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Middle East Seeks Bigger Role in Weapons Tech

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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.

One of the world's biggest arms markets, the Arab Middle East, has lagged as a developer and producer. That is in part because oil-exporting nations do not have to worry about the balance-of-payments impact of importing expensive weapons, and partly because of a lack of industrial infrastructure and experience. However, that dynamic is slowly changing, starting with arrangements in which Middle Eastern companies, often government-backed, are becoming active partners in the development of systems tailored to local needs.

The United Arab Emirates, through the Mubadala and Tawazun groups and Abu Dhabi Shipbuilding, has led the trend. Both Mubadala and Tawazun are involved in a major new program, announced in July 2012, under which the Italian-built Piaggio P180 Avanti business aircraft is being enlarged and upgraded into a compact maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). Mubadala is part-owner of Piaggio, while the program is being managed by Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments (Adasi), a subsidiary of Tawazun. At the end of 2012, Saab was awarded a €15.5 million ($20.6 million) contract to integrate the MPA's mission system, based on its 340MPA demonstrator, which will include internal consoles, a radar and electro-optical systems.

Piaggio is building two prototypes, with the first to fly in 2014. The Piaggio MPA will have a bigger wing than a standard P180, greater takeoff weight, more fuel capacity and more power, retaining the 350-kt. cruise speed and 41,000-ft. service ceiling of the basic aircraft. As such, it will occupy a unique market slot, with higher performance than other modified light commercial aircraft. The first version will be a maritime patrol aircraft, but Piaggio says it is being designed so it can be equipped for ground surveillance, tactical ISR or communications/signals intelligence.

Adasi has played a similar role as partner and venture capitalist in the adoption by the UAE armed forces of the Austrian-developed Schiebel S-100 Camcopter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The UAE was one of the first customers for the S-100, while Adasi helped adapt the system to local requirements, integrating payloads with the air vehicle and ground control system and providing training and logistics support. Additionally, Adasi has signed agreements with Boeing's Insitu subsidiary and iRobot, covering UAV and unmanned ground vehicle applications in the region.

Another Middle East-sponsored UAV program is the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator XP. The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the UAE's International Golden Group at the 2011 IDEX to offer the Predator XP for the UAE government. Discussions between the three parties are continuing, and there will be a full-scale model of Predator XP at Idex this year. Long-term support would be carried out locally by a joint venture involving Tawazun and other local companies, and regional customers are showing interest, according to General Atomics.

The XP itself is tailored to the local market (where Global Atomics' main global competitors are, for obvious reasons, not active) by the removal of all weapons capabilities banned under the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the replacement, where possible, of technology controlled by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations with commercial off-the-shelf equipment. It also features improvements such as small winglets, which restore some lost endurance due to changes required for export and accommodate new UHF/VHF antennae.

In the missile field, the UAE has been one of the leaders in funding improvements to the Raytheon Patriot surface-to-air system. Big-ticket investments by the UAE and South Korea have funded 90% of a recent modernization effort to upgrade the radar, battle management system, missile and launcher, as well as a touch-screen display. With leaps in technology, the system has even more room for growth in processing capacity.

The supply chain has filtered away from Raytheon's Massachusetts facility, as well. Ten years ago, 60% of Patriot was produced in-house. Now the ratio has shifted to suppliers including in seven other countries.

As Raytheon courted Turkey as a buyer for Patriot, executives touted its partnership with Roketsan, which is producing missile flight-control elements of Patriot's GEM-T missile, and Aselan, which is producing part of Patriot's command and control system.

Another missile-related venture was launched last September, when Tawazun and South Africa's government-owned Denel Dynamics formed Tawazun Dynamics LLC, to develop and build a new range of precision-guided bombs. Details are expected to be announced at IDEX, but it has been disclosed that the main product will be the Al-Tariq family of strap-on guidance kits, based on Denel's Umbani design. The kit includes high-aspect-ratio wings and GPS-INS guidance, with optional imaging infrared and semi-active laser guidance.

Boeing expects its business model in the Middle East to develop in the direction of partnerships and collaboration, says Paul Oliver, vice president of international business development for the Middle East and Africa. “Partnerships are the wave,” he says. “The days of guerilla marketing are over—you don't just parachute in and sell products.”

In Saudi Arabia, where Boeing signed a massive deal centered on 84 new F-15SA fighters and 70 F-15S-to-SA rebuilds in late 2011, one of the company's biggest partnership vehicles is Alsalam Aircraft, in which it has a controlling stake. Saudi Arabia “is very much about investment, participation and the “Saudization” of the product,” Oliver says. Alsalam, which provides depot maintenance for the nation's F-15 fleet and operates the final assembly line for Eurofighter Typhoons, will be heavily involved in the rebuild program, which includes new radars and defensive avionics and other changes.

The AH-6i armed reconnaissance helicopter was also part of the 2011 package and is Boeing's first military aircraft variant to be launched by a Saudi order. However, it is being delivered as a Foreign Military Sales deal, and any Saudi industrial participation will be in support.

While establishing manufacturing “is not a quick process,” Oliver says, it is expected that Alsalam will evolve into building components for the F-15. Boeing also has the option of meeting its offset commitments via its commercial business—which in terms of parts ship-sets is a clear order of magnitude more valuable than military aircraft deliveries. “With offsets, we look at the capability that the customer wants to achieve. If their strategic vision is to get into high-end composite or titanium, that can come from military or from Boeing commercial.”

The UAE also developed an active warship industry around Abu Dhabi Shipbuilding. ADSB's biggest current project is the construction and fitting-out of the UAE navy's Baynunah-class fast corvettes. They are built to the Combattante-class design from France's CMN shipyard in Cherbourg: CMN constructed the first hull but the remaining five ships are being built by ADSB. The 915-ton, waterjet-powered boats have a top speed of more than 30 kt. and are heavily armed, with an Oto Melara Super Rapid 76-mm gun, MBDA MM40 Exocet Block 3 antiship missiles and an air-defense system carrying up to 32 Raytheon RIM-162 Enhanced Sea Sparrow missiles.

Last year, too, ADSB launched the first of 12 Ghannatha Phase 2 27-meter (23.7-ft.) missile boats in partnership with Sweden's Swedeship Marine. Some of the diesel/waterjet boats will be armed with MBDA Marte antiship missiles, and others will carry Patria 120-mm mortars, which are intended for land attack.

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Technology United Arab Emirates Saudi Arabia
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