Russia is reportedly on the verge of selling more than a dozen advanced Su-35S Flanker-E fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. If the deal is truly in the works, it could signal a shift by the country away from its long time partner the United States, or it could be an attempt by authorities in Dubai to gain political leverage over their counterparts in Washington.
On Oct. 3, 2017, Russian state-owned media outlet TASS reported that a source had told it that the UAE was in line to purchase more than “a squadron” worth of Flanker-Es, typically between 12 and 18 aircraft. Russian sources, almost exclusively, both on and off the record, have discussed the possibility of this sale on and off since 2015.
“They want a lot, over a squadron,” the individual, who reportedly deals in military and technical cooperation for the Russian government, said, according to TASS. “The exact number will be specified in the course of negotiations that may be held in November during an air show in Dubai.”
This person was almost certainly referring to the annual Dubai Airshow and associated trade exposition. Organizers have scheduled the 2017 iteration of the event to run from Nov. 12 to 16.
At its most basic, the purchase would make sense for the UAE. The country’s Air Force has nearly 50 French-made Mirage 2000-9 fighter jet that it purchased in the 1990s, as well as more than 50 F-16E/F Desert Falcons, which it first acquired in 2005. Replacing some of the oldest of these aircraft, namely the Mirages, with a late fourth generation design such as the Su-35S could increase the service’s capability. It would also give their F-16s a highly capable foe to train against.
The fighter boasts impressive maneuverability thanks to advanced thrust vectoring technology, though The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway has explained in detail why this actually might be of dubious use in an actual air-to-air engagement. More importantly, the Flanker-E has a passive electronically-scanned array type radar that is significantly more capable than the pulse Doppler unit in the Mirages.
This would extend the ranges at which UAE pilots would be able to detect their opponents and the overall area that each aircraft could scan for threats quickly, an important consideration in the tight confines of the Persian Gulf. Iran, a major regional opponent, sits just 150 miles from the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi and even closer to the country’s northern tip, situated near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The country's F-16E/Fs already feature a full up active electronically-scanned array radar, the first of its kind for the F-16, that is likely even more capable than the Su-35S's unit.
While buying Su-35S jets might make functional sense, it could easily be a political minefield that would spark the ire of the United States. The U.S. government has worked closely with the UAE, especially on counter-terrorism issues since 9/11, and sees the country as a stable and reliable partner in the region.
Though often overshadowed by the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the connection between Washington and Abu Dhabi is in many ways stronger, with U.S. officials colloquially referring to the Emirates as “Little Sparta,” a reference to the ancient Greek city state most commonly known for its military prowess. The U.S. and UAE militaries have cooperated actively on many occasions, most recently in Iraq and Syria against ISIS and in Yemen against Al Qaeda’s franchise on the Arabian Peninsula.
However, during President Barack Obama’s Administration concerns about the country’s human rights record, especially the sometimes startling abusive treatment of foreign workers, appeared to slow or even halt the sale of advanced weapons. This in turn, prompted the Emirs to begin looking elsewhere.
So, at the Dubai Airshow in November 2015, Sergey Chemezov, head of Rostec, a Russian state-operated corporation that promotes the development and export of high tech civilian and defense products made in the country, dropped something of a bombshell in a press conference, saying that the UAE was in talks to buy Flanker-Es. Viktor Kladov, in charge of Rostec's International Cooperation Department, told the same thing to state-run news outlet RIA Novosti.
The “Su-35 presentation here [at the airshow] is very good,” Chemezov said. “We are currently engaged in negotiations with the [United Arab] Emirates about the delivery of these aircraft.”
Chemezov nor Kladov declined to offered any additional details, such as how many aircraft the UAE was considering buying or when Russia might finalize the deal. Around the same time, unable to purchase American-made armed drones such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, the Emirates bought a number of similar Chinese CH-4s and had begun flying them over Libya and Yemen.
There was no significant indication that the discussions over the Su-35 had moved forward at all until the annual International Defense Exhibition and Conference in Dubai, known commonly as IDEX, in February 2017. Russian Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov told TASS that Russia and the UAE had actually signed a deal to cooperate on military technological development, including work on an unspecified fifth-generation fighter design.
