State-of-the-art military planes vie for air supremacy in Middle East

Posted at 8:36 AM, Nov 22, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-22 08:36:33-05

By Dean Irvine

(CNN) — Even when pulling a 60-degree angle bank turn over the Dubai desert, the U.S. military’s V-22 Osprey aircraft is hardly approaching the limits of its capabilities.

“What it’s doing for us operationally, it’s changing the game plan,” says Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Duffy after the test flight at the Dubai Airshow earlier this week. “We’re still exploring what this aircraft can do.”

What the aircraft has been doing recently is helping with the relief efforts in the Philippines after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan – it’s unique ability to tilt its rotors from vertical to horizontal allows it to act like a helicopter or turboprop plane and land without need for a runway.

Duffy admits that it is a complicated aircraft to fly. Pilots — be they experienced with fighter jets or helicopters — have to train for around 24 weeks. But after all the tests and simulator hours, “it really is a thrill to fly, wherever we go people always ask us about it.”

Naturally Duffy is a fan, he’s part of the hard sell that goes on to help procure orders for Bell and co-producer Boeing, much like all the other manufactures that gathered at the airshow that employed a mix of schmoozing and test-flight “wow-factor.”

“It’s a great opportunity for all the main equipment suppliers to show both their commercial and military offerings to they key decision makers in the UAE,” says Charles Forrester, an analyst for IHS Jane’s Defense Industry.

“As domestic markets are shrinking due to budget cuts, the large manufacturers are working hard to improve their export sales into regions such as the Middle East.”

UK prime minister David Cameron flew into the UAE before the airshow began to boost the bid to sell 60 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to the Emirates.

While that deal remains unfulfilled, the rules of engagement, at least for sales of military hardware in the region, seem to be changing. The U.S. and Western European companies have long had political and economic links with many Gulf countries but more is being asked for them.

“Many countries in the region are becoming more demanding in terms of industrial participation as part of procurement,” says Forrester.

“Known as ‘offsets’, these can cover direct participation in the construction and manufacturing process, technology transfer or direct investment in a country’s defense industry.”

These offsets then are more than just sweeteners, but increasingly part of the package that aircraft manufacturers have to offer to boast sales.

Another big piece of kit that doesn’t have the advantage of an operational showreel like the V-22 Osprey is Airbus Military’s A400M airlifter — one of the newest aircraft in the skies. The first planes were delivered to the French Air Force in September.

For his part former Mirage fighter pilot and A400M test engineer Eric Isorce is thoroughly impressed with the machine after 5,700 hours of test flights. “Its like nothing else, its a real plane for the 21st Century.”

Analysts believe that will be important as delays to the aircraft development meant it missed out on some potential orders from countries in the region who were renewing their fleet of multi-use cargo planes. IHS Jane’s Defence estimates that the market for heavy-lift military planes is worth around $30B, and Airbus have stated they are keen to capture at least half of it.

But it’s not just a battle between big manufacturers from the U.S. and Europe. Russia’s recently announcement that it wishes to sell arms to Egypt to the fill the potential void left by the U.S. showing that there are plenty of other players and obstacles in the high-stakes game of selling military hardware.

“Other challenges in the region include export control regulations and embargoes,” says Forrester.

“Egypt, a key Western client country, currently has a number of arms trade suspensions against it. Some exporting countries, such as Germany, have had to deal with domestic opposition over exporting to countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia on human rights grounds.”

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