UAE agrees to buy its first Chinese fixed wing military aircraft: L-15

UMEX 2022: The United Arab Emirates Ministry of Defense announced Wednesday that it intends to acquire a dozen advanced Chinese trainers, signaling a major strategic shift in a longstanding policy of acquiring only Western military warplanes and further advancing strategic ties between the oil-rich Sheikhdom and Beijing.

The announcement was made at the conclusion of a three-day joint trade show that combined the Unmanned Systems Exhibition (UMEX) with the Simulation and Training Exhibition (SIMTEX) in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

“The UAE Ministry of Defense has provided a Letter of Intention to the Chinese CATIC corporation for the purchase of 12 L-15 aircrafts, and also has the intention to purchase additional 36 planes in the future. The L-15 is an advanced trainer and a light combat aircraft, and is considered one of the latest technology in this field,” said UAE Air Force Col. Abdulnaser Al Humeidi, the official spokesman for UMEX and SIMTEX show.

Al Humeidi told Breaking Defense that the exact value of the projected deal will be announced by the MoD in the near future, and added that this step comes in line with UAE policy to diversify the sources of its defense platforms.

The Chinese National Aero-Technology Imports and Export Corporation (CATIC) is a state-owned entity that specializes in building aviation products.

This is not the first time the UAE has purchased a Chinese defense system. In 2017, the UAE procured an undisclosed number of the Wing Loong II unmanned attack aerial vehicles (UCAV) built by the Chinese Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. The decision reportedly came after the US refused to sell UCAVs to UAE to use in its war against the Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen.

However, the L-15 deal, if it goes through, would mark a dramatic shift in the UAE tradition of procuring only Western-built fixed wing military aircrafts.

This L-15 announcement reflects “a confidence crisis, and the US should review its calculations and mend the relations with the UAE,” said Fahd Al Halabieh a Dubai-based writer and defense analyst. He attributed this crisis to a series of recent political spats over many issues related to Iran, the war in Yemen and the ties with China.

It is worth mentioning that UAE relations with the US took a dramatic turn after the Biden Administration halted a $23 billion deal signed by the previous Trump Administration to sell the Gulf state F-35 fighters, precision-strike weapons and MQ-9B UAVs. The UAE decided last December to withdraw its Letter of Offer Acceptance after the US government insisted on the UAE cancelling a 5G communication network deal with Huawei as a condition to proceed with the package defense agreement.

The US goal in holding up the F-35 sale was to try and sever the ties between UAE and Beijing. Instead, it may have ironically pushed the Emiratis closer to China.

Al Humeidi announced at the closure of the trade show that a total of 12 contracts collectively worth just over two billion dirhams ($544 million) were signed during UMEX & SIMTEX between the UAE MoD and companies taking part in the show. The majority of the agreements were with local defense companies.

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