UAE to Order Up to 48 Chinese L-15 Fighter/Trainers: Phasing British Jets Out of Service

Following its announcement of plans to acquire 80 French Rafale lightweight fighters, and widespread reports of its interest in and support for the Russian Checkmate fighter program, the United Arab Emirates has selected the Chinese Hongdu L-15 to serve as its air force’s next generation jet trainer. 12 of the aircraft will reportedly be purchased in an initial batch with options for up to 36 more, making a total acquisition of 48 aircraft likely. Chief executive of the Tawazun Economic Council, Tariq Abdul Rahim Al Hosani, reportedly stated regarding the deal: “We have reached the final stages of negotiations with the Chinese side, and a final agreement will be concluded soon.” The L-15 was notably exhibited at the Dubai air show in November 2021, and is widely considered the most capable trainer in the world in terms of combat performance allowing it to also operate highly capably as a formidable lightweight fighter. 

The L-15 is one of the lightest manned combat jets in the world to use twin engines, providing engine redundancy for combat missions and thus improved survivability. It also contributes to the aircraft’s high fly performance, which is comparable to that of the American F-16 Fighting Falcon already in UAE service albeit with a significantly lower speed and endurance. The L-15 is a derivative of the JL-10 trainer which entered service from 2010, and is considered more advanced than China’s other trainer classes the JL-8 and JL-9. The fact that the L-15 which integrates greater combat capabilities onto the same airframe design was selected over the JL-10 could indicate that the UAE intends it to have a secondary combat role. The aircraft makes use of an electronically scanned array radar and can reportedly even deploy PL-12 active radar guided air to air missiles for standoff air to air engagements. This alone is sufficient to provide an advantage in air to air combat over the large majority of fighters fielded by neighbouring Iran, which use mechanically scanned radars and in all but two squadrons lack access to active radar guided missiles. The purchase of the L-15 comes after the UAE reportedly rejected efforts by the U.S. to tie the sale of F-35 fighters to Abu Dhabi’s rejection of Huawei telecoms infrastructure, with the country choosing Huawei over the stealth fighters and resisting pressure from Washington to weaken ties to China. This could potentially pave the way to more acquisitions of Chinese armaments, with the UAE already being a major operator of Chinese Wing Loong series attack drones. 

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