UAE’s China Jets Purchase Shows US Relations in ‘Crisis’

China has stepped in to supply the emirate with combat aircraft after a $23bn deal with the US fell through over a row about tech espionage protections

When Iranian-made Houthi missiles and drones hit the international airport in Abu Dhabi in January. It proved to be a wake-up call.

The United Arab Emirates, a federation that prides itself on being safe and business-friendly, was suddenly vulnerable to outside attacks.

It likely contributed to the UAE’s decision to sign a contract with China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) to buy 12 L-15 training and light combat aircraft. With the option for 36 additional jets.

The news was a dramatic boost for the Chinese arms industry. It may help it snare more business in the Middle East.

It is another blow for the US. The deal came hard on the heels of the collapse of the UAE’s plan to spend up to US$23.37 billion on 50 American F-35As, up to 18 MQ-9Bs, and advanced munitions.

The UAE government informed Washington by letter in December that it planned to abandon the deal, according to a December report in the Wall Street Journal.

The L-15 announcement reflects “a confidence crisis, and the US should review its calculations and mend the relations with the UAE,” Fahd Al Halabieh, a Dubai-based defence analyst told Breaking Defense.

He attributed this crisis to a series of recent political spats over many issues related to Iran, the war in Yemen and ties with China.

The UAE also ordered 80 fourth-generation multi-role Rafale fighter jets from France last year in a deal worth US$16 billion.

The UAE’s latest move is another signal that all is not well in the military relationship with the US. It is the China factor that’s the focus of concern.

US ‘Espionage’ Safeguards

The F-35 deal fell through due to concerns over stringent safeguards required by the US to protect against Chinese espionage.

The Emirati government considers security requirements demanded by the US, intended to keep sensitive military technology from Chinese hands, as unacceptable.

The value of the L-15 aircraft deal — which further advances strategic ties between the oil-rich Sheikhdom and Beijing — was not disclosed.

The wealthy Gulf country is part of the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen since 2015.

China’s L-15 advanced jet trainer made its debut at the Dubai Airshow in 2021.

The Hongdu L-15 is a two-seat, twin-engine supersonic platform built to address the demand for training pilots. It has been dubbed a “star model” by Chinese media.

L-15’s Ground Strike Capability

Developed by Hongdu Aviation Industry Group (HAIG), the L-15 designation applies to the export variant of the jet trainer. The domestic version is called JL-10.

The new design provides increased pilot safety while cutting training expenses when compared to competitors.

The aircraft has two AI-222K-25F afterburner turbofan engines. Each having a single afterburner thrust of 4200 kg, a full authority digital engine control module, and a 3,000 flight hour service life, EurAsian Times reported.

Additionally, the L-15 trainer is capable of air combat and ground strikes.

With a payload of 3,000 kg, the L-15 training aircraft has six weapon attachment points. It can also carry air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles and precision-guided bombs.

With characteristics of a third-generation fighter aircraft, it has adopted the aerodynamic profile of large strakes, the structure of a blended wing body, and an advanced fly-by-wire flight control system, CGTN reported.

The L-15 attracted interest from the UAE mainly because of its technical performance. Chinese aircraft is an advanced trainer jet that is second to none in the world, Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times.

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