The UAE Just Became The Biggest Export Customer For Dassault’s Rafale Fighter

French aerospace company Dassault Aviation has won a mammoth order from the United Arab Emirates for 80 Rafale multirole fighter jets. The deal was a long time in the making, with Emirati’s interest in the Rafale dating back to at least 2009. France will now toast its success, while a potential order for up to 50 F-35 stealth fighters, transfer of which was proposed under the previous Trump administration, remains in limbo.

A contract for the sale of the 80 Rafales was agreed today between Eric Trappier, Chairman and CEO of Dassault, and Tareq Abdul Raheem Al Hosani, CEO of Tawazun Economic Council, which is responsible for security and defense acquisitions on behalf of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Dassault describes the deal as “the largest ever obtained by the French combat aeronautics industry.” The total value of the Rafale contract is $16 billion, on top of which will be added weapons for the jets. These deals fall within a larger French arms package for the UAE worth $19 billion that also includes 12 Airbus H225M Caracal military transport helicopters.

An artist’s conception of a UAE Rafale equipped for the air-to-air mission, with Meteor and Mica missiles., DASSAULT AVIATION

Underlining the significance of the Rafale sale, the French President Emmanuel Macron and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyane, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, one of the Emirates within the UAE and the country’s effective ruler, as well as vice-commander of its armed forces, were both present at the contract signing.

The following press statement has been provided by Dassault: “This contract is the result of total mobilization by Dassault Aviation alongside the Emirates Air Force and comes on the back of a more than 45-year-long relationship of trust between the United Arab Emirates and our company, built on the Mirage family of fighter aircraft, notably the Mirage 2000-9, the modernization of which began two years ago.”

“After the Mirage 5 and Mirage 2000, this Rafale contract consolidates the strategic relationship that binds our two countries and the satisfaction of the Emirates Air Force, a long-standing and demanding partner of our company,” Dassault boss Trappier added.

Emirati airmen in front of a Mirage 2000-9 at the Dubai Airshow in November 2015., DASSAULT AVIATION

As well as the considerable number of jets involved in the latest deal, the United Arab Emirates Air Force and Air Defense (UAEAF&AD) will also become the first export recipient of the F4-standard Rafale.

The latest F4 version of the Rafale is part of an ongoing process to continuously improve the fighter and is optimized for networked combat, with new satellite and intra-flight data links, as well as a communication server and software-defined radio. Aside from this, the F4 features upgrades to the radar, electro-optical system, and helmet-mounted display. New weapons are also being integrated, including the forthcoming Mica NG air-to-air missile and the 2,200-pound version of the AASM modular air-to-ground weapon.

A video from the French Directorate General of Armaments showing the test campaign for the Rafale F4:

The F4 standard is expected to be fully operational by 2024, although some of its functions are planned to become available as early as next year.

The contract UAE comes as a boost to the French aerospace industry and the Rafale program in particular, which has now secured six export customers. The previous countries to select the French fighter are Egypt, Qatar, India, Greece, and Croatia. Other potential customers have been linked with the Rafale in the recent past, including Indonesia, although the type was rejected this year by Switzerland in favor of the F-35.

Today’s announcement is not the best news for Lockheed Martin, which had hoped to secure an order from the UAE for its F-35, with a potential sale still in limbo. In October last year, the Trump administration informed Congress that it planned to sell the UAE up to 50 of the stealth fighters, in a move backed by the U.S. State Department.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A (right), together with examples of the current UAEAF&AD fighter fleet: the Mirage 200-9 (left) and F-16 (center), after an aerial refueling mission over Southwest Asia in May 2019., U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski

However, there has always been a question mark if the F-35 sale would make it past U.S. legislators, chiefly amid concerns that it might adversely affect Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East. Israel is currently the only F-35 operator in the region. Before President Joe Biden took office some of his representatives had voiced hesitation over how they might handle a possible Joint Strike Fighter deal with the UAE, also due to criticism of the UAE’s role in the civil war in Yemen and also in Libya.

“This technology would significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel’s military edge,” Global Defence Technology quoted the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee as saying last October in response to the planned F-35 sale. “The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a game-changing stealth platform boasting advanced strike capability and unique sensor technology. The export of this aircraft requires very careful consideration and Congress must analyze all of the ramifications. Rushing these sales is not in anyone’s interest.”

