Arms Sale in the Balance: Will the F-35 Fly in the UAE?
The normalization of relations that President Trump brokered between Israel and two states, Bahrain and the UAE, certainly qualified as one of the most unexpected policy surprises of the 21st century. The announcement a few days later that the agreement of the UAE came with a price tag, the sale to the UAE of fifty F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, almost preempted the headlines for the Abraham Accords, the aspirational name of the new state of affairs. Both UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deny such a “price tag”. The Abraham Accords, though significant, represent the achievement of a long-term objective of American foreign policy, namely aligning Israel with Gulf Arab states against a common enemy (originally the USSR and now Iran) as a way of mitigating the pernicious effects of the Palestinian Israeli conundrum. Trump can take credit for finishing what Eisenhower first suggested in 1958.
As for the incoming Biden administration, it will have a great deal on its plate after January 20, 2021. According to recent comments, Biden has prioritized healthcare, fighting COVID-19 and climate change. Merely undoing the boatload of executive actions by his predecessor will take up most of his time in his first few months in office. Foreign affairs merit hardly a mention. Yet, as we all know, foreign affairs issues have often blindsided new presidents early in their terms, vide 9/11. Biden has said little on the Middle East. We hear more about what the countries in the region hope or fear about the new president than we do from the shadow Oval Office now forming. Biden’s statement about reentering the JCPOA is one of the few concrete policy actions that comes to mind. Biden must deal with Trump’s legacy in the region, but unless the outgoing president takes some dramatic actions before his term runs out in January, dealing with most of the legacy can wait a bit. On the other hand, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, has already expressed “discomfort” with the transaction. The deal could run afoul of several other serious obstacles. We are hearing concerns that the deal violates an American commitment not to provide Arab states with weapons that could threaten Israel’s military dominance. The F-35 represents a quantum jump in technology usually reserved for treaty allies (e.g., NATO) and, of course, Israel. Some in Congress have already begun to express bipartisan opposition. Concerns about Israel may require a downgrading of the model sold to the UAE; a development that will certainly anger Abu Dhabi and might even kill the deal. Finally, larger foreign policy concerns about Gulf stability could play a role as well. However, this is a big deal ($23 billion), it will have been approved before January 20, and the new administration may be so swamped that it might choose to let it proceed.
F-35 Sales: On the Road to Approval
The F-35 sale to the UAE is technically on the way to approval. The administration informally notified Congress on November 6 that it intends to offer an arms package worth $10 billion that includes fifty F-35 fighter jets, the newest and most sought-after weapon system in the US military inventory. Under US law, Congress has 30 days to pass a resolution in both houses disapproving the sale or it proceeds. The president can veto the joint resolution and Congress must override the veto by 2/3 vote of each house. The law also allows the president to exercise a “national emergency” waiver and proceed with the sale. Trump last exercised this waiver to avoid a Congressional battle over munitions sales to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder. If precedent is a guide, we should expect the State Department to notify Congress on December 6, and if Congress takes no action, Secretary of State Pompeo can approve the sale early in January, before he steps down. All else being equal, the contract will be in place before Biden takes his oath on January 20, 2021, and he could choose simply to ignore it.
Roadblocks to the Deal
That said, this sale includes several issues Biden cannot avoid. The deal represents a possible departure from long-standing US policy to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over its neighbors. The Saudi war in Yemen has aroused bipartisan hostility in Congress and the UAE’s reputation suffered collateral damage, despite its exit last year. Other close allies in the region will almost certainly demand the right to buy the F-35, arguing that they are not lesser allies. Qatar has already done so, and we cannot rule out the likelihood that Egypt and Saudi Arabia may follow suit. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu greenlighted the sale (after denying it was a “secret clause” in the normalization agreement with the UAE). However, Bibi clearly blindsided his coalition allies and the Israeli defense establishment. They are obviously unhappy but their reaction has been muted so far. Will Israel’s stance change once Netanyahu’s “protection” leaves the White House? Biden cannot easily stop the sale right now but, once president, he can put a hold on the program as many of his predecessors have done to other numerous programs in the past.
