UAE military interested in 'fifth-generation' fighter jets

DUBAI (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates military is interested in fifth-generation fighter jets, a senior air force official said on Saturday.

Deputy Commander Rashed al-Shamsi's comments indicate a possible preference for Lockheed Martin Corp's LMT.N F-35 which is the only Western-made jet that fully meets those requirements, according to its manufacturer.

“We are interested in new technology ... and so to have a fifth-generation capability is something of interest to the UAE Air Force and Air Defense,” al-Shamsi told reporters at a military conference in Dubai.

Fifth generation is a definition that varies according to each manufacturer but broadly includes advanced stealth capability and a high level of computerized connectivity between fighter jets.

The U.S. has sold the F-35 to a range of allies, including Turkey, South Korea, Japan, and Israel, but sales to the Gulf require a deeper review due to U.S. policy for Israel to maintain a qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

Al-Shamsi said the UAE had heard that the United States could now be willing to sell them the stealth fighter jet.

The UAE is one of the U.S.’s closest Middle East allies. It hosts American soldiers in the country, and has flown sorties against the so-called Islamic States as part of a U.S.-led coalition.

The UAE was also the first foreign country to purchase the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.

U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Stephen Wilson told Reuters that he expected the UAE would soon be briefed on the F-35, but said he was not able to provide a time frame on when that would happen.

He said he was not aware of any classified briefings on the stealth fighter jet at the week long Dubai Airshow which starts on Sunday.

On Friday, Wilson said the U.S. was in talks to sell F-35 fighter jets to partner nations, but did not disclose which countries. [nL8N1NG5FT]

The UAE has been analyzing the European Eurofighter Typhoon and the French Dassault Rafale fighter jets for years, though deals for the fourth generation jets have never been secured.

The F-35 is made by Lockheed Martin Corp, with companies including Northrop Grumman Corp NOC.N, United Technologies Corp's UTX.N Pratt & Whitney and BAE Systems Plc BAES.L also involved.

Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; editing by Ros Russell