Another potential factor in the issues surrounding the F-35 transfer could be the UAE’s relationship with China. This came to a head earlier this year when Washington apparently applied pressure on the Emiratis to ensure that Beijing halted construction work on a secretive Chinese military facility in the UAE.

Despite these hiccups, U.S. officials remained upbeat at the Dubai Air Show last month that the F-35 sale could still be achieved. 

“The F-35 is already in this region, whether it’s Israelis flying the F-35, whether it’s American F-35,” Mira Resnick, a deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Biden administration, told the Associated Press. “We would like the UAE to be able to operate the F-35 in a way that [they] can be our security partners and to deter threats, including from Iran.”

For the time being, however, it seems that a lack of progress on pushing the F-35 deal through may have backfired in France’s favor.

As it stands, by acquiring 80 Rafales, the UAEAF&AD is essentially securing a long-term replacement for its 56 surviving French-supplied Mirage 2000-9 fighters. 

A UAEAF&AD Mirage 2000-9., Dassault Aviation

The service’s fighter arm is also equipped with F-16E/F Block 60 Desert Falcons. Although it bought 80 of these, attrition has since reduced that total to 77. The Mirage 2000-9 and the F-16E/F are arguably the most capable variants of these two different multi-role fighters.

With major upgrade programs now in the works for both the F-16 and Mirage fleets, it’s likely that the UAEAF&AD will operate three different fighters once the Rafales arrive in service, at least until around 2030. A timeline for their production and delivery has yet to be announced.

The launch of the modernization program for the Mirage 2000-9 was announced in November 2019 and it’s valued at $350 million. It will include the replacement of the radar, mission computer, electronic warfare suites, cockpit displays, and helmet-mounted sighting system. Although unconfirmed, the package is thought to include the Thales RDY-3 radar and the same Talios advanced targeting pod as used on the Rafale.

Much less is known about efforts to upgrade the F-16E/F fleet. The package, worth $1.65 billion, is addressing “obsolescence issues” in the jet and is known to include a new and faster data processor, together with additional spares and support services.

An F-16E Desert Falcon over Arizona, where the 162nd Fighter Wing at Tucson International Airport previously maintained and operated a squadron of Block 60s for training UAEAF&AD personnel., James Haseltine/HIGH-G Productions

In the past, the UAE had been looking at the potential purchase of around 60 new fighters, valued at an estimated $6 billion, with candidates including the Rafale as well as the Eurofighter Typhoon. Meanwhile, Russia offered the Sukhoi Su-35 and has more recently sought to get the UAE onboard as an industrial partner for the new Sukhoi Checkmate fighter.

The Sukhoi Checkmate during its foreign debut at the Dubai Airshow last month., UAC

The Emiratis were apparently in no hurry to select a new fighter type, however, watching as other air forces in the region — among them Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar — all placed multi-billion-dollar orders for new fighters.

Another platform that was on the UAE’s shopping list was the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9B Sky Guardian drone. Up to 18 MQ-9Bs had been included together with the planned 50 F-35s and related munitions in a wider arms deal that was valued at up to $23.37 billion. Reportedly, the drones for the UAE were to be equipped with maritime surveillance radar, suggesting they may have actually been the Sea Guardian variant.

An MQ-9B test aircraft during trials flown in Greeve earlier this year., GA-ASI

The current status of Emirati plans to buy these armed drones is now unclear, with no contracts signed so far. Again, this would have been the first sale of U.S.-made armed drones to a customer in the Middle East, and opposition to the sale from lawmakers was considered likely.

Going with the Rafale also allows the country to keep at least part of its fleet outside the reach of U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) which many countries find cumbersome and a potential major issue for such a huge investment as a new fighter fleet if the geopolitical winds shift. With the F-16E/F and even a future purchase of the F-35, UAE would still retain a large portion of its tactical fighter fleet that would exist outside this regulatory framework. 

For the time being, at least, France is the winner in the Middle East arms market and it looks like U.S. industry will have to wait a little longer to secure sales of cutting-edge weapons to the UAE. The UAEAF&AD, meanwhile, can look forward to finally getting its hands on new fighter equipment and, in the process, becoming the second biggest Rafale operator, after France.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.