This column was written by Reuben F. Johnson.
According to yesterday's news, the controversial deal that would have had a United Arab Emirates firm, Dubai Ports World, take over the management of six major U.S. ports is now dead. The Dubai-based firm has decided, in the face of congressional opposition and an almost endless campaign of inflammatory and polemical grandstanding by some members of Congress, to withdraw from the deal.
One of those leading the pack in denouncing the DP World bid was New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her opposition to this UAE company has been only slightly short of hysterical, including at one point an analogy to the national security concerns that faced the United States in 1957 with the launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union.
It is both amusing and ironic that the junior senator from New York chose a moment in aerospace history as the analogy that justified her decision on this issue. However, one wonders what her husband and the rest of his administration were thinking when another moment in aerospace history occurred during the waning days of his administration.
Early in 2000 and well before the presidential election that placed the current occupant in the White House the Clinton administration signed off on a contract that permitted the UAE Air Force to purchase 80 Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Block 60 model fighter aircraft.
The Block 60 (as it is commonly referred to in order to differentiate it from all other versions of the F-16) is the most advanced model of the long-serving U.S. fighter. Its complement of onboard systems includes a new-generation electronic warfare (EW) system, the APG-80 Active Electronically Scanning Array (AESA) radar, and a new integrated infrared targeting system, all of which were designed and built by Northrop Grumman. The UAE is the only air force operating this model of the F-16. Not even the U.S. Air Force has the Block 60 in its inventory.
For those who think this is no big deal, let me set you straight. AESA radar technology is the most revolutionary development in fighter aircraft since the invention of the air-to-air missile supplanted machine guns as the primary air-to-air weapon in air combat.
It turns a fighter's radar dish – once a mechanically steered antenna that was a maintenance and reliability headache and could usually only lock onto an opposing aircraft--into a fixed, electronically beaming, multifunction array that can simultaneously track and fire on other aircraft, select and drop ordnance on ground targets, transmit EW to jam other aircraft, and create maps using its electronic imaging capability. It also changes the role of a fighter pilot from that of a silk-scarf wearing warrior who is out to joust with his opponent in a cockpit some miles away into an all-encompassing battlespace manager who can change the entire balance in a zone of military conflict in an instant.
Both the F-22A Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) – also built by Lockheed Martin – will be equipped with AESA radars, but the Raptor only entered into service with the USAF in limited numbers last year, and the F-35 is still in development. Based on the outcry over the DP World contract, one would think that Sen. Clinton and her allies in this fight would have been all over the F-16E/F deal and would be demanding that in the name of national security these fighters be either returned to the United States straightaway or be cut up and melted down into razor blades. ("To think that an A-rab country has already been given a technology that our own air force is only now taking delivery of. How could this have happened?")
It also would not have been much trouble for the senator and her colleagues to discover what the F-16E/F's AESA radar is all about. The unit was designed and is built a stone's throw away at the Northrop Grumman radar division in Baltimore. I took a tour of the production line myself this past December.
The real-world, adult answer as to why the UAE has been sold such a powerful weapon system is two-fold.
One is that this small, Arab state has proved to be one of America's most reliable allies in the region. After Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the UAE was one of the few countries in the region that permitted the United States to pre-position military equipment on its territory in case we would have to return at a later date to engage in another conflict with Iraq. As it turned out, we did come back and the UAE's willingness to let us use their country as an equipment depot saved countless lives and untold sums of money.
The other reason is that the Block 60 was a record-making program in which the small, Middle Eastern nation paid for the development of this variant of the fighter. In so doing, the cost of developing the AESA radar and much of the avionics suite used in the F-35 was significantly reduced. In other words, the UAE royal family's willingness to risk funding this technology – at a time when the expense of doing so was at its height and the certainty of what the end result would be was at its lowest – resulted in a huge windfall for the U.S. taxpayer when it came time to develop the F-35.
Havin spent a lot of time in the UAE over the last 13 years, I can see why it is one of the America's favorite regional partners. In contrast to most of its neighbors, it is a liberal and largely tolerant society that is free of violent political conflict and has a booming economy.
The UAE is considered to be such an island of sensible governance that other Middle Easterners who have the means to do so often quit their own nations and move to Dubai or Abu Dhabi – the two largest of the seven emirates that make up the UAE. Dubai now has a growing colony of wealthy Iranians who have tired of the fanaticism of the regime at home and the stifling corruption that is part of everyday life in Iran.
Dubai and the other emirates are far from perfect models of democracy, but they are worlds ahead of Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. If there is any hope for the region at all, it will be because other countries become more like the UAE. One would think that such a nation would receive preferential treatment from the Congress rather than the abuse they have suffered recently.
Reuben F. Johnson is the Defense Correspondent for Aviation International News and for Military Periscope, a Washington, D.C.-based defense information service.
By Reuben F. Johnson