Weeks before the Covid-19 travel restrictions, at DIAC-2019 ESD spoke
to the long-time commander of the Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF), AVM Hamad bin Abdullah al Khalifah. The RBAF is currently renewing two critical platforms. Nevertheless, the small service is combat-proven.
ESD: Bahrain’s Shaikh Isa AB has experienced many coalition activities, including the Operations “Southern Watch”, “Desert Fox” and “Iraqi Freedom”. While the RBAF stayed out of these operations, its F-16s have flown more than 3,500 missions in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen since March 2015. What are your main commitments now?
AVM al Khalifah: I would like to recall the RBAF’s involvement in the liberation of Kuwait only one year after the introduction of the F-16. And yes, we provided close support along Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen. But that does not mean that we have nothing to do today, because we have obligations as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In this regional alliance, our squadron has the responsibility to be on QRA alert for a region called Sector B. This includes Bahrain, and parts of Saudi Arabian and Qatari airspace. We share the mission with Dhahran AB’s RSAF F-15Cs. Our forces are fully prepared to defend the Kingdom’s land, air and sea borders and be the bulwark against anyone who attempts to obstruct its security and stability.
ESD: In December 2019, Lockheed-Martin started production of the first new 16 F-16V Block 70/72 FIGHTING FALCON, for which RBAF became the launch customer for 12 single and four double-seaters. How are you preparing for this technical renewal? Will HAWK or F-5 pilots fly the new platforms?
AVM al Khalifah: The new F-16s will complement our current capabilities and will be integrated with those of other Allied air forces. Of course, we have begun preparations. Some of our pilots are already in training in the US for the new VIPERs, and pilots of the HAWK and F-5E are also involved. And the infrastructure is being built or renovated to be ready for the time after 2022.
ESD: Lockheed Martin hoped that your 20 Block 40 F-16C/D would also be upgraded to this latest standard, so that you would have a fleet of 36 F-16Vs in total. But this has not been aimed for until today. Why?
AVM al Khalifah: Our priorities are clearly the 16 new Block 70s, as our current fleet has been modernised to a high standard and will be extremely efficient until the Block 70s arrive and are fully implemented and integrated. We do not yet know what happens after that. We also have to think about the budget, as we are also purchasing new AH-1Z COBRA VIPER attack helicopters.
ESD: What about the RBAF’s 30-year-old F-5Es: Will they be used together with the HAWK Mk129 for training purposes? In the USA the F-5s are highly regarded as aggressors. You could offer a similar service within the GCC. How is your training currently structured? How many pilots are trained per year in total?
AVM al Khalifah: The 12 F-5E/Fs will be in service for a while longer. They will be used as a multipurpose platform. One of their tasks is to provide Lead-in-Fighter Training (LIFT) for the F-16s, since they are supersonic aircraft. However, they will continue to be used in the air-to-ground mission role. As far as our training is concerned, students generally go to EgyptAF Academy, King Faisal Air Academy in Saudi Arabia [flying the PC-9 and PC-21] and the United Arab Emirates [on the PC-7 and PC-21 at Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayad Air College].
Returning pilots from Egypt go directly to the F-5s. If they have been in the KSA and the UAE, they start with the HAWK Mk129 and then with the F-5s. In total, about 20 pilots are trained per year.
ESD: You just signed a contract to purchase 12 AH-1Zs for US$912M. You are already one of the few operators of the previous COBRA series. At BIDEC-2019, an RBAF-coloured model AIM-9 carried ATA missiles. Would that be a desired configuration?
AVM al Khalifah: Well, the 12 new aircraft are currently under construction and deliveries will start at the end of 2022 and be completed in 2023. A fully assembled Flight Training Device (FTD) will also be delivered in 2020. As for a specific configuration for Bahrain, this is being discussed with our officers in the US. Any ammunition would be part of separate contracts.
ESD: What will happen to the 22 senior AH-1E/F and eight TAH-1P instructors stationed in Riffa? Were they retrofitted by Turkish Aerospace in 2015? TAI claimed in 2017 that the ASELFLIR-300T EO/IR tower and glass cockpit and avionics systems from their T129 would be included.
AVM al Khalifah: Let me just say that a large part of our current COBRA fleet will be significantly improved, which will help us to continue our contribution to the security of our Kingdom and the Gulf region.
ESD: Thank you.
The interview was conducted by Georg Mader.