F-35A, Su-75, FC-31..: which fighter will replace the F-16 of the United Arab Emirates?

In September 2020, against the backdrop of a historic agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, US President Donald Trump announced the acquisition by Abu Dhabi of Reaper drones, but also of EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft and above all of 50 next-generation F-35A fighters, a first in the Middle East. Despite the colossal amount of $23 billion represented by this order, Congress was more than circumspect about it. And despite the efforts of President Trump who, until the last day of his mandate, tried to force the hand of US parliamentarians to endorse the order, it was immediately suspended by Joe Biden as soon as he arrived at the White House. For the new US administration, the Emirati choices, particularly in terms of deployment of the 5G network attributed to the Chinese Huawei, posed real problems, while the F-35 like the Reaper and the Growler, were until then reserved for the closest allies. from Washington, members of NATO or of a strict bilateral alliance (Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Korea).

Faced with procrastination from the White House and the US Congress, the Emilian authorities lost patience and announced, in December 2021, the order of 80 fighters Rafale French company from Dassault Aviation for €16 billion. However, the Rafale F4 which will be delivered to the UAE, will be intended to replace the 59 Mirage 2000s ordered between 1983 and 1997, and delivered until the end of the 2000s. The F-35A was to replace some 78 F-16 C/D Block 61 ordered in 1998 and delivered from 2004. However, a few days after the order was made official in France, Abu Dhabi announced the suspension of negotiations with Washington around the super contract including the F-35s, probably overwhelmed by American hesitation. Since then, two other players have been engulfed in this opportunity, the Russian Rostec with its new Su-75 Checkmate single-engine fighter, and the Chinese Shenyang with the FC-31 Gyrfalcon, which serves as the basis for the development of the future "J-35" ( unofficial designation) which will equip the new aircraft carriers of the People's Liberation Army.

F 16e block60 UAE e1677162171387 Analyzes Defense | Fighter jets | Military aircraft construction
The Emilian Air Force today aligns 78 F-16 Block 61, which is one of the most advanced in service, yielding only to the F-16 Block 70/72 in terms of modernity. Let's be frank, he may be efficient, but he is above all super ugly...

It must be said that with the order of Rafale, but also the acceleration of the global geopolitical recomposition, Abu Dhabi is today in a position of strength in its negotiations. Not only does the Emirate have the time to negotiate in its best interests for several more years without having to commit its defensive capabilities, but it now plays a critical political and economic role in the Middle East and beyond, conferring on this future contract has a geopolitical dimension going well beyond the sole framework of air power. And as we will see, each device, with the political, industrial and technological constraints and opportunities linked to it, can boast decisive strong points and significant weak points.

Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II

According to the statements of the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the American Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Stanley Brown, on the sidelines of the IDEX 2023 exhibition, the discussions between the American and Emirati authorities have never ceased since the suspension of negotiations around the F-35 and the Reaper (the Growler having disappeared from the spectrum). However, he also believes, as the term “discussion” and not “negotiation” indicates, that such a hypothesis would take several years to materialize. In other words, if the F-35A remains in the race in the UAE, it is no longer the only competitor, nor even necessarily at the head of the competition. However, the Lockheed-Martin aircraft has many advantages to show against its Russian and Chinese competitors, first and foremost its installed and future fleet, which will probably exceed 3500 aircraft by the middle of the next decade. . In addition, the fighter will represent the backbone of the US Air Force and Marine Corps, as well as a majority of Western air forces, which is an excellent guarantee of durability and scalability. Finally, the device can rely on some very advanced features, such as in terms of stealth and data fusion, as well as a wide range of ammunition of different types, making it a very versatile device, perfectly tailored, for example ; to eliminate the Iranian surface-to-air threat as needed.

F 35A USAF cover flight USAF Defense Analyzes | Fighter jets | Military aircraft construction
The F-35A has many advantages to claim. But the operational and political constraints that come with it may deter Abu Dhabi.

However, the Lightning 2 also comes with its share of constraints, the first having already been experienced by Abu Dhabi, namely the permanent omnipresence of the United States in all processes related to the use of the device, including the simplest, like getting some fresh air. In other words, buying the F-35 also means giving considerable power to Washington in controlling the country's military air operations, except to obtain a very improbable waiver granted to date only to Jerusalem. This is not a problem for most NATO countries and the first rank allies in the US Pacific zone, but it may be a decisive criterion for Abu Dhabi, which aims to play a greater and more autonomous role in the years to come on the international scene. On the other hand, the device is both expensive, if not to acquire, in any case to implement and maintain, and complex, with still low availability rates compared to the devices it replaces. . Finally, the industrial and technological compensation around a potential acquisition of American F-35As will be limited, or at least probably much lower than those proposed by Moscow and Beijing, while the Emirates actively wish to develop their own industrial and technological defense base. .

Rostec Su-75 Checkmate

There are 75% of this article left to read, Subscribe to access it!

Metadefense Logo 93x93 2 Defense Analysis | Fighter aircraft | Military aircraft construction

The Classic subscriptions provide access to
articles in their full version, and without advertising,
from 1,99 €.

For further


Last articles