As the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is expected to progress on its desire to buy F-35 jets, it could be looking to sell some of its F-16 jets, probably to Greece to which it dispatched four "Desert Falcons” for participation in exercises with the Greek Air Force (GAF).
The move could have political benefits for Abu Dhabi as it seeks to weigh in on the side of Greece in Turkey’s dispute with Athens over Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon prospecting.
While Abu Dhabi has given no indication so far that its F-16s are for sale, it may not need 80 of them if it gets to buy an estimated 12 F-35s from the US following its peace deal with Israel.
UAE’s F-16s are among the most advanced in the world. First received in 2004, its fleet of 80 F-16 jets feature a Northrop Grumman APG-80 AESA radar, conformal fuel tanks as standard, an integrated Northrop Grumman electronic warfare system and a MIL-STD 1773 databus. Called the Block 60, they are just a step behind the F-16 Block 70/72 Viper- the latest iteration of the venerable American fighter.
For Greece, the UAE F-16s would introduce them to the most modern F-16s short of the F-16 Viper and immediately help to a large extent, match its Air Force against that of Turkey’s.
Greece boasts a fleet of some 150 F-16 fighters. In December 2019, Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told the parliament that 84 of the GAF’s 150 F-16s would be upgraded to the advanced Viper class by 2027 costing $1.5 billion. The upgrades are only expected to arrive starting 2027 and until then it will be vulnerable to Turkey’s advanced fighter planes.
Though Greece has announced a decision to buy Dassault Rafale jets, these too would not arrive until 2026 that is, if it signs the contract with Dassault latest by 2021.
If Greece buys UAE’s F-16s, it would also help the US checkmate France which first sent aircraft for exercises and later entered into negotiations with Athens to sell Rafale jets.
The participation of the Emirati F-16s in GAF exercises was followed up with a visit by Lt. General Hamad Mohammed Thani Al Rumaithi, Chief of Staff of the UAE Armed Forces to Greece who inspected the site of joint military exercises in the Greek island of Crete on Monday.
Later, Al Rumaithi met separately with Nikos Panagiotopoulos, Minister for National Defence of Greece, and his Greek counterpart, General Konstantinos Floros. “The two meetings discussed ways to strengthen cooperation and joint action between the UAE and Greece, particularly in defence and military areas and accelerate military coordination and cross visits,” according to a UAE government release.
The sudden interest to intensify military cooperation between Greece and UAE hides more than it reveals. The UAE is trying to become a regional economic and military power as is evident from its participation in the Libyan conflict on the side of the Haftar militia where it is locked in battle with Turkey (which supports the GNA- the UN recognized Libyan government).