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Gulf air force deals 'to hit $63 billion'

  |   May 3, 2011 at 3:29 PM
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, May 3 (UPI) -- The Middle East market for military aircraft and air-defense systems, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is expected to generate revenues of nearly $63 billion by 2020, a new study says.

The analysis by Texas defense consultants Frost and Sullivan, entitled "The Middle East Air Market -- Revenue Opportunities and Stakeholder Mapping," estimates that the annual military air procurement in the region will surge from 2011-15 and reach $3.96 billion in 2020.

Much of this activity centers on the growing concerns of the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain -- about Iran's expansionist aims.

Those fears that the Islamic Republic, across the Persian Gulf from the Arab monarchies, seeks regional domination have been heightened by alleged Iranian covert operations in those states to exploit the political upheaval gripping the Arab world.

"The GCC countries are moving toward an integrated air-defense network to include air platforms, air-defense batteries and air surveillance systems under the 'Peninsula Shield' initiative; but the progress has been slow," the aerospace analysis observed.

"The use of networked force by the United States and European forces in the Gulf War and the latest Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been a startling revelation for Middle Eastern ministries of defense who are now keen on acquiring these capabilities."

The analysis said that the rapid growth in the military aviation sector stemmed from "a growing recognition of air assets as a force multiplier across all regional defense communities."

The Saudi air force, with 349 combat aircraft, is the most powerful in the Persian Gulf and the third largest in the Middle East after Israel and Iran.

The Israelis retain clear superiority due to their constant combat experience and their advanced technology.

But the Iranian air force has few advanced aircraft and relies primarily on Vietnam-era U.S.-built jets supplied before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran has been subjected to international arms embargoes ever since.

The Emirates, with 184 combat aircraft, has built up its air force over the last decade and it has become a potent force capable of punching above its weight and should, in conjunction with the Saudis, be able to subdue Iran's air assets.

The analysis observed that U.S. and European arms regulations have frequently prevented "the export of sensitive defense technology and capabilities, such as unmanned aerial vehicles" to the Middle East.

Another inhibiting factor, particularly for U.S. defense manufacturers, has been Israel's objections to Arab states acquiring advanced technology that could undercut the Jewish state's military edge.

However, declining defense budgets in the United States and Europe have made defense exports imperative if production lines are to be maintained to supply domestic forces.

"Tier-1 suppliers need to focus on identifying new procurement opportunities and position their equipment accordingly," the Frost and Sullivan study noted.

"They should examine and identify lacunae in the current inventory of a particular country in terms of mission/role specific platforms and try to fill these gaps."

Combat aircraft, precision-guided weapons and air-defense missiles system figure prominently in a planned $67 billion arms to Saudi Arabia, part of a massive arms package for the GCC states to bolster their capabilities against Iran.

The propose sale includes 84 new Boeing F-15S combat jets and upgrades for 70 F-15S strike variants already in service, potentially including long-range munitions.

It also covers 72 United Technologies UH-60 and 60 Boeing Ah-64D Longbow Apache attack helicopters and upgrades for Saudi Arabia's 96 U.S.-supplied Raytheon Corp. Patriot Advanced Capability 2 air-defense missiles.

The Emirates is acquiring four Patriot systems, 60 UH-60M armed transport helicopters and is expected to sign a $7 billion deal for three THAAD anti-ballistic missile systems, the first such weapons in the gulf.

Dassault Aviation's hopes of selling 14-28 Rafale multi-role fighters to Kuwait have been stymied by Islamist lawmakers in Parliament.

The French fighter is competing with Sweden's Saab Gripen NG and Boeing's F-18A, an order worth an estimated $4.4 billion.

Last August, the Pentagon notified the U.S. Congress of the possible sale of 18 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 50 jets to Oman for $3.5 billion, plus upgrades for the 12 F-16 C/Ds already in service.

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