The United Arab Emirates has distinguished itself with its strategic ambitions and visionary statesmanship. This is especially true in the realm of defense and security, with their intense focus on maintaining strategic superiority, especially via the use of the “fighter-drone” pair. Sheikh Mohammad ben Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and vice-commander of the Emirati Armed Forces, has no doubt played a large part in setting this strategy and orienting the Emirati interest towards the “fighter-drone” pair. He was after all a former pilot and air force commander. Emirati leadership recognizes the importance of using both fighter aircraft and combat drones as a guarantee of maintaining Emirati air superiority in the region, as it is built up progressively over many years until the achieving of lasting air supremacy. This is the pillar of their capability to deter asymmetrical enemies and conventional regional powers like Iran.
Indeed, the UAE armed forces have a strategic rivalry and opposition from known ends, mainly the Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The experience and technological progress that they’ve gained in theaters of operation with the progressive use of drones allows them to effectively manage the threats posed by their strategic rivals. They’ve advanced to the point where the Emirati armed forces can now intercept drones with limited specifications of stealth, speed, and firepower. However, their ability to do so remains limited, and they are vulnerable to better equipped adversaries who can rely on swarms of drones to overwhelm the Emirati systems. In the face of this qualitative or quantitative advantage, Emirati air superiority is no longer guaranteed.
Abu Dhabi is threatened by the improvement rate in their rival’s UAV arsenals, especially in terms of interception and operational theaters. This drives the Emirati Armed Forces to constantly improve their integrated systems that incorporate targeted programs, R&D capabilities and their integration with local industries, and cooperative dialogue with friendly nations. It is this drive that secures the UAE’s air superiority against limited state and non-state actors in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Unfortunately, air superiority cannot be guaranteed in the medium-long term given the geopolitical, military, and technological developments expected.
The UAE’s drones vie for Air Dominance
According to MESP, a boutique defense consultancy firm, the ambition of the UAE is to position itself as a regional leader beyond its geographical weight by achieving air dominance in a competitive military environment. This legitimizes their fixation on the combat “aircraft-drone” pair which would enable their mastery of stealth technologies. The UAE has perfectly understood the long-term benefits of utilizing the combat “aircraft-drone” as a foil to their adversaries’ ground-to-air defense systems. However, the proliferation of systems like the Russian S-400 and future S-500 threatens the qualitative advantage of the Emirati Armed Forces, as does a battery of Turkish or Chinese drones being acquired by regional state and non-state actors.
Facing this dual threat, already potent and yet growing moreso every day, the UAE might see advantage in combining combat aircraft with drones to maintain their battlefield superiority. This battlefield pairing deters the risk of an imposed operational denial of access by states larger than itself and even manages to effectively threaten their assets. Building on this air superiority, the Emirati’s ultimate ambition is to achieve air dominance in the region, with the capability of maintaining air bridges and imposing no-fly zones being achievable.
UAE Strategic Partnerships
Abu Dhabi has adopted a tendency of assessing its partners’ technological and military capabilities according to the strength of their [combat] drone programs and their integration into their respective national defense framework. This assessment helps determine who the UAE partners with, with Israel being the latest such partner. The Emiratis are not alone in pursuing the combat “aircraft-drone” pair, in fact the competition in the region is particularly high. Sheikh Mohammad ben Zayed Al Nahyan and staff recognize that these technologies, when combined together, are fundamental to the maintenance of the UAE’s strategic position which is marked by its effective use of soft and hard power beyond the limitations of its demographic and geographic components. Drones are the future of air defense, and it is looking increasingly likely that the UAE is a pioneer of that future.