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Bahrain Airshow: A look at the Royal Bahraini Air Force

Posted 16 January 2014 · Add Comment

As the Bahrain International Air Show opens this morning, defence editor Jon Lake casts an eye over the Royal Bahraini Air Force and looks at the RBAF's capabilities.

The Kingdom of Bahrain has built up a small but professional air force since independence was declared on 14 August 1971.

Although Bahrain is the smallest and least populous of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) nations, the Royal Bahraini Air Force is highly efficient, well-equipped, and relatively modern.

With a larger fast jet force than neighbouring Qatar the RBAF’s frontline tactical element is broadly equivalent in size to the fast jet elements of the Kuwait Air Force and the Royal Air Force of Oman, and is widely respected, forming a key element of GCC air power.

Like many smaller air arms, the Royal Bahraini Air Force has always placed considerable emphasis on its fast jet force, as a means of defending the Kingdom’s air space, and to be ready to defeat any attempt to invade the nation’s territory or territorial waters.

As a result Bahrain’s air force was the first in the GCC (Saudi Arabia aside) to obtain modern, ‘teen series’ fighters, in the form of F-16Cs and F-16Ds, delivered from 1989, and the RBAF became the first air arm in the region to receive AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles.

Since the Bahraini F-16s entered service, Kuwait has obtained F/A-18C/D Hornets, Qatar bought Mirage 2000-5s, Oman has received F-16C/Ds, and the UAE has equipped with F-16E/Fs and Mirage 2000-9s. And all of these air arms are now well into fighter re-equipment programmes, looking at and evaluating the next generation of fighters, typified by the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, McDonnell Douglas F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Advanced Super Hornet, and advanced variants of the F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon.

A replacement for Bahrain’s fleet of 12 ageing Northrop F-5E and F-5F Tiger II lightweight fighters was once expected in the 2010 timeframe, and it was then widely anticipated that the most likely replacement would be further F-16s. It was thought that these would form an additional squadron of about ten more F-16s to augment the 21 that are currently in service. (One F-16 was lost, with its pilot, on 27 September 2003, the RBAF’s sole fast jet loss since 1985).

But in mid-2012, reports started to emerge that Bahrain was looking at acquiring a squadron of more advanced fighters.

Externally there were reports of three different views affecting the decisionwith one keen on Eurofighter Typhoons; another favouring widening the competition for a new fighter to include the Typhoon and the French Dassault Rafale while a third option favoured acquiring more F-16s.

Eurofighter negotiations stepped up a gear after King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa met British Prime Minister David Cameron on August 6, 2013, discussing the possibility of Bahrain buying a squadron of 12 Typhoons.

In November 2013 King Hamad met British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond during the Dubai Air Show and again discussed the possibility of acquiring Eurofighter Typhoons for the Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF). Hammond will be at today’s royal opening.

Bahrain’s interest in the Eurofighter Typhoon is believed to have been encouraged by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, itself already a Typhoon operator, as well as being Bahrain’s largest and closest neighbour and the island Kingdom’s main source of military, political and financial support.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia already co-operate in the provision of air defence alert duties for the GCC’s ‘Sector B’, which covers Bahrain, Qatar and parts of Saudi Arabia’s air space, responsibility for which is shared between the RBAF and RSAF F-15C squadrons based at Dhahran.

There have been some reports that Saudi Arabia could fund Bahraini Typhoons and that 12 or 14 (reports differ) be added to the next (as yet unannounced, but widely expected) Saudi order for 48 additional aircraft.

The Eurofighter Typhoon will be flying during the air show and it could well gain some kind of ‘preferred status’ at or after the air show.

If and when Bahrain does receive a new fighter type, it will almost certainly replace the ageing Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs of the 6th Tactical Fighter Squadron (the ‘Fighting Sharks’) at Shaikh Isa AB, since replacing the F-16s as well would probably be unaffordable - and also unnecessary since the F-16 remains a potent aircraft in performance terms. Instead the 17 surviving Lockheed Martin F-16Cs and four two-seat F-16Ds of the 1st and 2nd Tactical Fighter Squadrons are likely to be modernized and upgraded, with the (perhaps faint) possibility of an order for additional aircraft to bolster the force.

