U.K. could reverse a long-held defense policy in the wake of new orders from Persian Gulf states
A medley of defense procurements by Persian Gulf states, including purchases of the aircraft, could prompt a U.K. government decision to base British forces in the Middle East.
With sales of the fighter jet secured in Saudi Arabia and Oman and campaigns underway in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and, more recently, Bahrain for up to 12 aircraft, Persian Gulf leaders are said to be keen for a greater and more permanent British presence in the region as the U.K. prepares to draw down combat operations in Afghanistan. Such a move would be a dramatic reversal of the U.K.'s policy that ended the permanent basing of British forces east of the Suez Canal.
Part of the decision stems from withdrawals of troops in the 1950s and 1970s from what were once key outposts of the British Empire, places such as Singapore, Malaysia and Aden, which is now part of Yemen.
The U.K. has had a significant presence in the region since the end of Operation Desert Storm, with deployments of fighter aircraft supporting the enforcement of no-fly zones over Iraq until 2003, when the U.K. joined the coalition invasion of that country, and ongoing support of operations in Afghanistan. Today, the U.K. maintains a sizable aviation presence in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE, not to mention personnel based in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But none of this is permanent and there is expectation that much of this projected force will have returned home when operations in Afghanistan come to a conclusion at the end of 2014.
But senior U.K. officials have been talking openly about the prospect of a more permanent presence to support regional allies and build industrial relationships, hinting at greater prospects for aircraft such as the. At the end of 2012, in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London, Gen. David Richards, then chief of the defense staff, described conceptual work on setting up new “adaptable brigades” forming what he called “close tactical-level relationships” with particular countries in the Persian Gulf and Jordan.
“This would greatly enhance our ability to support allies as they contain and deter threats and, with our naval presence in Bahrain, air elements in the UAE and Qatar, and traditional but potentially enhanced roles in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, would make us a regional ally across the spectrum,” Richards said.
In July, at the Royal International Air Tattoo atFairford, Air Vice Marshal Edward Stringer, assistant chief of the air staff, said that exercises with Middle Eastern air arms in the UAE were strengthening both partnerships and relations between air arms and governments and would help industry in the long run. “That feeds back into growth and prosperity,” he said.
If the “East of Suez” policy were reversed, it is unclear where such a U.K. presence would be, but the Royal Air Force (RAF) has recently been strengthening its presence in the UAE. Even with Afghan combat operations ending in 2014, the RAF has formally established an expeditionary air wing at Al-Minhad air base, south of Dubai. While expeditionary in name, the organization supports the air bridge between the U.K. and Afghanistan as well as deployments of RAF aircraft taking part in regional exercises.
A similar expeditionary air wing at Oman's new Al Musannah air base supports RAF intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance as well as aerial refuelling operations.
The Royal Saudi Air Force already cooperates closely with the RAF and is following the U.K.'s Typhoon development track, adopting the same weapons and capabilities. The Saudis have funded key new Typhoon capabilities such as the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which Stringer said would appear “sooner” on the Typhoon than originally envisaged. Meanwhile, Saudi Typhoons and Tornadoes are expected to deploy to the U.K. in the coming weeks to train with the RAF for Exercise Green Flag.
A U.K. presence would likely mirror one France established in the UAE in 2009 with the opening of an enclave at the Al-Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi. The base is home tofighters and temporarily detached support aircraft such as the E-3 Sentry and KC-135 tankers. The French presence also includes naval and army facilities and around 500 personnel.
is to shortly enter its bid to provide the Typhoon to the UAE government to replace the country's aging fleet of Mirage 2000-9s. BAE also sees potential for a follow-up order for 48-72 Typhoons for the Royal Saudi Air Force on top of the 72 aircraft currently being built in the U.K. for the Saudis.
With Oman's order for 12 aircraft and possibly another 12 Typhoons for Bahrain, the lucrative industrial opportunities could push the U.K. to look east sooner rather than later.