France-UAE Rafale Deal Aimed at Weakening Russia? Analysts Speculate Effort to Kill Checkmate Fighter

On December 3 it was announced that a contract worth over $19 billon (€17 billion) had been signed during first day of a visit to the Persian Gulf by French President Emmanuel Macron for the sale of 80 Rafale fighters and 12 Caracal military transport helicopters to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). French Defence Minister Florence Parly called the deal “historic,” claiming that it would contribute “directly to regional stability.” The contract is over twice the size of any prior Rafale export deal, other than an early Indian contract which the client pulled out of due to dissatisfaction with French implementation, and represents a very major boon to France's defence sector particularly as French orders for the fighter are not considered sufficient to keep production lines open. The Rafale seriously struggled to gain export clients in its early years, losing out to the American F-16E Desert Falcon for a prior UAE contract after Abu Dhabi slammed the French offer as "uncompetitive and unworkable,” and losing to the F-16, Su-30, F-35 and F-15 respectively in Morocco, Algeria, Belgium and Switzerland and South Korea and Singapore among other failed bids. The fighters are expected to replace the ageing Mirage 2000 jets in the UAE fleet, while the country plans to purchase F-35s from the United States to eventually replace its F-16Es. 

Preceding the Rafale deal it was widely expected that the UAE would make no further purchases of non-stealth pre-fifth generation aircraft, and alongside the F-35 would acquire Russian Checkmate stealth fighters which it was reportedly involved in the development of. The UAE and Russia were reported to be jointly developing a lightweight fifth generation fighter from 2017, with the Checkmate thought to be the result of this effort and intended primarily for the UAE Air Force at least in its initial years of production. The UAE had long shown a strong interest in Russian fighters, and in the 1990s came close to order the Su-27M/Su-35 until French and broader Western pressure scuppered the deal in favour of the much lighter and less sophisticated Mirage 2000 - the fighter the Rafale will now replace. The Rafale acquisition, however, has left little place in the UAE fleet for a Russian fifth generation fighter. 

The surprising purchase of the Rafale, a fighter which is older and considerably less capable in almost all parameters than the Checkmate and F-35 and previously even lost out to the F-16, has fuelled speculation that the deal could be part of an effort to undermine Russia’s defence sector. By pressing a potential major client to acquire Western arms, thus again denying an export-reliant Russian fighter program much needed revenues, the Checkmate program could be delayed if not terminated entirely much as the Su-27M/35 was in the 1990s. While the dealings behind major arms deals can largely only be speculated, based on prevailing trends in recent decades a not insignificant possibility remains that Abu Dhabi was pressed into withdrawing from the Checkmate program and acquiring the Rafale instead as a means to place further pressure on Russia at a time of mounting tensions between Moscow and the Western world.

Relations between Moscow and NATO member states are poorer than they have been in some years due to tensions in Ukraine and Belarus, the latter which is increasingly integrating with Russia despite substantial Western efforts to bring it into the West’s sphere of influence. Some analysts even speculated that the U.S. could have pressed Abu Dhabi, over which it long held considerable influence, to acquire the Rafale over the Checkmate as a means to both mollify France over the loss of a submarine deal with Australia, for which Paris had blamed Washington, as well as to deny Russia’s defence sector much-needed revenues. With the UAE market likely lost, the future of the Checkmate fighter program remains in serious question with potential negative repercussions across Russia’s military aviation industry. The Rafale program, meanwhile, has gained the greatest boost since the fighter first entered service in 2001.

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