Retirement of the F-5E/F will bring with it some interesting issues – the Tiger IIs of the 6th TFS fulfil a useful lead-in fighter and dissimilar air combat training commitment, and currently shoulder the burden of the anti-shipping role. The Typhoon offers a degree of anti-ship capability, with BAE Systems having already conducted initial wind tunnel tests to assess the suitability of integrating up to three Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, while Cassidian has ‘fit-checked’ and tunnel tested Saab’s RBS-15F weapon. Either of these weapons would address Bahrain’s longstanding requirement for a dedicated anti-ship weapon. Few would view the Typhoon as a potential lead-in fighter for the F-16, however, and at present the RBAF ensures that all of its F-16 pilots fly at least 300 hours on the F-5 with the 6th TFS!

Such has been the usefulness of the F-5E/F that Bahrain has rejected a number of offers to swap them for second hand F-16s, including ex-Adversary US Navy F-16Ns, surplus USAF F-16A/Bs, and the embargoed Pakistani F-16A/Bs.

An obvious solution might be for Bahrain to follow the example of Saudi Arabia and Oman by acquiring new third-generation Hawk AJT aircraft to serve as lead-in fighter trainers for its F-16s and Typhoons, exploiting the new Hawk’s ability to emulate the use of advanced sensors and systems, and to download training from that part of the fast jet conversion phase that is currently undertaken on two-seat versions of the operational fighter types.

While the RBAF F-5Es will be replaced, the Block 40 F-16C/Ds will be comprehensively modernized and contract signature for an F-16 upgrade is expected in June or July 2014, with an initial batch of aircraft being returned to service by late 2016, and with the upgrade being completed by 2018.

The upgrade will probably bring the aircraft to the F-16V configuration originally announced by Lockheed Martin at Singapore in February 2012, an upgrade which can bring almost any legacy F-16 to a standard roughly equivalent to the UAE’s Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcon the most advanced Fighting Falcon in service today – described by some as being “a half-generation ahead of the F-16 C/D Block 50/52+ aircraft that form the backbone of the US Air Force.”

The proposed F-16V upgrade (also available as a new-build aircraft) is intended to meet emerging requirements and prepare allied air forces to better interoperate with fifth generation fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22A Raptor. It includes an upgraded mission computer and avionics architecture, as well as the installation of new cockpit displays, and a Link 16 datalink.

Most crucially, the F-16V configuration includes a choice of active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, with that choice likely to be between the Northrop Grumman SABR (Scaleable Agile Beam Radar) and the Raytheon RACR (Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar). ITAR restrictions mean that Northrop's APG-80 AESA radar, used by the UAE’s Block 60 aircraft, is no longer available for export. Interestingly, the Northrop SABR has already been selected for USAF and Taiwanese (RoCAF) F-16 upgrades, while the rival Raytheon RACR has been chosen for a BAE Systems-led F-16 upgrade programme for the RoKAF.

It is expected that a variety of new weapons and associated systems would also be acquired as part of the F-16 upgrade, in order to improve and enhance both air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities.

It is expected that Bahrain will seek authorization to purchase Raytheon’s AIM-120D AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinders to replace the older AIM-120B and AIM-9M versions of these air-to-air missiles that are currently in service.

The F-16s currently use 500-lb GBU-12 and 2,000-lb GBU-10 Paveway II laser-guided bombs, and it is likely that any upgrade would see the integration of further PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions), probably including the GPS-guided Boeing JDAM, and perhaps including dual-mode (laser and GPS-guided) weapons, and probably some weapons providing greater stand-off capability. It is understood that the Lockheed Martin AN/AAQ-14 Sharpshooter LANTIRN targeting pods that were delivered in 1996 will be replaced by Lockheed Sniper targeting pods.

The RBAF has a longstanding requirement for a new stand-off weapon to replace the TV-guided AGM-65B and IIR guided AGM-65G Maverick air-to-surface missiles now in use, and for a reconnaissance pod but it remains to be seen whether these capabilities would be fielded by the upgraded F-16s, or by whatever new generation fighter replaces the F-5E/Fs.

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