A New Middle East Arms Race

Every decade or so; the Middle East sees a new arms race. Not the well publicized weapons of mass destruction, not the nuclear programs of Iraq and Iran; not the chemical weapons of Syria. The arms race is replacement of combat aircraft. These are not the focus of arms control and disarmament but are as important if not more important than weapons of mass destruction. The probability of the use of nuclear weapons is minimal the probability of conventional war using ever increasing sophisticated and deadly aviation systems is very high. When one country takes the step forward to replace the whole region follows suit.

During the nostalgic Cold War the process was simple; countries aligned to one of the two blocs in the bi-polar system would procure from their ally. In doing so they would receive confirmation that their local adversary would not acquire the same while also enjoying the providers’ package deal of political support in the event of a conflict. Today there is a wider range of suppliers with no assurance that the local adversary will not receive the same aircraft.

The world is now in the throws of manufacturing 5th or at least 4th+ generation aircraft. The security greedy Middle East wants them. All 5th generation aircraft are defined as having a synergy, networked data fusion, high maneuverability, and complete situational awareness manufactured with composite materials. Take that to Haim Levanon Street, Ramat Aviv and they will tell you it means that they are platforms and multi-role. It is the aviation and weapons systems that the aircraft carry that determines the difference because all else will be similar in competing aircraft.

Looking around the Middle East sees Israel seeking to replace its aging fleet of US manufactured F-15 and F-16 aircraft with the yet unproven 5th generation F-35 after the US refused to export the F-22, the only 5th generation aircraft in service since 2005. The year 2017 may be a good target date for the F-35A developed as a partnership of the US,Britain,Italy,Norway,Australia,Canada,Turkey, the Netherlands,Japan and Denmark. That means Turkey will also get the same aircraft but Israel will install its own weapon systems and aviation, initially the same as on current aircraft in service, but far superior after 2020.

This will be around the same time that China will be ready to export its J-20 / J-31, India its AMCA, South Korea and Indonesia their KAI-KF-X, Sweden its FS2020, Russia its Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, and Japan it’s Mitsubishi F-3. There are no immediate buyers for these in the Middle East as they are looking at 4th+ generation aircraft. Buying these in quantity and then upgrading their avionics and weapon systems at a later stage will make them a good fight against those purchasing a small number of highly expensive 5th generation aircraft.

The UAE is seeking to purchase the 4th+ generation French Rafale Aircraft and if does then Kuwait and Quatar will probably follow suit. Saudi Arabia and Oman are leaning towards the Libyan combat proven 4th+ generation Eurofighter Typhoon. If they do then the UAE may think twice about the Rafale even if it is not seeking to deploy in combat against Saudi Arabia and Oman.

The wild card against these and any other European aircraft sales is the US guarantee of security. All big arms sales are diplomatic gestures in a wider context as they are government-to-government agreements. Saudi is a key ally of the US and will be a key player in any Iranian nuclear debacle. There are also off-set agreements where the purchasing country aims for a deal to make or maintain part of the aircraft.

At the apex of preventing F-35 sales to any of these countries will be Israel’s objections. Should Israel succeed in preventing the F-35 being sold to other Middle East countries then it is most likely that Russia and China will step in with their wares. However the pro-Israel lobby in Washington will have a hard time competing with the US defense industrial lobby as export sales means American jobs and global influence. It will also be hard pushed to deny a US sale to Saudi if Saudi backs the US against Iran who is threatening Israel.

Whatever the eventual deal, the real loser is peace and civil-society investment; as a result of unattended arms control and disarmament to conventional weapon systems; the real winner is Israel who will maintain supremacy of the skies.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.