The UAE may drop France's Dassault Rafales and could opt for Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets for its $10 billion (Dh36.7 billion) acquisition deal, according to sources.
The UAE authorities approached Boeing about a month ago and were directed to the US government, which is expected to respond in a month or so. The UAE has requested technical information on the Super Hornet, Defense News magazine reported on its website, quoting an Arabian Gulf defense source.
"The UAE is asking the US for information on the F/A-18 Super Hornet in the single and twin-seater version. It is in the very early stages; it's a preliminary contact.
The UAE has opened the door to them," the source said.
It's not clear why Abu Dhabi has suddenly expressed interest in the latest version of the US strike fighter. Technology may be part of the reason, but politics is likely the main cause, Defense News said.
But the news will come as a severe upset to the French government and industry, which had confidently expected to secure a sale of the Dassault jet without competition.
"This is worth about $10 billion, depending on the delivery dates and specification," the Gulf source said.
The deal means even more to the French administration, which has invested much political capital and effort in pitching the jet to the Gulf state.
The UAE is looking to replace the 63 Dassault Mirage 2000-9s it bought just over a decade ago, it said.
It was not immediately clear why the UAE is exploring a US-made option but the US sources told the magazine that Gulf state is believed to be frustrated over price and the technology offered by France.
UAE authorities have been negotiating with the French government and industry a potential co-development of a more capable "fifth-generation" model of the Rafale.
The UAE is being asked to pay to upgrade the Rafale, while the F-18 is already at the desired technological level.
The Gulf source said, "The Super Hornet has everything we need. We don't need to co-develop or modify it."
Upgrades under discussion include a longer-range active electronically scanned radar, a more capable Spectra electronic warfare suite and a M88 engine that gives 9 tonnes of thrust, 1.5 tonnes more than the ones in the French Air Force's Rafales.
French Defense Minister Hervé Morin has said developing the upgrades would cost UAE around 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion). France itself would also bear some of the cost, Defense News said.
Media reports have estimated the actual development cost to UAE at €4 billion to €5 billion. Morin dismissed those figures as "fantastic."
The UAE did help bankroll the development of the Block 60 version of the Lockheed Martin F-16 and owns some of the technology. The UAE bought 80 of the so-called Desert Falcon planes for $7.2 billion in the 1990s under a policy of spreading purchases among suppliers.
Besides negotiations with Abu Dhabi, Dassault has fielded the Rafale in contests in Brazil, India and Switzerland. Paris also enjoyed last year a period of exclusive talks with Libya, which lapsed without a deal, the magazine said.
News portal Defencetalk.com also reported that the UAE has requested technical information on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, indicating it wants competition in its search to replace its fleet of Mirage 2000-9 jets first purchased from French company Dassault in 1983.
France has failed to win an export contract for its new-generation Rafale and has pinned its hopes on several prospective markets, including Brazil, India, Kuwait and the UAE, with the latter deemed a likely candidate due to its familiarity with French aviation and traditional reliance upon French defense hardware.