Does it threaten Israel’s guaranteed QME?
The sale of the F-35, however, appears to fly in the face of a 40-year-old American commitment to Israel that the US will not provide any Arab state with advanced military technology equal to anything that we have given Israel or against which Israel may have difficulty defending itself. This writer still bears the scars of the successful, but brutal, battle to sell AWACS flying radars to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and of the 1986 defeat of the effort to sell F-15 fighters to Riyadh and an expeditionary capability to Jordan. The Reagan administration got the AWACS through Congress only by promising software and operational fixes that would reduce the ability of the Saudis to use the radar warning aircraft against Israel as well as giving the Israeli Air Force more advanced fighter planes.
In the aftermath of the 1973 “Yom Kippur War,” the US tacitly adopted the QME doctrine that would effectively maintain Israeli qualitative superiority over any potential regional threat. Intrinsic to this doctrine, the United States committed itself to ensuring that it would never transfer to any Arab country any weapons system that could complicate Israel’s ability to defend against it. Later American administrations, forced to expand military sales to Arab countries for geostrategic reasons, often downgraded the technical capabilities of weapons sold to Arab states or provided Israel with superior weapons systems that could deal with the increased capability of their neighbors – so-called ‘balancing’ material. The US also argued that the superior human quality of Israel’s military more than compensated for whatever technologies Arab states might secure. Yet, some will argue that continued close relationships with the US military give Arab soldiers the opportunity to acquire the same skills as their Israeli counterparts. Nonetheless, although Israelis often complain that the US has allowed the qualitative gap with its neighbors’ capabilities to narrow, no one doubts that it can still relatively easily defeat any combination of Arab states in a military conflict.
Does the F-35 Sale to UAE Worry the Pentagon?
If we are to believe what the Defense Department and the aerospace industry have told us, the F-35 presents a quantum jump in capability. Depending on what one reads it has a radar signature that is a tiny fraction of its physical size and that no radar system in existence can detect the aircraft before its weapons strike home. It also has an unrivaled surveillance capacity and the ability to direct missions by scores of lesser aircraft. Allowing for a certain amount of the normal hype, especially when justifying a weapons system whose development costs may exceed a trillion dollars, the F-35 appears to be as invincible and invisible to any currently available technology as one could imagine. Numerous inquiries among those better qualified than I lead to the conclusion that the F-35 could indeed penetrate Israeli air defenses and strike targets in the air or on the ground with some impunity. Tellingly, none of my sources believe that the US military currently has some sort of backdoor or “secret sauce” that would allow our own air defenses to detect the F-35 when others could not. Even if they exist, no one suggests that the US would give away the secret of defeating the crown jewel of US airpower, even to Israel. Still, the UAE does not enjoy the same level of confidence as Israel or our NATO allies (maybe more than Turkey right now). Despite rather warlike rhetoric, it continues to dialogue with Iran, our declared adversary, and depends to an astonishing degree on foreigners at all levels of government. Many in the Washington foreign policy establishment also harbor doubts about the long-term stability of the autocratic states of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Congress and ‘Balancing’ with Israel
On October 4, 2020, eleven Democratic legislators with pro-Israeli voting history introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would effectively give Israel a veto over arms sales to Arab countries. As of this reading, the sponsors of the bill have not yet provided the full text of HR 8707 (116th Congress) to the committee but its title indicates its intent and scope: “To require certifications for transfers of certain United States defense articles and defense services, and for other purposes.” Some speculate that the bill will serve as a vehicle to stop the sale and others that the Trump administration promised Israel “balancing” weapons of extraordinary value. Apparently, the original informal notification to Congress included electronic warfare aircraft but they have disappeared from the document, perhaps in recognition that Congress may pose obstacles. On November 18, three Senators, two Democratic and one Republican, announced they would introduce similar legislation in the upper house.
