1st Time! PLAAF Jets, F-16s & Mirage 2000s Could Roar Together As China, UAE To Hold Aerial Drills In Xinjiang

In a strategic move to boost its military cooperation in the Middle East, China has announced its plans to host the inaugural Air Force joint air force training with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) next month. 

The Chinese defense ministry announced on July 31 that the military drill, titled “Falcon Shield 2023,” is scheduled to be held in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. 

According to the ministry’s announcement, the primary objectives of this exercise are to strengthen “pragmatic exchanges and cooperation” between the two militaries and to foster mutual understanding and trust.

The statement from the ministry did not provide specific details regarding the size of the UAE contingent, the duration of the training, or its scope. The information released was limited to the exercise’s name, “Falcon Shield-2023,” and its purpose. 

Xinjiang has served as a venue for joint military exercises in the past as well. In 2016, the region hosted joint military training involving the infantries of China and other member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) bloc. 

The exercise aimed to boost combat capabilities, promote military communication, and improve the troops’ readiness to handle security threats effectively. 

In 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force conducted a joint military exercise named “Shaheen VI” in Xinjiang, collaborating with Pakistan’s air force.

The primary objectives of this exercise were to bolster combat logistics, improve night coordination capabilities, and strengthen defense against electromagnetic interference. 

In that exercise, Beijing deployed various aerial assets and troops to Xinjiang. This included Shenyang J-11 twin-engine multirole fighters, Xian JH-7 fighter-bombers, KJ-200 airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, and personnel operating surface-to-air missile systems and radars.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s contribution to the exercise comprised JF-17 Thunder fighters and their own early warning aircraft, likely the Shaanxi ZDK-03 K. Eagle or Saab 200 Erieye.

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That said, the Chinese defense ministry refrained from disclosing the specifics of the fighter aircraft that the UAE will deploy for the joint air exercise. 

The UAE’s Air Force mainly utilizes Western fighter jets, such as F-16s and Mirage-2000, and has an existing order for French-made Rafale fighter jets.

If the UAE, a traditional US ally, decides to send its F-16s or Mirage-2000 aircraft, the Chinese Air Force will have the chance to gain valuable experience through participating in joint aerial drills alongside Western jets. 

This was demonstrated in their recent joint exercise with Thailand, an event named “Falcon Strike-2023.” 

Following the successful conclusion of the Falcon Strike-2023 exercise, a Beijing-based military expert noted that Thailand’s use of Western-origin aircraft and combat tactics based on a Western model could be advantageous additions to China’s domestic training program for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

UAE-China Defense Cooperation

The upcoming joint Air Force exercise also serves as a notable step in China’s strategic agenda to forge stronger partnerships in the Middle East. It also highlights the country’s effort to bolster its economic and military cooperation with key regional players, such as the UAE. 

While the United States remains a dominant force in the region, China’s strategic moves in developing commercial ports and expanding arms sales signify its clear intentions to play a more assertive and influential role in the regional geopolitical landscape.

The significance of China’s growing involvement in the region was palpable during the inaugural China-Arab States summit held in December, where Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a keynote address.

This summit served as a platform for forging deeper cooperation between the 21 Arab League members and China. 

One of the prominent outcomes of the summit was an agreement to enhance military collaboration between China and the Arab states. 

The Emirati military boasts a diverse arsenal that includes a wide range of Western weapon systems, such as F-16 fighter jets, KC-30A Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT), the THAAD anti-missile system, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.

In addition to these Western-made weapons, the UAE’s military incorporates Chinese-made weaponry into its inventory.

In 2011, China completed a sale of at least five Wing Loong I drones to the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently, Abu Dhabi took the lead as the inaugural export customer for the Wing Loong II drones and, in 2017, received the first units. 

Additionally, in 2017, the UAE procured 500 Blue Arrow-7 missiles. These missiles are specifically intended to arm the Wing Loong II drones, which have been actively utilized on various battlefields throughout the Middle East. 

Previous reports also suggested that the UAE army was reportedly considering purchasing CR500 Golden Eagle helicopter drones. Norinco, a Chinese state-owned defense contractor, manufactures these UAVs.  

In February 2023, China officially announced the sealing of a deal to export the domestically developed L15 advanced trainer jet to the UAE. 

The announcement came a year after Abu Dhabi stated that it is procuring 12 L15s from China, with the added provision of potentially acquiring 36 more aircraft of the same type in the future.

The L15, according to China, represents a new generation of versatile light attack and combat trainer jet, a testament to the country’s growing capabilities in the defense sector. 

L-15 jet trainer
An L-15 rehearsed a demonstration flight ahead of the Dubai Airshow on November 13, 2021.

Its design and capabilities enable it to serve a dual role: providing training for pilots of fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets while also being capable of executing critical air-to-air combat and land attack missions.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army operates the L15 under the designation JL-10.

In addition to the weapon procurements, US intelligence documents obtained by The Washington Post in April 2023 disclosed that China had resumed the construction of a military base in the United Arab Emirates. 

This development has raised concerns among US officials, as it indicates a potential deepening of ties between the UAE and China, thereby drawing the UAE closer to China in terms of defense and security cooperation.

Meanwhile, the Chinese state media said the scheduled joint exercise between China and the UAE is a “natural development” following the UAE’s acquisition of Chinese military aircraft. 

As military relations between China and the UAE continue to progress, state-backed Global Times has indicated the possibility of future joint exercises and arms deals between the two nations.  

Moreover, a Chinese expert suggested that in the future, the Chinese Air Force could visit the UAE for the next edition of the joint exercises, further solidifying military ties and fostering greater cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces.