Dubai Airshow Becomes Stage For Russia-U.S. Competition

The Checkmate fighter concept press conference in Dubai
United Aircraft Corp. CEO Yuri Slyusar briefed the press about the Checkmate fighter concept in Dubai on Nov. 14.
Credit: Mark Wagner

A global competition for influence played out among the exhibit stands and static displays thronging the Dubai Airshow, with U.S. and Russian officials openly vying to strengthen ties with the United Arab Emirates’ powerful military.

Russian officials, led by Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov and United Aircraft Corp. General Director Yury Slyusar, sought to build on a 2018 strategic partnership agreement with the UAE government, flogging offers for prime development and production roles in the new Sukhoi Checkmate fighter concept and the MS-21-300 airliner while securing a letter of intent from the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) defense and security acquisitions authority for 100 Russian-origin, light single VRT-500 helicopters.

  • Checkmate fighter mockup unveiled at air show
  • U.S. officials still mum on UAE F-35 order status

Meanwhile, a 300-strong U.S. government delegation led by Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mira Resnick came on a reassurance mission, seeking to prevent gains by competitors despite ongoing talks over critical security details of implementing an agreement to sell 50 Lockheed Martin F-35As to the UAE.

“Our presence and our relationships with Middle East partners help prevent efforts by Russia and China to extend their influence into the region,” Resnick told journalists in Dubai on the sidelines of the air show.

To that end, U.S. officials offered a mixed bag of benefits and threats to the UAE security establishment, dangling the opportunity to finally seal the F-35A deal and reminding the Emiratis that buying some types of Russian hardware could trigger sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa).

“Our partners know the risks of sanctions and that we are very serious about implementing Caatsa, whether it is in this region or around the world,” Resnick said.

The air show passed with no update from either side on the status of talks about the 10-month-old F-35A sales agreement with the UAE. The Trump administration approved the stealth fighter export to the UAE last January, with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying after he left office that the F-35A deal was critical to brokering a UAE agreement to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Biden administration decided in April to move forward with the sale, but talks have stalled over sensitive details of keeping the aircraft secure in a country that uses Chinese suppliers, such as Huawei, for information technology infrastructure.

“We continue consulting with Emirati officials to ensure that we have an unmistakably clear mutual understanding with respect to Emirati obligations and actions before, during and after delivery,” Resnick said.

U.S. officials do not seem to be in any hurry to finalize the details or set a firm timetable for delivery in five or six years.

“Those production dates are far in the future for those sales, so if implemented, we have some real time to be able to consult . . . with the UAE to ensure that any defense transfers meet our mutual national security strategic objectives to really build a stronger, interoperable, more capable security partnership while protecting U.S. technology,” Resnick said.

In the meantime, Russia is seeking to expand on a nascent partnership with the country, despite historic tensions over Moscow’s support for Iran and Abu Dhabi’s financial backing of the Chechen separatist movement in the 1990s. Both governments are united in opposition to the popular democracy movements that gave rise to the Arab Spring. Their warming relations have been noticed in Washington. On the eve of the air show, the UAE foreign minister became the most high-ranking Emirati dignitary to visit Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad, which drew a rebuke from the Biden administration.

“This administration will not express any support for efforts to normalize or rehabilitate Bashar Assad, who is a brutal dictator,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Nov. 9.

The flare-up set the stage for a particularly aggressive marketing push by Russia’s aerospace and defense industry during the show. That included the surprise arrival of the Russian Knights air force display team, the Dubai debuts of the Russian Helicopters Mi-28N and Kazan Ka-52 attack helicopters, along with the United Engine Corp. PD-14-powered version of the Irkut MC-21-300 and a glitzy unveiling of the Checkmate mockup inside a special pavilion on the static display.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 mockup, Dubai Airshow
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 mockup offered Dubai Airshow visitors a preview of the real thing, but the UAE’s order for 50 fighters remains on hold as U.S. officials continue negotiating details. Credit: Mark Wagner

But evidence suggests the UAE remains wary of any deals with Russia that could upset relations with the West. A February 2017 agreement between the UAE government and Rostec to pursue codevelopment of a sixth-generation fighter dissolved quickly, as the passage of Caatsa eight months later exposed such deals to the risk of sanctions. So far, the U.S. has only applied Caatsa sanctions over deliveries of the S-400 air defense system to Turkey and S-400 and Su-35 fighter deliveries to China.

But the Russian delegation at the Dubai Airshow offered other options to the Emiratis for deeper industrial collaboration. During the media unveiling of the Checkmate pavilion on Nov. 14, Slyusar said he had discussed with Mubadala about the UAE conglomerate’s becoming a supplier for the MC-21, especially through Mubadala’s Strata subsidiary, which specializes in building composite structures. The MC-21 features an advanced composite wing and a fuselage made from aluminum-lithium material.

The UAE’s multilateral diplomacy will encourage further courting from the world’s great powers, especially as its already mighty Arab military continues to modernize. Led by the elite units of the UAE Air Force, Joint Aviation Command and Presidential Guard, Emirati forces have impressed world militaries, executing a logistically complicated amphibious invasion in South Yemen in 2015 and being trusted to provide close air support to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch has condemned UAE tactics in Yemen, including the ongoing occupation of the Socotra archipelago in the Arabian Sea. But the amphibious invasions, named Operation Golden Arrow, show advanced military capabilities, including the ability to sustain a cross-domain invasion force far from its borders. “A clear majority of NATO nations would struggle to perform any operation analogous to Operation Golden Arrow,” David Roberts, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute, wrote in a 2020 issue of the Security Studies academic journal.

But it is clear that the UAE has not finished modernizing. The ongoing talks over orders for 50 F-35As and 18 General Atomics MQ-9Bs top a longer shopping list of new aircraft, which reportedly may include a batch of Dassault Rafales from France. An order for 24 Calidus B-250 light attack aircraft are still in production, and the Abu Dhabi-based manufacturer unveiled the 9-metric-ton B-350 turbo-prop attack fighter during the show.

The next step for the UAE and its neighbors is to address the rising threat of ballistic and cruise missiles. Attacks by Iranian and Houthi forces in Yemen have renewed calls for an interconnected regional missile shield for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE already operates the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense and Patriot systems, and the latter is operated or has been ordered by all of the other GCC members except Oman. The members now plan to integrate those systems, as well as others, into a networked, regional system.

“The aim is an integrated air-and-missile-defense dome working first nationally and then across the Gulf Cooperation Council [nations] in the future,” Bahraini Air Vice Marshal Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah al-Khalifa tells Aviation Week.

The threat of U.S. sanctions did not stop Russia’s Almaz-Antey Corp. from marketing the S-350E Vityaz and short-range Abakan air defense systems in the Dubai Airshow exhibit hall.

U.S. officials, of course, plan to offer an alternative.

“I think that the most salient defense requirements that we are seeing right now are on counter-[unmanned] aircraft systems,” Resnick said. “This is something that we will continue to work on with our partners to be able to address those defensive capabilities. There are often layered solutions to this problem.” 

—With Tony Osborne in Dubai

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.