In the Gulf, the money has always been there for the best and priciest US weaponry, and for easy access to regional bases for the American military.
But in recent months, the United Arab Emirates has taken the buying and basing spree to another level, using the Iranian threat as a catalyst. In the process, the UAE has racked up a number of “firsts” in arms deals and mutual defense arrangements with the United States.
The Emirates leadership is now haggling with Boeing Bell and the US Marine Corps over the unit price on a deal to become the first foreign purchaser of the futuristic, and still controversial, V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The US has already signed off on the first sale of Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system of mobile launchers for shooting down incoming short-to-intermediate range missiles.
The UAE also recently agreed to the first foreign basing of the US Air Force’s problem-plagued F-22 Raptor fighters, along with a squadron of US Air National Guard F-15 Eagle fighters.
The accelerating buys and deployments are aimed at guarding the UAE against possible Iranian missile strikes and the shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz in the event of an Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear sites, with or without US support. Alone among the Gulf states, the UAE also has a territorial dispute with Iran over three small islands in the Strait.
Emirati officials became enamored of the Ospreys at the Dubai Air Show last November when one of the V-22s — which lift off and land like a helicopter and rotate their huge twin turboprops to fly like a fixed-wing aircraft — went safely zipping about among the Dubai skyscrapers.
John Rader, executive director of the Boeing Bell V-22 program, boasted at the time that “the V-22 Osprey received significant interest at the Dubai Air Show from potential customers from around the world. It is clear the V-22 is the right solution for those seeking range, speed, payload, and operational efficiency for military and humanitarian operations.”
While Boeing Bell spokesman Andy Lee stopped short of confirming to Al-Monitor that a deal was near with the Emirates, he said “several nations are presently interested in the Osprey.” The UAE embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But according to Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, the sale of several Ospreys to the UAE is in the final stages of negotiations over the current unit price of about $68 million, as the UAE seeks Ospreys more in the range of $58 million apiece.
“It’s a revolutionary aircraft, but it comes with a revolutionary price tag,” Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and a Pentagon consultant, told Al-Monitor. “The main sticking point is not the performance but the price.”
The performance of the Ospreys has been problematic since the V22s went into development in the late 1980s. Only last month, two Marines were killed and two others gravely injured when an Osprey crashed in Morocco on a training mission.
In all, a total of 36 troops and test pilots have been killed in five separate Osprey crashes, but the Marines now point to the Ospreys’ nearly unblemished safety record in ferrying troops and supplies in more than 100,000 hours of flying in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The $3.5 billion sale to the UAE of the THAAD mobile launchers, the only system designed to hit and destroy incoming missiles both inside and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, is a done deal, with delivery expected later this year.
In announcing the sale last Christmas, Pentagon spokesman George Little called it “an important step in improving the region’s security through a regional missile defense architecture” aimed at deterring Iran.
Iran ignored the THAAD sale but heaped scorn on the announcement earlier this month that F-22 Raptors were going on their first deployment to a potential war zone and would be stationed at the UAE’s Al Dhafra base, already home to air-refueling tankers, Global Hawk drones and about 2,000 US military personnel.
Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi called the stationing of the F-22 across the Gulf in the UAE “a harmful move that undermines the security of the region.
“We consider such [military] presence in the region as to be useless and harmful and more aimed at creating a psychological ploy and an insecure atmosphere in the region,” Vahidi said, according to Iran’s FARS news agency.
The F-22s come with their own baggage. The Air Force maintains that the supersonic and stealthy Raptors are the best fighters ever made, but the F-22s have been grounded twice and several pilots have refused to fly them because of continuing problems with the air supply that has led to dizziness and blackouts.
The Raptors will be joined at Al Dhafra by F-15 fighter jets from the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. At a ceremony marking their departure earlier this month, Col. Robert Brooks, the Wing’s commander, said his pilots were prepared “should Iran test the 104 th,” the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported.
In the view of some, the sales of high-end military gear to the UAE and other Gulf states are more for show than anything else.
“They don’t look at it as something they’re ever going to use,” Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense and now an analyst at the Center for American Progress, told Al-Monitor.
“They buy these things for psychological reasons,” to calm their nervous citizenries, Korb said. “And we’re more than happy to sell them.”
Richard Sisk is a veteran Pentagon correspondent, most recently for the New York Daily News.*
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