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Israel and the Selling of the F-35 to the UAE

Wild Blue Yonder --

On 20 January 2021, the Trump administration, in one of its last decisions, signed the agreement to sell the F-35 joint strike fighter to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).1 The Biden administration suspended this deal in late January 2021, but on 13 April, President Biden approved it.2 However, Congress can still try to block it, which might depend on if and how problematic this deal is—including to Israel.

On 15 September 2020, Israel and the UAE normalized their relations with United States’ support. Subsequently, the UAE renewed its request to buy the F-35, raising concerns in Israel. Practically speaking, the UAE could be an ally against Iran. Israel and the US, which seek to deter and contain Iran, have an interest in strengthening the Emirati armed forces. The F-35 can help deter or strike Iran, if needed, with or without the cooperation of Israel or the US.

On the other hand, the UAE has ties with Iran and might change its policy in the future, turning against both Israel and the US while armed with the F-35. The US has also been committed to preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). However, without US supply and assistance, the Emirati F-35 might become useless. Other aspects of the situation also reduce the risks to Israel from the Emirati F-35, such as the distance between the two states and the strength of the Israeli Air Force (IAF).

F-35 against Iran

On 7 December 2020, the Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, explained that Israel is “very comfortable” with selling the F-35 to the UAE since the latter is an anti-Iranian ally.3 The leading Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee declared they do not oppose selling the F-35 to the UAE, based on keeping Israel’s QME.4 Israel, the only state in the Middle East that has the F-35, still had concerns about delivering such an advanced aircraft to an Arab state, even if it is a potential ally against Iran. However, there were several reasons why Israel does not have to be very worried about this issue.

It was clear the UAE wants the F-35 in case it has to fight Iran, not Israel. Even if in the future the UAE cuts its ties with Israel, it is unlikely that the UAE would try to attack Israel. The two states never fought each other. The UAE was established in 1971. In the 1973 war, the Arab alliance included several states. Despite their geographic distance from Israel, nations such as Morocco and Iraq still sent forces to confront them. The UAE, which is also far away from Israel, however, stayed out of the fight.

In the 1982 war, none of the Arab states assisted Syria and the Palestinians in confronting Israel. Since then, Israel has only fought non-state actors, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon (July- August 2006) and Hamas in the Gaza Strip (December 2008-January 2009 and July-August 2014). None of the Arab states got involved in those three wars. Actually, many of them, including the UAE, wanted Israel to defeat Hamas and Hezbollah, since those groups are Iranian protégés.

Since the 1980s, the probability of a war between Israel and an Arab state centered around Syria, which had a formidable military. Although not strong enough to defeat the Israel Defense Forces, Syria’s armed forces were capable of inflicting severe casualties on Israel. The meltdown of the Syrian military in the last decade, following the Syrian civil war, has substantially reduced the possibility of Israel needing to fight any Arab state, at least in the near future. Other than Syria, three Arab states presented a threat of confrontation for Israel: Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. Egypt and Jordan now have peace with Israel. Iraq sent forces to fight Israel during the Arab-Israeli wars, particularly in 1973. However, since 2003, Iraq has not had this option anymore, because it barely manages to survive as a state and has inadequate military forces to confront Israel. As such, the UAE would have to stand alone in facing Israel, a highly unlikely strategy. At most, the UAE might partner in an anti-Israeli coalition, but the probability of such an alliance is especially low. Politically, the UAE also has no reason to confront Israel. Even if the UAE sought to attack Israel, it would face major military constraints.

Constraints around the Emirati F-35

Israeli air defense might employ US technology to detect the Emirati F-35s, so as to eliminate the possibility of a stealth attack. In addition, the F-35 can increase its range by adding drop tanks. However, this strategy would also make the plane detectable. “Lockheed Martin is developing conformal fuel tanks with stealth shaping for the F-35, but the U.S. government can limit their sale to the UAE.”5 Without drop tanks or aerial refueling, the F-35 can’t reach Israel and return to the UAE. (The distance between those two states is about 1,200 miles). At most, the F-35 can land after a strike in an Arab state near Israel but would risk the possibility that the Arab state might not want to be involved in such an affair.

The US Congress can conduct “oversight to ensure that U.S. arms sales, and the use of U.S. arms, are aligned with U.S. national security interests and foreign policy objectives. Congress has a number of options to modify or block a proposed sale.”6 In early December 2020, there were clear signs the Congress might resist selling the F-35 to the UAE.7 On 10 December, an attempt in the Senate to block the sale of F-35 to the UAE had failed.8 Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the US, warned that the UAE can “be forced to turn elsewhere”9 such as to Russia, which also has sophisticated fighters. Historically, the US has tried to contain the Russian involvement in the Middle East. The two powers also compete with each other on arms sales to that region in order to make profits, acquire leverage, etc. The United States has also been concerned that Russia and China, which have ties with the UAE, might try to exploit this country in order to spy and gather information about the F-35. This is an established risk in many states that have both US weapon systems and relationships with US adversaries. Accordingly, the US needs to exercise caution, because F-35 employs highly sensitive military technology.

