The U.A.E. placed an order for 80 Rafale fighters of the latest F4 standard from France, casting doubts on whether it will still buy the U.S.-made F-35s.
The Rafale F4 standard is a close match to the F-35 in several areas such as sensors, networking, weapons and predictive maintenance.
Although not confirmed by Dassault Aviation (Rafale manufacturer) or the French defense ministry until now, the surprise contract is likely to be around $18 billion, making it France’s largest-ever weapons contract for export.
Abu Dhabi’s signing of the Abraham Accords to improve relations with Israel had experts believe it was doing so to also get its hands on the F-35 jets. It had proposed to buy $23 billion worth 50 F-35s, MQ-9B attack drones, missiles and bombs. While former U.S. President Donald Trump okayed the sale, the current Biden administration is yet to clear it. Shortly after becoming the President, Biden suspended the export of weapons to U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia for their involvement in the Yemen War, a conflict described by the United Nations as one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Abu Dhabi has also been accused of “fueling” the Libyan Civil War by supplying armed drones, and repeatedly violating end-use rules.
In mid-April this year, two U.S. Democrats brought a bill that could block the deal to the UAE. The bill called “Secure F-35 Exports Act of 2020," introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would require that any F-35 sale to a Middle Eastern country other than Israel not compromise Israel's military advantage over such countries, and come with assurances that the aircraft would not be used in operations harmful to Israel's security.
"While we will not comment on ongoing litigation, we can confirm that that the Administration intends to move forward with these proposed defense sales to the U.A.E., even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials to ensure we have developed mutual understandings with respect to Emirati obligations before, during, and after delivery," a State Department spokesperson told The Huffington Post the same month, in contrast to the Democrats' opinions.
Mira Resnick, who oversees U.S. arms sales in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs told The National at the Dubai Airshow in November that she had discussed the sale in meetings with Emirati officials during her visit, saying there had been a "sustained dialogue" with U.A.E. officials. “The Biden-Harris administration intends to move forward with those proposed defense sales to the U.A.E. even as we continue consulting with Emirati officials to ensure that we have unmistakably clear, mutual understandings with respect to Emirati obligations and actions before, during and after delivery,” Resnick stated.
F-35 Skips Dubai Airshow 2021 (November 14-18)
Interestingly, the F-35 featured in neither the static display nor the demonstration flights at the event, although Lockheed Martin did exhibit a mock-up of the F-35A.
Dassault Aviation’s static display at the show featured a Rafale C combat aircraft. The Rafale took part in the flying display every day. It was presented by the French Air and Space Force, which operates a detachment of Rafales at Al Dhafra Air Base in the U.A.E.
Rafale F4 Vs the F-35
The Emirates Air Force will become the first Rafale F4 user outside of France when it receives the jets.
Previous versions of the Rafale twin-engine multirole fighter aircraft could be armed with MICA IR and EM for air superiority missions, SCALP EG cruise missiles for ground attacks, AM39 Exocet sea-skimming missile for anti-ship missions, and MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range missiles for missions that require greater range. Rafale has a 30 mm GIAT 30 revolver cannon mounted on itself. This cannon enables shooting of laser-guided and ground-attack missiles.
The F4 standard marks a new step coming in the wake of the standards F1 (specific to the first aircraft of the French Navy), F2 (air-to-ground and air-to-air capabilities), F3 and F3R (extended versatility).
The F4 standard will include upgraded radar sensors and front-sector optronics, as well as improved capabilities in the helmet-mounted display. It will have new weapons including MBDA’s MICA NG air-to-air missile, the 1,000-kg AASM air-to-ground modular weapon, SCALP missiles. It will also be equipped with the Talios multifunction optronic pod made by Thales.
The Rafale F4 will feature connectivity solutions to improve the aircraft’s effectiveness in network-centric warfare. “We’ll be able to receive more data, strengthen our data rate, talk, receive, notably thanks to satellite communication and software-defined radio: the Rafale F4 will move even further into the era of data,” French defense minister Florence Parly had said earlier.
F4 will include a new Prognosis and Diagnostic Aid System introducing predictive maintenance capabilities. Other maintenance optimization features are scheduled, particularly with solutions based on Big Data and artificial intelligence. Lastly, the Rafale will be equipped with a new engine control unit.
“The F4 standard guarantees that Rafale will remain at world-class level so that our combat air forces can carry out all their missions with optimum efficiency, whether in coalition operations or completely independently, as required by the French nuclear deterrent,” Eric Trappier said while launching the jet in January 2019. “This new standard also guarantees that Rafale will remain a credible reference on the export market.”
Validation of the F4 standard is planned for 2024, with some functions becoming available as of 2022.
Meanwhile the F-35 can also carry a range of weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) air-to-surface missiles, SPEAR 3 anti-tank missiles, GBU-39 precision-guided glide bombs, and AGM-18 Joint air-to-surface cruise missiles and more, besides nuclear weapons.
The one thing that the F-35 has but is lacking in the Rafale is its stealth capability. However, experts believe that the Rafale will emerge a winner in a close combat with its American rival as it is more agile and has better maneuverability. But if the conflict happens before Rafale detects the F-35, then the latter will get an upper hand and get a chance to hit the French jet.