February 24, 2009

UAE defense spending in a global recession

Stryker Armored Vehicle being loaded onto USAF C-17 - Click for larger imageStryker Armored Vehicle being loaded onto USAF C-17
Click for larger image (DOD photo)

The United Arab Emirates announced a series of arms deals this week totaling over $4 billion. The Persian Gulf nation ordered four Boeing C-17 long-range airlifters and 12 Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical airlifters. Earlier, it ordered three Cobra air defense surveillance radars from a European consortium and 12 combat vessels from the Abu Dhabi Shipbuilding Company. In December 2008, the UAE signed a contract for over $3 billion to purchase the advanced version of the Patriot air defense missile system.

Seven billion dollars committed to military hardware despite a global economic downturn indicates the importance the UAE attaches to its own defense. The United States and the UAE have a close working military relationship going back to the days of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's. U.S. Navy ships conduct more port calls in the UAE than anywhere in the world except the United States itself. U.S. Air Force fighter, reconnaissance, tanker and unmanned aircraft have used al-Dhafra air base for decades.

I was the acting defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi for a period of four months in late 1992. At that time, I had great relationship with the UAE military, especially the UAE military intelligence staff. One of the roles of my office and the Security Assistance Office was to advise the UAE military leadership of the threat (my job) and recommend force structure and weapons (the SAO job) for effective defense of the oil-rich country.

Given that the main threat to the UAE was (and remains) Iranian adventurism, we advised the UAE defense minister to tailor his country's armed forces to defend UAE airspace and territorial waters against Iranian aircraft and naval vessels. Iran and the UAE have argued over the legal ownership of some Persian Gulf islands for decades. Since then, Iranian missiles have emerged as a real threat to the UAE.

We recommended that the UAE develop a first rate air force and air defense system, if necessary at the expense of the ground forces. A navy is important as well, but should be a coastal defense force rather than on ocean-going force. To that end, the UAE has purchased the F-16E/F Block 60 (officially the Fighting Falcon but more commonly called the Desert Falcon). With the addition of the Patriot air defense system, the UAE has a good capability against not only Iranian aircraft and ships, but against ballistic and cruise missiles as well.

The C-130J tactical airlifter will be useful to move personnel and materiel around the UAE and the region. There is some question as to why the UAE needs four long-range C-17 airlifters. The official explanation is to support future humanitarian efforts. Fine, but when many fellow Muslims suffered in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, there was little relief provided by the Arab states. I suspect the UAE is acquiring airlift capability to assist in bringing foreign (read: American) troops and equipment into the Emirates in case of Iranian (or other) threats.

The contract for the four C-17's and 12 C-130J's totals about $3 billion. The per unit cost of a C-17 is about $300 million, and the C-130J about $65 million. Doing the math for that package adds up to about $2 billion. Where is the other $1 billion? When these contracts are made, the package usually includes training and initial maintenance. There is nothing sinister here.

We are awaiting the award of yet another high-dollar contract, $7 billion for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system that will improve the UAE's anti-balistic missile defense capability.

Many have questioned the reliability of our Gulf Arab allies. The UAE has stood with us for decades and with these purchases appears committed to continue that stance. Good allies.