It is by far the most extravagant purchase of Emirati to strengthen its air defense capability.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced late last year its plan to procure a jaw-dropping $19 billion worth of advanced fighter jets and helicopters from France, including the revered F4 Rafale.

In the arms deal, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MBZ) and French President Manuel Macron agreed on a $19 billion purchase of 80 F4s, the most advanced fighter jet version, and 12 H225M Caracal medium-lift helicopters—the largest-ever foreign sale of Rafales in history.

This isn’t the first time the UAE has struck a deal with the French for military technology and equipment, as the Emirates acquired approximately 60 Mirage 2000 multi-role fighter jets and commissioned a dozen Mirage 5 supersonic attack aircraft in its service branch in the past.

The deal doesn’t only signify the efforts of the Emirates to strengthen its air security but also cements its relationship with France.

“This contract cements a strategic partnership that is stronger than ever and directly contributes to regional stability,” Macron said following the signing of the agreement on the sidelines of the Dubai Expo 2020.

Diversifying Military Arsenal

Abu Dhabi has long since planned to boost its military equipment by expanding and diversifying its arsenal by procuring from the United States and France. Besides the Dassault Mirage 2000-9 (44 active units), the Emirati Air Force flies the American F-16E Fighting Falcon (56 operational units as of 2022) as part of its combat aircraft fleet. They’ve also tried to purchase the potent F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fifth-generation for years but haven’t made much progress due to US Congressional opposition.

According to news reports, the proposed Emirati F-35 deal was presented weeks before President Donald Trump’s administration ended. In it is a fleet of 50 F-35As worth around $10.4 billion and 18 MQ-9B Reaper costing $2.97 billion in addition to a $10 billion package of support, maintenance, and munitions—totaling an estimated package price of $23+ billion. All the documents for the deal were delivered and approved in November 2020. However, the sale was held back due to opposition, primarily from those supporters of Israel, those who disapproved of the “destabilising activities, aggressive foreign policy, and internal repression” of the UAE, and those who argued that “the sale as fuelling an arms race that would lead to a fresh wave of regional stability,” Times Aerospace reported. Some have also feared that the revered aircraft’s secrets could be compromised, thus delaying the arms transaction. When Joe Biden took office, the deal showed signs that it might go forward but remain in murky waters, especially considering that Abu Dhabi has ties with Beijing.

“The sale of 80 Rafale to the UAE Federation is a French success story: I am very proud and very happy as a result. I wish to thank the authorities of the Emirates for their renewed confidence in our aircraft,” said Eric Trappier, the Chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation, in a press release statement in December 2021. “This contract, which is the largest ever obtained by the French combat aeronautics industry, consolidates a national industrial base, which is without doubt unique in Europe, comprising as it does major groups and SME/SMIs, around a company which has been the prime contractor for all the generations of military and civil aircraft for the past 70 years.”

Once the UAE receives its Rafales, it will join the small club of countries flying the twin-engine combat jets alongside France, India, Qatar, Egypt, Greece, and Croatia, who also struck a deal with Dassault Aviation to purchase 12 Rafales right after Abu Dhabi.

In April 2022, Dassault Aviation announced that it had received the first downpayment from UAE, with the latter expecting to welcome its new fleet in 2027.

The F4 Rafale

The Rafale (“Burst of Fire”) is a twin-engine, multi-role fighter jet introduced by Dassault Aviation in the early 2000s. Soaring across the sky since 2004, the fighter jet can serve several missions, including air sovereignty, in-depth strike, anti-ship strike, close-air support, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and nuclear deterrence with a wide range of weapons. Depending on its loadout, it can also perform against air, ground, and maritime targets.

The F4 Rafale variant is under development, which the French ministry of defense launched in May 2017. Its first test flight campaign was conducted in April last year and is estimated to be in service later this decade.

A two-manned crew, a standard Rafale has a length of 15.30 m, a wingspan of 10.90 m, and a height of 5.30 m, with an overall empty weight of 10 t. It is outfitted with two Snecma M88-4e turbofans that each generate up to 50.04 kN dry and 75 kN with an afterburner. The fighter jet has an impressive performance, capable of up to 750 knots (Mach 1.8) maximum speed and a service ceiling of roughly 50,000 ft.

In terms of its mission systems, the Rafale can integrate a variety of current and future armaments, including the MICA air-to-air “Beyond Visual Range” interception, combat, and self-defense missiles; METEOR long-range air-to-air missiles; the Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range (HAMMER) modular, rocket-boosted air-to-ground precision-guided weapon series; a 30mm internal cannon; and laser-guided bombs, to name a few.

According to the latest Flight Global analysis, the US remained reigning in air superiority with over 13,000 (25%) active fleets, followed by Russia (8%), China (6%), India (4%), and South Korea (3%). Japan came sixth with a three percent share of the overall global fleet, while Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey came in next with a two percent share, dominating the Middle East. Meanwhile, France manages to secure the top ten spot with 1,055 (2%) active fleets, just two fleets short of Turkey.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are all in the top ten in terms of combat-role aircraft, with active fleet shares of 447, 364, and 338, respectively.

Flight Global 2022
Top 10 Active Combat, Special Mission, and Tanker Aircraft Worldwide in 2022. (Screenshot from Fight Global)