The stealth capability of the F-35 “involves 5,000 parts that need meticulous maintenance while its computer systems have more than eight million lines of software code. In other words, the capabilities that make this aircraft so extraordinary would rapidly degrade without intensive assistance from the contractor.”10 Without US military support, the “sustainment and maintenance of a fleet of F-35s would become untenable, diminishing and potentially eliminating their combat capabilities.”11 If the UAE turns against Israel, it will probably be part of a shift against the United States too, which will cripple and eventually shut down the Emirati F-35. Without US ammunition, spare parts, and maintenance, the F-35 will be useless.

Another international concern is that sale of the F-35 will set off an arms race. However, both Arab Gulf and non-Gulf states, as well as Egypt, have already been buying huge amounts of advanced arsenal for some time. In addition, arming US allies will make it easier for the United States to focus on other regions, such as the Pacific. However, in 1991, despite having advanced arsenals of weapons, the Arab states would still not have challenged Iraq if the United States had stayed out of that conflict. Now Iran has replaced Iraq as the “Neighborhood Bully,” but Arab states cannot handle Iran without massive US support, even if their militaries assimilate sophisticated weapons.

It might take up to a decade until the F-35s arrive to the UAE “due to production backlogs,” and since other states are supposed to get it before the UAE,12 Poland purchased 32 F-35s in January 2020 “but will not receive its first delivery until 2024.”13

Are There Alternatives to Selling the F-35?

The UAE has European aircraft such as the Mirage 2000. Therefore, the UAE can buy western aircraft, not just American-made aircraft. The positive side of this is avoiding the ramifications associated with purchasing from Russia or China instead. The UAE already holds the fourth-plus-generation F-16 Desert Falcons, which are advanced US fighters.

Gulf Arab states already enjoy a clear advantage in the air “over Iran’s antiquated air force.” In contrast, Gulf Arab navies are inferior to their Iranian counterpart. Accordingly, the Arab navies, including the Emirati one, need vessels such as minesweepers and destroyers. It was claimed that “the F-35, while attractive, is not a critical defense requirement for them.”14 The United States can sell vessels instead of aircraft; Israel will be much less concerned about that. Even if Gulf Arab states turn against Israel, their navies are not equipped to damage Israel from their geographic positions in the Gulf. They could block the Bab al Mandab straits, the access from the Red Sea to Asia, and possibly the rest of Africa. Israel relies on that path for trade. However, compared with the risks of selling the F-35, Israel would most likely prefer strengthening Arab naval power instead of their air forces.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the UAE needs assistance dealing with Iran. Providing the F-35 to the UAE will improve the UAE’s military strength; if assimilated, the F-35 will not pose a serious threat to Israel. The nature of their relationship, the geographic distance between the two states, the might of the IAF, and the dependent relationship the UAE will have on US supply and maintenance of this equipment, warrant against it.

Dr. Ehud Eilam

Dr. Ehud Eilam has been dealing and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli Air Force, and later on he worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. He has a PhD and has published six books in the United States and United Kingdom. His latest book is Containment in the Middle East (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).

Notes

1 Mike Stone, “UAE Signs Deal With U.S. To Buy 50 F-35 Jets and up to 18 Drones: Sources,” Reuters, 20 January 2021, https://www.reuters.com/.

2 Reuters, “Biden Administration Proceeding With $23 Billion Weapon Sales to UAE,” U.S. News, 13 April 2021, https://www.usnews.com/.

3 Jacob Magid, “Envoy: Israel ‘Comfortable’ with US Arms Deal to UAE, Keeps Military Edge,” The Times of Israel, 7 December 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/.

4 Ron Kampeas, “AIPAC Does Not Oppose F-35 Sales to the United Arab Emirates,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 8 December 2020, https://www.jta.org/.

5 Christine McVann, “How to Balance Competing Priorities with an F-35 Sale to the UAE,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 23 September 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/.

6 “Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and Possible U.S. Arms Sales to the United Arab Emirates,” Congressional Research Service, 26 October 2020, https://fas.org/.

7 Andrew Desiderio, “Congress Readies Final Rebuke of Trump Foreign Policy,” Politico, 1 December 2020, https://www.politico.com/.

8 Patricia Zengerle, “U.S. Senate Backs Massive Arms Sales to Uae after Trump Veto Threat,” Reuters, 9 December 2020, https://www.reuters.com/.

9 Jacob Magid, “UAE Envoy: If US Unwilling to Supply Weapons, We’ll Have to Turn Elsewhere,” The Times of Israel, 4 December 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/.

10 Christine McVann, “How to Balance Competing Priorities with an F-35 Sale to the UAE.”

11“Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and Possible U.S. Arms Sales to the United Arab Emirates.”

12 Neri Zilber, “Peace for Warplanes? How Domestic and Foreign Disputes over the Potential Sale of F-35 Jets to the UAE Could Complicate the Country's Normalization Deal With Israel,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 21 August 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/.

13 Mike Stone, “UAE Signs Deal With U.S. To Buy 50 F-35 Jets and up to 18 Drones: Sources.”

14 Bilal Y. Saab, “The Coming F-35 Fiasco,” Defense One, 8 October 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/.

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