LONDON, ROME, PARIS and ABU DHABI — The ongoing face-off between Dassault Aviation and Eurofighter over who will become the Gulf's top European combat jet supplier continues at the Dubai Airshow, following a year in which has seen both sides have found taste success in the region.
Dassault secured its first Gulf customer when Qatar signed a 24 Rafale jet deal in May for 24 Rafales, while Eurofighter evened up the score by adding Kuwait to a Typhoon customer list that already included Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Although no contract has been signed yet, the Kuwaitis have agreed to buy 28 Typhoons in a government-to-government deal with the Italians, who along with Britain, Germany and Spain, are partners in the fast jet program. The Typhoon is built by the Eurofighter industrial consortium comprising Airbus Defence and Space, BAE Systems and Finmeccanica.
The Kuwait selection could reinvigorate a Typhoon sales campaign in the region and elsewhere that had been under a cloud after Rafale notched up three deals in quick succession, with Egypt, India and Qatar all declaring for selecting the French design fighter jet.
The growing turbulence in the region could make it a good time for combat jet and trainer suppliers to pursue opportunities, according to said Theodore Karasik, an independent Gulf state analyst based in the United Arab Emirates.
"Given the burgeoning threat environment in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq for the near term, now may be an ideal time for Europe and the US to further discuss trainer and fast jet requirements in the region," Karasik said. "There are quick opportunities to meet immediate needs, but deals need to be well-structured with quick delivery." said Karasik.
Combat jet attention tThis week, attention seems likely to return to the longstanding interest of the UAE, the Dubai Airshow host, in adding new capabilities to an Air Force based around Lockheed Martin Block 60 F-16s.
Most of the air forces in the Gulf region are dominated by US aircraft, but Gulf Cooperation Council members are increasingly hedging their bets with split buys including purchases from Europe.
Rafale was the original favorite for the UAE deal but the French were pitched out after a failure to agree on contract terms, opening up an opportunity for its European rivals.
The last Dubai Airshow, held in 2013, was abuzz with the belief that the UAE was preparing a 60-jet order from to order 60 Eurofighter Typhoons, a rumor that the arrival of British Prime Minister David Cameron in the UAE, on the eve of the show, did nothing to quell.
It all came to nothing, though, and the negotiations later collapsed. The UAE has since expressed interest in a new version of the F-16, known as the Block 61, but that too has so far come to nothing.
But the merry-go-round is still turning.
But the Rafale now appears to be back in favor, in part due to a strengthening of relations at the diplomatic and military level between Paris and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
A Gulf defense specialist who asked not to be named said there are ongoing talks between Abu Dhabi and RafaleDassault, while Richard Aboulafia, the vice president of analysis at the Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group, called the French company the front runner.
"The F-16 Block 61 deal appears to have vanished," Aboulafia said. "The dual sourcing preference that's sweeping the region probably means a Rafale or Eurofighter buy. Nobody wants to be dependent on one supplier, particularly not the US. Given France's strong defense posture and commitment to the region, the Rafale probably has the best chance." he said.
The French newsletter TTU reported Sept. 23 that Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held Rafale talks when he visited the UAE at the start of that week.
There were also talks on a possible role for the UAE in the Anglo-French study for an unmanned combat air system development program, the report said.
Dual sourcing is a policy that could work in America's favour, too. Kuwait and Qatar are both expected to make further fighter purchases, possibly from US producers.
What's not on the radar in the UAE, or anywhere else in the Gulf region, is any sign that a Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter sale will be on the agenda any time soon.
"It's not likely," Aboulafia said. "US domestic political considerations, particularly with the Iran nuclear treaty, mean Israel will have a regional monopoly on F-35 acquisition for another five years at least." said Aboulafia.
Indeed, Israel has put increased pressure on the US government to hold off on selling the F-35 to any Arab nations. Although no official policy has been stated, industry consensus is that the GCC partner nations will not get a crack at the fifth-generation fighter until the early to mid-2020s.
The absence of the F-35, which has gone undefeated in global competitions, means the window for the European giants remains open.
A British executive said the UAE was still looking at potential enhancements to fighter capabilities but he saw no sign of any UAE government interest in the Typhoon by the UAE state.
Typhoon has other regional targets, though.
A much talked about discussed second tranche of jets for Saudi Arabia, adding to the 72 aircraft already purchased in a deal with BAE, remains on the cards possible, although an hoped for announcement this year looks unlikely.
Instead, eyes are turned to next year, when the Saudi's may move along with a potential purchase of 48 jets. There is also an expected procurement of 12 to 14 jets from neighbor and ally Bahrain.
"The big hope remains the Saudi second tranche, which is somewhat jeopardized by spending concerns," Aboulafia said. "Saudi Arabia faces slumping oil revenues, growing needs for social welfare programs, and the cost of the Yemen war."
The expansion of combat fleets should also drive improvements to training systems.
"As fighter fleets grow in the Gulf, trainers will be needed, not just for initial pilot training but for maintaining training levels in country," an Italian industrial source said.
BAE Systems and Swiss company Pilatus Aircraft are among companies that have trainer hardware aircraft at the show — with the BAE's Hawk jet and the Pilatus PC-21 turboprop respectively.
The first of 22 Hawks scheduled to be delivered to Saudi Arabia as part of a training aircraft update made its initial flight in late September ahead of delivery in the first half of 2016.
Industry executives said the possible sale of a further batch of Hawks has been discussed with the Saudis.
A BAE spokesman declined to address the question of a further Hawk buy directly, but said that "history has shown us that when we perform well and deliver in line with our Saudi customer's expectations, then further business opportunities will follow."
Pilatus secured an order for 55 of its PC-21s from the Saudis in 2012 as part of the same upgrade package. Qatar and the UAE are also recent customers for the aircraft.
Oman is also getting a fleet of eight Hawks as a makeweight in part of a package involving the sale of 12 Typhoon fighters. Deliveries start in 2017.
After securing the Typhoon commitment, Italy is now following up with a renewed push to sell its M-346 jet trainer in the Gulf, starting with Kuwait. Italy's sales drive could be helped by Kuwait's decision to send pilots for training at the Italian Air Force's Lecce training base, where the M-346 is now being flown.
The UAE selected the M-346 in 2009, but plans to buy 48 aircraft were put on hold when a side deal on UAVs fell through failed. The Gulf state continues to fly Hawks and has also purchased 25 PC-21s, but its future plans to expand pilot training requirements remain unclear.
One source in the region said the UAE havehas approached the Australians about the possibility of assisting in training air force recruits.
The wildcard for the trainer market remains the US Air Force T-X program, which will announce a winner in 2017. Whichever competitor is The company selected for that program will develop 350 trainers for the US, but may also have a leg up an advantage on global competition going forward.
By Andrew Chuter in London, Tom Kington in Rome, Pierre Tran in Paris, and Awad Mustafa in Abu Dhabi. Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this story.