MOSCOW — Russia is moving aggressively on another traditional patron of U.S. arms exports: the United Arab Emirates. Rather than cheap small arms and land-based platforms, Russian companies appear to have identified a market opportunity: relatively cost-effective alternatives to Western fifth-generation fighters.
The head of Russia's largest defense conglomerate Rostec, Sergey Chemezov, told reporters at the IDEX show in Abu Dabi this week that Rostec would partner with the UAE Defense Ministry to develop a light fifth-generation fighter jet based on the MiG-29. Development is slated to begin in 2018, and production should launch seven to eight years after that.
"It takes quite a long period of time to develop," Chemezov told Defense News in an exclusive interview. "We anticipate local production here in [UAE], for the needs of [UAE]."
The announcement comes as Russia is engaging in a region-wide diplomatic and economic press to rebuild old alliances and forge new ones. And after 18 months of aerial operations in Syria, countries that have strong appetites for fighter jets are taking closer looks at what Russia has to offer.
The deal with UAE likely took some in the industry by surprise, says Dr. Theodore Karasik, senior advisor at the Washington-based Gulf State Analytics. Several Western firms have seen high-profile fourth-gen fighter deals with UAE fall through in recent years, but efforts to hash out an agreement have continued.
The Russians have given UAE a good deal, argued Karasik.
Under the agreement, Russia is set to provide UAE with fifth-generation fighter technology, produced locally in partnership with UAE defense firms. "This in itself is completely different than any previous aerospace deals between UAE and the West," Karasik says. "Whether it will work is another question."
A Message to Israel
One possible explanation for the UAE deal involves messaging to Israel. The UAE has wanted a fifth-generation fighter for some time. The US has refrained from selling F-35 stealth fighters to UAE to satisfy Israel. A contract with Russia would signal to Israel that the Emirates can receive advanced weaponry from anywhere and not just the United States.
"The agreement with Russia sends sharp signals to previous contenders for a fifth-generation fighter sale to UAE," says Karasik.
Mark Bobbi, an analyst at IHS, doesn't think this will be a huge problem. "UAE wants the F-35 and they will get it once Israel gives the OK." And Russian stealth hardware just doesn't stack up to either the F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters.
Russian defense industry officials have long aspired for a light fifth-generation fighter to complement Sukhoi's heavier T-50. Recently, MiG has reportedly been working on a design. But it has always been unclear who would buy it. Russia's Defense Ministry has already been forced to curtail its first-run orders of the new Sukhoi T-50 stealth fighter from around 50 to 12 units.
At the unveiling of the "generation 4+++" MiG-35 multi-role fighter in January, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin again promised the creation of a fifth-generation MiG. With the announcement that UAE will be a partner on a MiG project, Russia appears to be modeling its efforts off the T-50 development program.
While Russia will be the first to deploy the Sukhoi stealth fighters, India helped finance the fighter's development in exchange for Russian assistance in developing a two-seat version for the Indian air force.
The project has not been without its setbacks. India demanded a 50:50 work split, but with delays and costs mounting, it has dropped that requirement.
The project looked to be on shaky ground, with disagreements over the future of the project delaying the signing of a detailed contract. These issues were apparently resolved during a meeting of Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year. India has agreed to invest $4 billion in the development of the Indian version of the aircraft.
Whether or not the UAE has a smoother experience with Russia as a development partner remains to be seen. Although Russian aircraft have demonstrated their capabilities in Syria, Russian defense companies have at times been difficult and unreliable partners. In 2008, Algeria famously returned MiG-29 fighters that had "new" hardware from the 1990s.
"Russian industry does not have world-class product support," Bobbi says. "The supply chain is very suspect and not getting any better with respect to on-time delivery, quality, etc."
Russia has, however, remained competitive in the fighter market in spite of quality control concerns. Over the past five years, aircraft exports have made up around 44 percent of Russia's revenue, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.