Last year, Saudi Arabia purchased 22 BAE Systems Hawk advanced trainer jets. (BAE Systems)
LONDON, ROME AND WASHINGTON — Gulf Cooperation Council nations involved in a massive drive to bolster their combat aircraft fleets are likely to acquire new lead-in trainer jet capabilities to match, but only after deciding which fighter types they will operate.
If two is a trend, then the process of acquiring fighter jets before deciding on the destination of your trainer order is already in play, with Saudi Arabia and Oman tying the purchase of the latest advanced jet trainer (AJT) version of the BAE Systems Hawk to the acquisition of combat aircraft.
Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are all in stages of lining up deals to expand their fighter capabilities. Buying new, highly capable lead-in trainers is unlikely to be far behind.
“Countries planning to update their fighter fleets may be waiting to purchase trainers until they know what they will be training for,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group.
“When the Saudis did their Hawk recapitalization, they waited until their plans were in place in terms of Eurofighter and F-15SA,” Aboulafia said. “That helped clarify requirements and may [be] in play here.”
While Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 and Korean Aerospace Industries’ (KAI’s) T-50 are looking to challenge the longtime dominance of the Hawk, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries remain BAE territory. Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain all have variants of the British aircraft in their training fleets.
The 2012 deal with the Saudis took care of one of the two largest requirements in the region, with 22 Hawk AJTs part of a £1.6 billion (US $2.5 billion) training package.
Archie Neill, BAE’s Hawk business development director, said the first seven Saudi aircraft are on a new assembly line at the company’s Warton, England, plant.
“First deliveries are planned for March 2016, followed by the Omani delivery planned for around August 2017,” Neill said.
Saudi Arabia’s selection of the new Hawk design leaves the UAE as having “one of the biggest outstanding trainer requirements,” Aboulafia said.
The UAE requires 48 planes, some of them in a light attack configuration. That should have been a windfall for Alenia, whose M-346 was selected in 2009 as part of a roughly €1 billion (US $1.3 billion) deal. But the company has yet to receive a purchase order.
An Alenia spokesman declined to comment on the holdup.
At the time, knowledgeable analysts said the two countries had discussed development of a UAV with a payload and range exceeding the limits set down by the Missile Technology Control Regime, which constrains the sale of missiles and UAVs.
When the UAV deal stalled, the UAE reportedly put the trainer deal on ice, perhaps permanently. BAE and the T-50 team of KAI/Lockheed Martin are hoping they can get back into the running if the competition opens again.
The Emirates ejected Hawk from the original competition without the aircraft making the shortlist, leaving a straight fight between the M-346 and the T-50.
“We are not in any specific discussions [with the UAE] around the lead-in trainer at this time,” BAE’s Neill said. “We are standing by to have any discussions they might want, but we are not quite there yet.”
In addition to UAE, Qatar and Kuwait are potential, if likely small, markets for trainers. The Qatari requirement could grow if the country follows through on a fivefold increase in a fighter force, which currently numbers 12 Mirage 2000s and six Alpha Jet trainers.
Alenia Aermacchi, meanwhile, is reportedly eyeing more than one gulf nation for its M-346.
While a spokesman declined to identify the country or countries in question, both Qatar and Kuwait seem likely to be among the regional targets. Alenia has led the Eurofighter Typhoon sales effort in Kuwait since 2010, and the sale of an advanced European or US fighter would open up the need for a new lead-in trainer.
While waiting on the UAE, the M-364 has found customers in Singapore, Israel and Italy.
Neill said he was not aware of any formal lead-in trainer competition in the region, but a lot of existing trainers will be “falling off the perch over the next four to five years, and we are looking to the Middle East as a key customer area.”
BAE’s marketing effort is underway. Early November saw the Royal Air Force with its Hawk-equipped Red Arrows display team in Qatar ahead of appearing at the Dubai Airshow. The M-346 is absent from the Dubai flight line this year, however, having appeared at previous shows.
It may be that some potential customers won’t even have a competition in much the same way as Oman, which secured an advantageous deal for the Hawk on the back of the purchase of 12 Typhoons.
Basic Trainer Opportunities
It’s not just lead-in jet trainers that are up for replacement.
BAE is providing a training package for the Saudis, which includes Pilatus PC-21 turboprop trainer planes, primary trainers and simulators, and other training devices.
The PC-21 has already been adopted by Qatar and the UAE in the past four years for basic training and other duties.
Cameron McKenzie, the Middle East managing director of ground-based training provider CAE, said that “any acquisition of lead-in fighter trainer aircraft will undoubtedly include a comprehensive ground-based training systems package that includes simulators and part-task trainers.
“There are excellent examples of Middle East customers — Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar — who all plan to take advantage of ground-based training systems as part of their overall aircrew training requirements,” McKenzie said.
The CAE executive said there is a challenge in the Middle East to not only operate platforms safely, “but also quickly and effectively build the competencies required to ensure mission success.”