F-35 deal could trigger arms race

The UAE hopes to finalise a deal to acquire 50 Lockheed Martin-made F-35 fighters ahead of the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence this year.

Working together: The F-35 deal would represent a new model of international cooperation, ensuring US and coalition-partner security well into the 21st century. Picture: US Air National Guard.

The UAE stands poised to become the first Arab state to acquire the F-35 fighter aircraft from the United States. Jay Menon reports.

It has been looking to upgrade its ageing fighter fleet since it pulled the plug on a Typhoon Eurofighter deal with the UK Government and failed to finalise a proposal to buy the Rafale from France.

Its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said recently: “Our existing F-16 jets are now almost two decades old and it is time to renew them... We ought to get them (the F-35 fighters). The first time we made this request was six years ago.”

On December 9, the US Senate endorsed the Trump administration’s last-minute effort to sell a $23 billion arms package, including 50 F-35 jets, 18 armed MQ-9 Reaper drones, and ar-maments, to the Emirati military.

The UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, who lobbied senators in the days lead-ing up to the vote, said the F-35 would become the “frontline defence” for the UAE, US and partners. “It improves US-UAE interoperability and allows us to be more effective together. It makes us all safer.”

According to Dr Emma Soubrier, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington: “The UAE’s desire to acquire the F-35 is coherent with the state’s militarised nationalism and its track record of high-tech armament acquisitions for international branding purposes, in addition to building national pride.”

Military observers say the United Arab Emirates Air Force (UAEAF) operates a fleet of more than 60 Mirage 2000s and about 80 F-16E/F Desert Falcons.

“Air power development has always been a priority for the Gulf states and is increasingly evolving in line with two key ambitions – power projection and economic diversification,” Soubrier noted. “The new regional context since 2011 has presented challenges and opportu-nities for the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and, indeed, pushed them to become increasingly active and assertive on the Middle Eastern stage.

“There is, indeed, value for Abu Dhabi in being able to claim that the UAE could be the first Middle Eastern country, other than Israel, to be considered a sufficiently reliable and credible military partner by the US to be allowed to purchase the coveted F-35,” she added.

The proposed deal was made possible after the UAE and Israel announced that they would normalise relations, and particularly since they signed the Abraham Accords peace agree-ment.

While announcing the proposed sale on November 10, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said the deal “will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with US partners in a manner fully consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring Israel’s quali-tative military edge (QME)”.

Because of the QME restriction, the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 has, so far, been denied to Arab states, while Israel has more than 25 of the type.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also expressed interest in these aircraft.
Turkey had been a partner in developing the F-35 but was expelled from the programme after concerns relating to Ankara’s history as a client of Russia for acquiring the S-400 Triumf an-ti-aircraft missile system.

The F-35 is an upgrade to the US-supplied F-16 that President Bill Clinton first approved for sale to the UAE in 2000.

From the perspective of the US, an F-35 deal with the UAE presents opportunities in deter-ring Iran’s more aggressive military posture in the Gulf.

As Pompeo said: “This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defence capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran.”

The US intelligence community estimates that Tehran’s missiles are likely to keep growing in both power and technical sophistication, thus creating new strategic challenges for the UAE, the US, Israel and other partners.

However, the sale of the F-35 to the UAE is not without controversy.
The air power procurement in the Gulf will have notable impacts on the global arms trade and the power dynamics associated with it.

In fact, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency reported “the proposed sale of this equipment and support represents a significant increase in capability and will alter the re-gional military balance”.

With Pompeo warning that Iran could buy high-end non-stealth fighters, such as Russia’s Su-30SM and China’s J-10, and Tehran’s interest in Russia’s S-400 air-defence system, there could be a spur in regional demand for the stealth fighters.

“What we risk doing here is fuelling an arms race. Today we may be selling the F-35s and the MQ-9s to the UAE, but the Saudis are going to want it, the Qataris have already requested it, and it just fuels Iran’s interest in continuing to build up its own military programming,” warned US Democrat Senator Chris Murphy.

The UAE’s alleged war crimes in Libya, as well as its oversight of torture facilities in Yem-en, have raised ethical challenges to the proposed deal, and international human rights groups have called for a halt to the planned sale.

“The US must resolutely refrain from supplying weapons that could be used in the conflict and not transfer weaponry to the UAE, or risk complicity in likely war crimes in Yemen,” said Philippe Nassif, the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA.

The country’s tightening relationship with Russia and China has provided further grounds for criticism.

The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA) has filed a complaint in federal court in Washington against Pompeo for “rushing” the deal without proper oversight or justi-fication.

“The UAE’s evident relations with China and Russia will put our military intelligence ad-vantage at risk if such a deal is approved. There is no guarantee or provision that prevents them from sharing this proprietary knowledge,” the group said in its complaint.

However, assistant secretary for political-military affairs, R Clarke Cooper, said the effect of the sale on humanitarian crisis in the region was an ongoing consideration, but noted that the UAE “have proved themselves over and over again” to be a “partner that we could count on”.

Cooper added: “The United States definitely takes these obligations seriously. We expect all recipients of US defence equipment to abide by terms of the letters of offer and acceptance, which again goes back to not just end-use, but also the protection of the technology and mak-ing sure that the equipment is not transferred, at least without our awareness or clearance, to third parties without our authorisation.”

Ambassador Otaiba also pointed out: “The UAE has purchased and operated some of the most advanced US defence systems, including F-16s, Patriot and terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) technology. The USAF F-35 squadrons are based in the UAE. The UAE has never compromised or shared this technology with an adversary or without US knowledge and approval.”

As a result of these numerous concerns, four bipartisan resolutions of disapproval were sub-mitted before the Senate. Two of these were put to the floor, but votes fell short, notably fail-ing to block the possible F-35 sale.

In the event of a signature before President Donald Trump leaves office, there remains the question of what the incoming Joe Biden administration can, or wishes, to do with regard to this sale.

Tony Blinken, Biden’s nominated secretary of state, has said the new administration will take a “hard look” at the deal, given the concerns voiced by lawmakers.

But, while such a review raises the potential of stricter US controls over the use and deploy-ment of the advanced weapons systems, the Biden administration has yet to signal that it has any plans to reverse the deal.

“Regional security will clearly be a priority for the Biden administration. However, this doesn’t mean they would want to block the F-35 deal, as it would not necessarily be taken as a credible threat by Tehran,” argued Soubrier.

Waiting for the letters of offer and approval and on the new administration choices, there still lingers a distant possibility that the UAE’s F-35 oasis could turn into a mirage.