For decades, countries in the Middle East have imported advanced combat aircraft in large numbers, sometimes breaking records.
Saudi Arabia bought 84 F-15SA fighters for $60 billion in 2017 in what was the largest foreign arms sale by the United States. In 2021, the United Arab Emirates placed a $19 billion order for 80 Rafale from Dassault, the largest foreign order Dassault has received for this aircraft.
The region is currently home to the second, third and fourth largest F-16 fleets in the world, and Israel has a large and growing fleet of F-35 stealth fighters.
Four imminent acquisitions by Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Egypt show that this trend will not change any time soon. Although they won’t break any records, the orders could profoundly impact their buyers and the region.
Turkey had long planned to buy 100 F-35s to gradually replace its 270 F-16s, which are the backbone of its air force, but the US kicked Ankara out of the F-35 program after it bought the advanced Russian S-400 air defense.
Ankara proposed an alternative in 2021 that would give Turkey 40 of the newest F-16 variants, known as Viper, and 79 retrofit kits to improve its current fleet, but that deal is facing stiff opposition from US lawmakers.
Ankara has already begun modernizing 35 of its older F-16s under its Ozgur modernization program, which includes equipping them with new mission computers and avionics. Turkey also plans to equip these aircraft with its self-developed Active Electronically Scanned MURAD (AESA) radar.
Despite the notable successes of the Ozgur program, Ankara will likely still need those modernization kits and new F-16s to ensure the bulk of its fleet is up to speed for the next decade, waiting to deploy its fifth-class fighter self-developed generation, the TF Kaan.
US lawyers oppose the sale of F-16s to Turkey, largely because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s actions at home, where he has jailed political opponents and gagged the press, and abroad, where he has attacked the US’s Kurdish allies in Syria, threatened Greece and blocked Sweden’s admission to NATO.
Erdogan’s retreat on the latter issue on July 10 may break the deadlock. The Biden administration declared the next day that he intended to go ahead with the sale of the F-16s. Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch opponent of the deal, is in talks with the administration and may soon reject his objections. However, he may ask Ankara for other concessions.
If the deal goes ahead, it would be the biggest arms deal since US-Turkey relations began to deteriorate a decade ago.
For Ankara, which hasn’t taken delivery of any new F-16s since 2012, a deal for modern F-16s would give its air force the patch it needs until it takes delivery of the TF Kaan, though that plane is unlikely to be as advanced as the one. F-35.
flankers from Iran
Since Moscow attacked Ukraine last year, defense ties between Iran and Russia have reached new heights. The war has depleted Russia’s arsenals and forced it to seek new suppliers. Iran, in turn, has supplied drones and ammunition, using civilian planes and ships to move the weapons across the Caspian Sea.
The White House stated in December that intelligence indicated that Iran would receive Su-35 Flanker fighters from Russia sometime this year. Although it is unclear how many will be delivered, Moscow is believed to start with the two dozen Su-35s it originally built for Egypt.
Iran has not imported fourth-generation fighters since it bought Soviet MiG-29As in 1990. Most of its fighter fleet dates from the period before 1979, when Iran was an ally of the United States and acquired a large fleet of F-14A Tomcats. , becoming the only foreign operator of that emblematic reactor.
It is also unclear when Iran will receive its factory-fresh Flankers. Numerous contradictory statements have appeared in the Iranian media.
In January, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee expressed optimism that Tehran would receive the plans shortly after the Iranian New Year, which fell on March 21. A report claimed that the plans would arrive in May in a week.
Comments by Iranian Defense Minister Mohammed Reza Ashtiani are also revealing. On March 6 he was optimistic about delivery. Still, he tempered that optimism on May 28, stating that the acquisition talks were “mostly speculation” and that some deals take years to produce deliveries.
These statements suggest that the Iranians may come to question what they get from their association with Russia. The longer it takes for those Su-35s to arrive, the more biased that partnership will seem.
Apparently, Iraq has been negotiating the purchase of 14 Rafale. It would be the first time Baghdad has bought fighter jets from France since Saddam Hussein’s regime ordered 133 Mirage F1s in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the years since 2003 – during which the Iraqi air force has struggled to recover in the midst of the Iraq war, and the fight against ISIS – Iraq’s most significant fighter acquisition was arguably its 36 F-16C/Ds. American-made, although it also acquired a modest fleet of South Korean T-50 trainer jets and Czech-made L-159 subsonic light fighter jets.
Iraq’s first F-16s were delivered in 2015 and became the mainstay of its air force, but within five years, chronic maintenance and technical problems put its future in jeopardy. In recent months, however, the jets have become Iraq’s main attack aircraft against ISIS remnants, in part because the war in Ukraine has prevented Russia from supplying the parts Iraq needs for its Russian-made helicopters.
Iraq is unlikely to want the Rafale to complement its fleet of F-16s in airstrikes against militants on the ground. Baghdad most likely wants the fancy French plane primarily for air defense.
Iraq has already turned to France for long-range radars, inaugurating its first Thales Ground Master 403 in September, perhaps fitting given the KARI integrated air defense system that France built for Iraq in the late 1980s. It was destroyed in the Gulf War.
Although the F-16 is a capable fighter for air defense, the US has never sold Iraq the AIM-120 air-to-air missile. Consequently, Iraq can hope that turning to France will provide it with a very capable fighter armed with Meteor air-to-air missiles, which would greatly improve its limited air defense capabilities.
eagles of Egypt
Since making peace with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been primarily a US arms customer, stockpiling F-16s, AH-64 attack helicopters and M1 tanks.
Furthermore, Egypt was never allowed to buy F-15 Eagles despite the US agreeing in principle to sell them and despite the US selling them to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, neither of which established diplomatic ties with Egypt. In 2002, the US and Israel “reached a series of understandings” regarding US arms sales to Egypt, one element of which was a ban on Egypt buying F-15s.
Although Egypt ended up acquiring F-16s – it now has the fourth largest fleet in the world – it never received the AIM-120, severely limiting its air defense capabilities.
Denied the F-15 for nearly 40 years, Egypt turned to Russia, ordering nearly four dozen MiG-29s for $2 billion in 2014 and then two dozen Su-35s for $2 billion in 2018. Although Russian jets couldn’t exchange data With US-made Egyptian planes, Cairo hoped they could operate as an “air force within an air force” and partially compensate for their limited air-to-air capabilities.
Egypt has since backed out of the Su-35 deal, probably because of the threat of US sanctions and because the Ukraine war may affect Russian arms exports.
Fortunately, the opportunity may also have arisen for Egypt to acquire the F-15 finally. In March 2022, General Frank McKenzie, then head of US Central Command, told lawyers, “I think we have good news that we’re going to provide you with F-15s, which has been a long and hard effort.”
Israel’s consent is crucial to any Egyptian purchase of F-15s, but it is likely that it will agree. After all, Israel began taking delivery of the most advanced F-35s in 2016, and with its recent order for another 25, it is likely to have 75 of those stealthy planes by the time Cairo takes delivery of its first F-15s.
The F-15 remains a highly regarded air superiority fighter after nearly 50 years in service, and any F-15 sales to Egypt would be noteworthy since Cairo has been waiting almost as long to buy them.