February 10, 2015

The UAE Air Force returns to the skies over Syria

UAE Air Force F-16 Desert Falcons

One of the key Arab allies in the U.S.-led coalition formed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). UAE Air Force (UAEAF) F-16 "Desert Falcons" were among the first aircraft involved in the coalition airstrikes on Syria beginning in September 2014. The UAEAF flies one of the later versions of the venerable fourth-generation Lockheed Martin (originally General Dynamics) F-16.

On December 24, a Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) F-16 crashed during an airstrike on a target in al-Raqqah, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS's "Islamic State." The pilot was captured almost immediately, and was later brutally murdered. (See Downing of a Jordanian fighter aircraft and ISIS capture of the pilot, and The death of Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah - some thoughts.)

After the loss of the aircraft and the capture of the pilot, the Arab members of the coalition, including the UAE, ceased flight operations over Syria, leaving only the United States to conduct airstrikes in the country. UAE military officials complained that U.S. Air Force combat search and rescue (CSAR) forces were based in Kuwait, too far from the potential shootdown areas to be of use.

After the murder of the Jordanian pilot, Lieutenant Mu'az al-Kasasbah, the Jordanians reversed their moratorium on participation in coalition airstrikes and resumed operations against ISIS at an increased level. The U.S. Air Force repositioned its CSAR assets to a base in northern Iraq, and the UAE announced the deployment of a squadron of F-16 fighters to a Jordanian air base and the resumption of airstrikes in Syria. It was a welcome decision - both the RJAF and UAEAF are professional organizations.

Some background on the UAEAF.

I served as the acting Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, UAE in the early 1990s - a short detour on my way to my real position as the Air Attaché at the American Embassy in Damascus, Syria. While in Abu Dhabi, I had several meetings with the UAE Minister of Defense, Shaykh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktum ("call me Shaykh Mo"). He is now the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, the constitutional monarch of Dubai, and still the Minister of Defense.

At the time when I was meeting with "Shaykh Mo," many defense contractors from a variety of nations - particularly the United States, United Kingdom and France - were trying to sell weapons to the Emirates. The weapons ran the gamut from fighter aircraft, main battle tanks, surface to air missiles, frigates, coastal defense systems, reconnaissance platforms - you name it, there was someone there trying to sell it to the Emirates armed forces. The recent successes of many of the systems in Operation Desert Storm was a key selling point.

In one of our meetings, the shaykh/minister mentioned that he was besieged with sales representatives and security assistance officers (that is military-speak for an officer who is theoretically advising on security needs, but is in reality an arms salesman for his country's defense contractors). I suggested he determine potential threats to the Emirates, formulate a defense strategy, then buy the weapons and systems that supported that strategy. At the time, he had hired a consultant to help him develop that strategy - I told him he didn't need a consultant.

The shaykh was intrigued by what I thought was a pretty simple analysis. He asked if I could come back and discuss this further - of course, I agreed. We met over dinner and began a rather informal assessment of the country's needs. I pointed at the map on the wall in his official dining room at the Ministry of Defense and asked who he needed to defend the UAE against. Of course, the obvious and really only threat was, and remains, Iran.

While the UAE may have minor issues with its Arab neighbors - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman - the chances of actually going to war were pretty slim. However, there were major issues with the non-Arab Iranians across the Gulf - including sovereignty claims over a series of islands in the oil-rich areas of the southern Gulf.

I pointed out that given the geography of the UAE and the relations with its Arab neighbors, a ground war was unlikely or impractical. If there was to be a conflict with Iran, it would likely be an air and naval engagement. My recommendation was that the shaykh pursue the creation of a world-class air force and a credible navy, with less emphasis on his land forces.

When the contractors hawking tanks and armored personnel carriers heard of my advice, complaints were lodged with the ambassador and the Army colonel who headed the U.S. Security Assistance Office. The fact that I was right was of no consequence. It was "suggested" that I cease my security assistance advice to the shaykh and stick to being the Defense Attaché. I thought I was, but it seems I was interfering in potential multi-billion dollar contracts.

In any case, the shaykh either took my advice or figured it out for himself and embarked on the creation of one of the best air forces in the Arab world. The backbone of the service are 79 F-16E/F Block 60 fighters (three squadrons) with an additional 25 on order. The pilots are well-trained and routinely exercise with their American counterparts in both the United States and the UAE.

The UAEAF is a potent military force capable of delivering a wide range of precision-guided munitions in virtually all conditions, day or night. It is good to see them back in the skies of Syria taking the fight to ISIS.