Boeing's $11.4 billion F-15 sale to Saudi Arabia shows how the Middle East region is still a big factor in combat aircraft development, despite the attention paid to China and emerging markets such as India and Brazil.

The deal includes not only 84 new-build F-15SAs, which will sustain production in St. Louis through 2018, but also the upgrade of 70 older F-15S fighters to the new configuration, a major rework to be carried out in-country. (The $11.4 billion does not include the last element.)

The F-15SA is the second version (after Singapore) to be delivered with the APG-63(V)3 active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. It is the first to have BAE Systems' digital electronic warfare system (DEWS), a complete replacement for the Northrop Grumman ALQ-135, which has evolved on the F-15 throughout the life of the program. DEWS is expected to be less costly to support, more reliable and easier to reprogram than earlier systems. Like the Singaporean aircraft, it has a Lockheed Martin AAS-42 infrared search-and-track system, known as TigerEye on the F-15.

The Saudi variant is the first all-fly-by-wire F-15, which is expected to reduce maintenance requirements because the controls are self-rigging. It has a so-called PDM-free wing that does not require periodic depot maintenance on its structure. Another change is that the wing stores stations Nos. 1 and 9 are activated, mainly in order to carry a larger air-to-air load in conjunction with air-to-surface weapons. The Saudi order includes AGM-88B High-Speed Antiradiation Missiles from U.S. stocks.

Also part of the F-15 agreement is the supply of Goodrich DB-110 long-range oblique photography (Lorop) reconnaissance pods. In public, Lorop pods have been eclipsed by UAVs, but the Royal Air Force has used the DB-110-based Raptor pod extensively on Tornados, and the Thales Areos pod carried by Rafale was valuable in Libya. Egypt has ordered DB-110 pods for its F-16.

Boeing is also looking at Kuwait as a potential market for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and has not given up on the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The latter market may be open following the public criticism of France's Rafale offer at last November's Dubai air show, with the Emirates scolding Dassault for the commercial terms it was offering and seemingly inviting other bids. In February, however, French press reports indicated that the UAE order for Rafale was still under discussion, with President Nicolas Sarkozy due to visit the region in late March, before France's election.

A continuing factor in Middle East security is that the U.S. is not talking about the export of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Arab nations, and restricts the sale of long-range weapons. The F-15SA is being delivered with the AGM-88B—superseded in U.S. production in the 1990s—and the latest AIM-120D version of the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (Amraam) is not cleared for export.

This could lead to an increasing gap in air combat capability between Middle East nations and Israel, particularly if the latter pursues Rafael's Future Air-to-Air Missile (FAAM). This revolutionary weapon is the intentional offshoot of the Stunner interceptor used in the David's Sling missile defense system, which was designed as a two-stage weapon, the upper stage being smaller than Amraam and capable of being used as an AAM with minimal changes. FAAM is a highly agile, hit-to-kill weapon (with no warhead or fuze) with a combined millimeter-wave radar and imaging infrared seeker.

Heavy offensive weapons included with the Saudi package are of the direct-attack type (laser-guided and GPS-guided bombs). Rafale is available with the Sagem Hammer (highly agile modular munition extended range) weapon family, which can use its rocket sustainer to attain a standoff range up to 60 km (35 mi.), and includes four warhead sizes and three guidance systems, with a common airframe and systems interface. The GPS-inertial version, of which more than 100 were used in the early stages of last year's operations in Libya, has been joined in service by an autonomous imaging infrared model (using a template for guidance), and a laser-guided version capable of engaging moving targets (at up to 50 mph) is under test.

Additionally, Rafale carries the MBDA Storm Shadow/Scalp-EG cruise missile, also used in Libya. Technically, this weapon is covered by the Missile Technology Control Regime, but France and the U.K. nevertheless sold the Black Shaheen variant to the UAE in the 1990s to arm its Mirage 2000-9s. A Saudi Panavia Tornado, meanwhile, was seen several years ago undergoing tests with Storm Shadow in support of an upgrade program.