Chemezov again appeared in the press to say that the program could take seven to eight years and would involve a design derived from the MiG-29 rather than one based on the vexing PAK FA stealth fighter. Though the UAE’s own state media reported the military cooperation agreements, they made no specific mention of aircraft development.
Talk of Flanker-Es for the UAE resurfaced in June 2017 at the annual Paris Airshow at Le Bourget. Dmitry Shugaev, the head of Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, a position that sounds very similar to the description of TASS’ most recent source, went on record to say that the Emirates had expressed interest in buying “several dozen” of the fighter jets.
This all brings us back to the October 2017 report that the deal is now imminent. It is definitely possible that this is the case. The UAE could easily have looked at how long it’s taken for Kuwait and Qatar to move their own purchases of American-made fighter jets along and decided to seek an alternative option.
On top of that, much to their frustration, the Emirates have thus far been unable to get into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, effectively closing off that avenue to acquiring a fifth-generation fighter in the near term. This would explain not only the interest in an interim solution, such as the Su-35S, but in working with another party such as Russia on an all new stealth fighter concept.
“The U.S. waits for other nations to come to them and propose a deal,” Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow with the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., told Fox News in February 2017. “Russia takes a much more proactive approach with its defense industry in regards to building its political influence.”
During Obama's second term, Russia seized on the American government's hesitation to continue working with a number of regimes and actors, which it has continued to do since then. The Kremlin has bolstered its ties with the military junta-turned-government of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, made connections with rogue General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and stepped up its commitments to Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, all in obvious attempts to make strategic inroads in both the Middle East and North Africa. The engagement with the UAE is clearly in line with this foreign policy push.
But it might be that the UAE is looking to play off the Russians and the Americans, as well. Just as the Emirates can see the pitfalls of the U.S. government’s way of doing business, so too can they see the experience the Indian government has had working with the Russians on advanced fighter jets, including the PAK-FA stealth fighter program. India’s military has been continually disappointed with the progress of that project, which has seen repeated delays, technical troubles, and accidents.
“The UAE also has ambitions to develop its national defense aerospace industrial base, but partnership in a Russian project is arguably not necessarily the best way to achieve this,” Douglas Barrie, a senior aerospace fellow at International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in the United Kingdom, told Aviation Week in February 2027. “An alternative view might be that the move is about trying to gain leverage on the U.S. as to when and how much access the UAE might eventually get on the F-35.”
The UAE might be especially inclined to float this possible purchase of Su-35s in the press knowing that U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have had far fewer reservations than their predecessors when it comes to defense sales. The U.S. government recently approved the sale of A-29 light attack planes
to Nigeria, a deal that the Obama administration had blocked on human rights grounds.
In addition, since the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, the Trump Administration has vocally stressed its ties to Arab states in the Gulf as a counter to Iran’s growing regional influence. Trump had even been quick to side with the Saudis and Emiratis in a serious political spat with Qatar, despite the latter country hosting a major American military base.
It’s still unlikely that the United States would allow the UAE to join the F-35 program any time soon, as it is an important part of giving Israel a decided edge over all other countries in the Middle East. If UAE worked its way in, the U.S. government would almost undoubtedly have to allow the Saudis to join, too, opening the door to requests from an entire new tier of American partners.
Still, the potential of an Su-35S sale to the UAE could prompt the Trump Administration, which routinely boasts about its connections to private industry, to look for a way to offer a deal on advanced derivatives of Boeing’s F-15 Eagle or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Viper, possibly including limited low-observable features for the Eagle and Super Hornet, as an alternative. The U.S. government has already approved sales of Advanced Eagle derivatives to both
and Qatar, in spite of the ongoing political dispute.
UAE could also be attracted to the simple idea of window shopping for fighter jets with cold hard petro dollars. Why not have the Su-35 and see how the Russians do it? There seems to be little downside for doing so and quite a bit of upside. If anything else, the jets would be a high-demand oddity for their own fighters and foreign allies to train against. If they end up liking what they see, they can buy more. And Russia would likely make them an attractive deal, with the aircraft costing substantially less than its western counterparts.
If TASS source is to be believed, any new developments might become public sooner rather than later, as both the U.S. and Russian governments decide how much pressure they want to put on the UAE ahead of the Dubai Airshow.
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