Despite its small population and size, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has built an impressive military replete with experienced personnel and advanced weapons. It has also shown time and again that it’s not afraid to use it.
Under an arms deal pushed by the outgoing Trump administration, the UAE has sought to buy 50 fifth-generation stealthy F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, armed Reaper drones, and possibly EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes. Such an enormous, and arguably game-changing, acquisition would substantially improve the Emirati military’s offensive and technological capabilities.
However, the delivery of any of these weapons is not a done deal and could well be reversed in the near future, especially now that the Trump administration isn’t getting a second term. And even if these potential arms sales are all approved, it will take up to seven years for the hardware to be delivered.
Either way, the UAE already fields an impressive military.
Mohammed bin Zayed, the present-day crown prince and de-facto ruler of the UAE, was the commander of the UAE Air Force (UAEAF) in 1991, aged just 29-years-old. The young prince set in motion a series of stupendous arms deals with the United States that transformed the hitherto unremarkable UAEAF into a very modern air force equipped with F-16 jet fighter-bombers and Apache helicopter gunships.
In the late 1990s, the UAE ordered 80 F-16 Block 60s, then the most sophisticated version of the iconic aircraft, for $8 billion. The sale was a big deal since it “marked the first time the United States had sold a better aircraft overseas than its own forces fly.”
The UAEAF also fields a fleet of over 60 French-built fourth-generation Dassault Mirage 2000 multirole fighter jets.
And oil-rich Abu Dhabi hasn’t been purchasing such advanced aircraft just because it can afford to. As Kenneth Pollack, an expert on Arab militaries, put it in a recent paper on the Emirati armed forces: “Unlike so many other Arab militaries, the UAE does not buy expensive planes for other people to fly or just to show them off. They identify the planes they need for the missions they intend to perform, and then fly them themselves.”
The UAEAF has successfully flown combat operations in conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
Not only does the UAE tout a powerful air force, but it has also shown a willingness over the years to send its troops into active conflict zones both in the immediate region and beyond. Emirati troops fought in Afghanistan alongside the Americans and sent ground forces against Houthi fighters in the Yemeni port city of Hodeida.
This is a highly notable feat for a country with a population of just under 10 million, and with most of that population consisting of ex-patriots.
“What makes the UAE unique, according to current and former U.S. military officials, is a combination of great oil wealth, which has allowed the country to buy advanced weapons and fund extensive training programs, and a willingness to put its personnel and equipment in harm’s way by participating in coalition operations,” was how one 2014 Washington Post report summed up the United States’ military relations with the UAE.
The UAE army operates over 400 French-built Leclerc main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) procured from various countries, including over 3,000 International M1224 MaxxPro mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) from the United States and just under 600 BMP-3s from Russia. Additionally, Abu Dhabi has built thousands of Nimr (Arabic for ‘Tiger’) APCs which have been combat tested.
While the UAE undoubtedly has an impressive army and air force. Its navy, on the other hand, is considerably less impressive.
In an article for Defense One, Bilal Y. Saab suggested that rather than acquire F-35s, Abu Dhabi should instead consider buying more warships to counter Iran’s much more powerful naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf.
“While the Gulf Arab partners have conventional air dominance over Iran’s antiquated air force, that script is flipped at sea,” Saab wrote. “The Gulf Arab navies are so weak that were it not for the U.S. Fifth Fleet constantly patrolling the waters of the region, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be wreaking havoc seven days a week.”
Indeed, the UAE’s navy is small but, nevertheless, certainly not helpless. It operates corvettes and patrol boats, and even amphibious assault ships, which participated in the above-mentioned Hodeida assault.
Abu Dhabi seemingly recognizes the comparative weakness of this branch of its military and has consequently sought to, at least partially, rectify this shortcoming by ordering two French-built Gowind-class corvettes, which will be equipped with Exocet anti-ship and RIM-162 Evolved SeaSparrow air defense missiles, in a $850 million deal. Perhaps, as Saab suggested, it would be wise for the UAE to build up a strong independent navy while it can still count on the protection of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Nevertheless, the existing UAE navy has demonstrated its usefulness in the Yemeni conflict. After evaluating its shortcomings, Pollack argued that the Emirati navy “deserves credit” for its sealift operations during the UAE campaign in Yemen.
“The vast bulk of Emirati forces were moved by sea, including the various mechanized battalion task forces and artillery formations that were often the decisive element in the Saudi-Emirati-Hadi coalition’s military victories,” he wrote. “Likewise, the vast majority of the UAE’s logistical support came by sea, including for the JAC [UAE’s Joint Aviation Command] and Emirati air force.”
Regardless of whether or not Abu Dhabi ultimately procures fifth-generation aircraft and more advanced drones, its military will undoubtedly remain a highly formidable force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.