Downgrading the UAE Model
This leaves the option of providing the UAE with a version of the F-35 that downgrades its capabilities – we do this to some degree with all our allies. Almost all my contacts insist that the US would not sell the aircraft without modifying software or hardware in such a fashion as to downgrade its stealth capabilities. We could reduce stealth characteristics by modifying the airframes and fuselage, removing some of the aircraft coatings, or adding something to increase radar reflections. We cannot make these adjustments without telling the UAE – they will quickly figure it out on their own. After all, we currently deploy F-35 aircraft in and around the UAE. The UAE has often demonstrated that it will go elsewhere (usually France) to buy military kit when we deny them the latest and the best. Our refusal to even consider selling the F-18 to the UAE in the early 1980’s provoked an angry response. We then rubbed salt in the wound by offering the F-20, an aircraft the US Air Force refused to buy. They bought French Mirages instead and paid through the nose in the absence of any US competition. I am reasonably certain that Abu Dhabi has not forgotten.
The UAE could also reasonably ask why they should pay ten billion dollars for an airplane whose lifetime costs induce tears. By treating $76 billion (in today’s dollars) in R&D as sunk costs, we have “reduced” the price of the F-35 to about $85 million dollars per plane making it competitive with other competing aircraft such as the F-15. However, this does not include operating costs for the F-35, now estimated at about $67,000 per hour of flight. The UAE may not expect to get everything, but it has an excellent track record of badgering the US to add restricted items. It also has an excellent track record of walking away from offers it does not like.
American Foreign Policy and the Current Gulf Conflict
The brutal war in Yemen has tarnished the worldwide reputation of all the participants, especially Saudi Arabia. The UAE probably sensed this and pulled out of the Saudi-led coalition last year. However, Abu Dhabi’s actions supporting south Yemen separatists have gained it no friends. Stories, real or imagined, that the oil-rich countries of the Gulf may have helped bail out the president’s son-in-law or even President Trump will not endear any of them to the president’s many critics, not just Democrats. The UAE may count on its ‘normalization’ with Israel’s initiative to inoculate it against its detractors in Washington and Jerusalem. It has made few if any concessions to activists demanding more representative government and has even jailed a few. Others wonder to what degree the seemingly permanent slide in oil prices will inhibit the ability of all the Gulf monarchies, including the UAE, to maintain the social contract that offers prosperity for political submission and finances their world outreach (including buying expensive airplanes). The Biden administration has promised to revert to a more traditional American foreign policy advocating human rights and democracy. To be fair, there has been many a slip between cup and lip in our past application of pro-democracy policies, but the trend lines appear obvious. While not renouncing arms exports, the Biden administration must mollify that part of its constituency that abhors them.
So, What Happens to the UAE F-35?
We should always respect the juggernaut-like powers of bureaucratic inertia. The ten billion dollar arms sale package has been launched. Assuming that nothing too disturbing emerges from the White House in the next two months, the ink will have dried on the final contract before Joe Biden steps into the Oval office. He will certainly have a full plate and the UAE’s F-35 sale will lie buried in his inbox. All of us who have served in government know how hard it is to stop something big once it gets started, unless someone with clout reaches into the inbox and pulls it to the top. Israel and/or its supporters in Washington are the most likely candidates to do so. HR 8707 will probably not become law in the lame duck session but will certainly resurrect itself next year. Pentagon security concerns will almost certainly lead to some friction with the UAE. The Israeli national security establishment may more loudly voice its fears once Trump’s absence robs Netanyahu of his ability to run roughshod over domestic opposition. In fact, Netanyahu may decide that he already has his cake and can now eat it. He could figure that the UAE, having denied that the F-35 paid for normalization, cannot complain if the US cancels the deal later. We will undoubtedly see Qatar continue to press its case for equal treatment with the UAE, and perhaps other regional states may jump in. Whether these developments can overcome the inertia of an approved sales program generating ten billion dollars in export sales remains uncertain. In any event, we have not seen the end of this story.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political Officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.
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