By Wade Boese
On May 25, representing one of the largest and most expensive sales of U.S. fighter aircraft this decade, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced on May 12 that it will purchase 80 F-16C/D fighters, including weapons and support systems, worth an estimated $7 billion. The aircraft will be equipped with more advanced features than the F-16s currently flown by the U.S. Air Force and the UAE, as part of the package, will also receive the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).
A U.S. government official described the UAE F-16, which will be built with a new Block 60 platform, as "comparable to or superior to" U.S. F-16s, which are based on the Block 50 and 40 platforms. Aside from being equipped with additional fuel tanks above the wings, which could extend range by almost 30 percent, the UAE aircraft will also feature an improved mission computer, new cockpit displays, a larger engine and a more advanced radar, the development of which will be paid for by the UAE.
While acknowledging that the UAE F-16s will have newer technology than U.S. models, a U.S. Air Force official said there are currently no plans to upgrade U.S. F-16s to match the Block 60 version because of fiscal constraints. The official stressed the importance of tactics and training on aircraft performance and noted that the Air Force expects its new F-22 fighter to be operational in 2004, shortly after the UAE starts receiving its fighters in 2002. The Air Force is now expected to receive its last delivery of F-16 aircraft in 2001.
Inclusion of the AMRAAMs, an advanced beyond-visual-range missile, proved central to the deal as the UAE insisted that it would not purchase F-16s without AMRAAMs, while the United States conditioned approval of the missiles for the UAE on its selection of the F-16 fighter. In the Middle East, only Israel previously had been approved to purchase the AMRAAM, but with the UAE deal, other Arab states may press for the missile.
The UAE, which has sought advanced fighters since the 1991 Gulf War, signed an agreement in December 1997 with Dassault Aviation of France for 30 new Mirage 2000 9 fighters and the upgrading of 33 older Mirage fighters for approximately $3.2 billion. By purchasing both U.S. and French fighters, the UAE intends to strengthen ties with both states, while avoiding dependence on any one supplier for arms. Kuwait made a similar decision earlier this year when it purchased artillery systems from both the United States and China.
The UAE will be the 20th country to operate the F-16 aircraft, of which more than 3,700 have been delivered, including 2,200 to the United States. Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-16, anticipates continued production and export of the aircraft until 2010 and beyond. A Lockheed Martin official said that other countries have expressed interest in the Block 60 platform and that the company plans to offer the Block 60 capabilities to other buyers.
A White House press release touted the UAE sale as a jobs issue, claiming the deal would create 15,000 new jobs in Texas and nearly 30,000 nationwide. The Clinton administration's conventional arms export policy, outlined in a February 1995 Presidential Decision Directive (PDD 34), holds as one of its criteria for arms exports the impact a sale would have on U.S. arms manufacturers. Lockheed Martin estimated that the UAE sale would create about 3,500 jobs at its Tactical Aircraft Systems plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
Under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act, all sales (direct commercial, Department of Defense Foreign Military Sales or hybrids of the two) of "major defense equipment," as defined on the U.S. Munitions List, worth $14 million or more must be notified to Congress. If Congress votes a joint resolution of disapproval within 30 calendar days (15 in the case of NATO members, Australia, Japan and New Zealand), the sale cannot go forward.
While a congressional staffer noted that there is no real opposition to the sale, Congress is interested in maintaining its role in the deal considering the sophistication of the aircraft and the unusual nature of the notification. Rather than submitting a signed contract for notification, a very detailed letter of intent will be notified to Congress. The staffer said that Congress will consider requiring a renotification once the contract is signed or an assurance that if there is an upgrade in the equipment is contained in the letter of intent, Congress would be notified before delivery of the fighters.
Lockheed Martin and the UAE want to sign the contract before the end of this year. Both Lockheed Martin and U.S. government officials declined to discuss the value or details of offset arrangements accompanying the sale.