Dassault Aviation is fully committed to supporting the United Arab Emirates in its sovereign power, its strategic challenges and its ambitious vision of the future,” said Eric Trappier, executive chairman of Dassault.

It remains to be seen what happens to the UAE’s fleet of Mirage 2000-9, with media reports there is a search on for a buyer for the fighters acquired in the 1990s. Egypt, Greece, and Morocco are seen as potential clients for the UAE’s 56-strong fleet of upgraded Mirage 2000-9s, Forbes magazine reported.

“It is up to the partner nation to decide the future of its aircraft fleet,” a French source said.

The Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office declined comment.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is expected to be the next client nation to pay a down payment to Dassault, for an order worth $8.1 billion for 42 Rafales, with the French armed forces ministry expecting payment to be made this year.

Serbia Seeks To Order Rafale – Maybe

Meanwhile, Serbia is in talks for an order for 12 Rafale fighters, pointing up a political intent to sever close military ties with Russia, Reuters reported April 11. Belgrade had to be careful how to fund that purchase and was determined to avoid “jeopardising” its public finances, president Aleksandar Vucic said.

Serbia is also in discussion with the U.K. for ordering the Eurofighter Typhoon and an unspecified missile, which could be fitted to the Typhoon and Rafale, specialist publication Janes reported April 19.

That missile is “probably” the Meteor, Meta-Defense website reported April 20, with France reluctant to supply the long-range weapon to Serbia, prompting Belgrade to pursue talks with the U.K. for the fighter deal.

But if London were to offer the MBDA Meteor to win the Serbian fighter order, Paris could withhold export authorization as there is French technology in the missile, notably the radar seeker, Meta-Defense reported.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden hold such authorization, as companies from those nations supply equipment on the Meteor. The MBDA Scalp/Storm Shadow also fits on the Typhoon and Rafale, and British and French authorization also apply to foreign sales of the cruise missile.

A French reluctance to supply the Meteor might stem from concerns on the fragile balance of power in the Balkans, an arms executive said, with the missile capable of very long range.

Paris could be seeking “to avoid fuelling the risk of conflict” in the Balkans, a second executive said.

The negotiations for the French fighter runs alongside Serbia’s search for 12 secondhand West European ground-attack aircraft, French publication Le Journal de l’Aviation reported April 12.

The Serbian air force seeks West European fighters to replace a 13-strong fleet of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters of the Soviet era.

The service also wants to replace an aging fleet of some 15 J22 Orao ground-attack aircraft built by Soko, an aircraft manufacturer of the former Yugoslavia.

Serbia, which is applying to join the European Union, has voted three times in the United Nations against Russia, following president Vladimir Putin’s order for the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

More than five million Ukrainians have fled their own nation, with the Russian forces launching April 19 a concerted attack on the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine.

Putin has called off the storming of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine, the BBC reported April 21, ordering Russian troops to seal it up so not even a “fly” can escape. There is no need to seize the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance, as Russian forces control the strategic port city.

Serbia has placed military orders with West European companies, in an attempt to boost ties with the West and take distance from Moscow.

That Serbian procurement includes a 2019 contract for MBDA Mistral 3 short-range, surface-to-air missiles, and two Airbus C295 military transport aircraft ordered in February this year. First delivery of the C295 twin turboprop is due late next year, Airbus said Feb. 23.

Belgrade has also ordered a fleet of H145M combat and transport helicopters from Airbus Helicopters.

Serbia also relies heavily on Russia for energy supplies, and there remains a dependence on Moscow for military kit, weekly Air & Cosmos reported. Belgrade ordered four Russian Mi-35 and three Mi-17 combat helicopters last year.

There are also close Serbian military ties with China, with Belgrade ordering from Beijing the FK-3, a new generation medium-range, radar-guided surface-to-air missile, Reuters reported Aug. 3 2020. China also delivered to Serbia that year six CH-92A combat drones armed with laser-guided missiles, which were “the first such deployment of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles in Europe,” the news agency reported.

Serbia has also accepted Chinese loans worth billions of dollars to invest in its infrastructure, seen as part of  Beijing’s pursuit of political and economic influence around the world.

The featured graphic: A portrait painting of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi.