US Air Force official expects continued, possibly growing involvement in United Arab Emirates

Monday, November 16, 2009

US Air Force official expects UAE role to continue

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A senior U.S. Air Force official said Monday he expects the force’s involvement in the United Arab Emirates to continue and potentially expand.

Air Force Deputy Under Secretary Bruce Lemkin offered few specifics while speaking on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow, reflecting the sensitive issue of U.S. military involvement in the conservative Gulf Arab state.

He did, however, praise America’s relationship with the small oil-rich federation and said there was potential to deepen the Air Force’s training activities in the country, which sits just across the Persian Gulf from Iran.

“It is very gratifying to see how this relationship has grown and continues to grow,” Lemkin said. “We both view this as mutually beneficial. It’s something we certainly think will endure.”

The United States military maintains a low profile in the Emirates, which has played host to U.S. warplanes for years and where Dubai’s Jebel Ali port is a popular port of call for Navy sailors.

Lemkin said it was hard to predict whether or to what extent the air force’s footprint in the country might expand in the future, though he emphasized the role played by a training facility at al-Dhafra Air Base outside of the capital Abu Dhabi.

“Certainly from an exercise standpoint there’s lots of potential,” he said.

The U.S. is boasting one of the largest displays of military air power at the biennial Dubai Airshow, the region’s largest event of its kind. Armed U.S. troops guard a cordoned-off display of aircraft including the B-1 bomber perched on the tarmac.

One of the highlights of the show was a rare public flight outside the U.S. by the F-22 Raptor fighter, whose future was thrown into question when funding for further production was cut earlier this year. Lemkin said the plane, which remains in use, is “a very important asset to us.”

“It’s the most impressive air power demonstration I’ve ever seen,” he said when asked what message the fighter’s debut appearance at the show sends. “It shows our friends here in the UAE our commitment to this relationship by bringing our premier fighter to demonstrate here.”

The U.S. is among the biggest suppliers of the UAE air force, which uses American-made F-16s as one of two main types of fighters.

Emirati F-16 pilots wrapped up air combat training exercises in September with the U.S. Air Force at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. It was the first time the country’s pilots had taken part in the “Red Flag” training exercises.

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