The Middle East could be on the verge of another revolution. This time, it appears to be a real Arab Spring. The normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a big deal. There are reports that other Persian Gulf and Arab nations may soon follow. Could this political shift be followed by a major change in U.S. arms sales policy to the region? Is there a future in which the U.S. sells Arab allies advanced weapons systems, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)?
Almost immediately following the deal's announcement, speculation broke out regarding the possibility of secret codicils or understandings. A number of media outlets raised the question of whether the normalization of relations between the two countries was conditioned on the sale of the F-35 to the UAE. Others suggested that such a sale might benefit the broader strategic interests of the U.S. in the region. Such a move would enhance the deterrence of Iran.
There were reports that the U.S. was in discussions with the UAE in the past regarding the sale of the F-35. However, such discussions were terminated late last year. Moreover, both the U.S. and Israeli governments have strongly denied that a JSF was part of this new agreement.
It is difficult to exaggerate how important it is that Israel has the F-35. To begin with, Israel is the first state to acquire the F-35 that is not a formal U.S. ally. This underscores the special relationship between Washington and Jerusalem, and the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel's qualitative military superiority over the other states in the region. Israel has further extended its qualitative edge by outfitting its F-35s with locally designed systems and weapons.
Israel has already demonstrated its sophisticated use of the F-35 in combat. It began conducting airstrikes with its JSF at a time when it only had one operational squadron. Some reports allege that over the past several years, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has destroyed a third of Syria’s Russian-built air defenses, surviving the launch of over 1,000 surface-to-air missiles without a loss. There are other reports that Israel used F-35s to destroy the most dangerous air defense sites, thus allowing other Israeli aircraft and weapons to penetrate.
Like the normalization of Israel-UAE relations, the possibility of a sale of the F-35 to an Arab nation would be a big deal. The only other Muslim country in the F-35 consortium is Turkey, a NATO member. Moreover, when the U.S. brought Turkey into the consortium at the beginning of the program, Ankara put its own money into the JSF development effort, and Turkish industry produced critical parts for the aircraft.
If the U.S. were to sell the F-35 to any Gulf State, the UAE would be the obvious choice. The UAE is a key U.S. ally and operator of U.S. weapons. The UAE Air Force deploys some 80 F-16/EF Block 60 "Desert Falcons” and a variety of U.S.-made air-to-air and air to ground munitions. The country also operates the U.S. Patriot air defense system; UAE PAC-3 batteries have intercepted dozens of Houthi missiles launched out of Yemen.
Selling the F-35 to the UAE does not automatically mean that Israel's qualitative military edge would be eroded. UAE aircraft are unlikely to be given the full set of capabilities and weapons available to the U.S. and allied militaries. This is what happened when the U.S. sold F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Israel's JSFs have been heavily modified with cutting-edge technologies that may make them more capable than the aircraft deployed by the U.S. military.
If Washington were so inclined, and Israel acceded, any acquisition of the F-35 by an Arab state is years in the future. The foreign military sales process is time-consuming and requires both governmental and Congressional reviews. Even if a sale was approved, the production of all three variants of the JSF is already committed to various recipients for years to come. It will also take years for the UAE to build and staff the necessary infrastructure to support a fleet of F-35s. By the time the UAE achieved an initial operating capability with the F-35, Israel would be flying an F-35 variant of even a sixth-generation platform.
If circumstances were to change, say a reversal of the current Israel-UAE rapprochement, then the sale could be halted. Selling the F-35s even to an ostensible ally, does not come without risks. In 2018, Ankara decided to acquire an advanced Russian air defense system, the S-400. Despite repeated warnings and offers of Western defensive equipment, the Turkish government ultimately chose to go ahead with the purchase. This resulted in a decision by the U.S. and the other consortium members to read Ankara out of the program. Turkish F-35s will go to other customers, and alternative sources of Turkish-made parts are being developed.
The JSF's advanced features—not just its stealthiness but also its sensors, electronic systems, and avionics—are what part of what makes it so effective. But so too is the command and control and networking that the Israeli Air Force had demonstrated in exercises with U.S. Air Force F-35s. But these same capabilities require a lot of specialized training, maintenance, and continuous upgrades. UAE F-35s would probably have to go to other countries for depot-level maintenance. Were a nation to lose access to the resources to sustain and modernize their JSFs, the aircraft would soon become expensive hanger queens.
In addition, the Department of Defense, and the companies that build the F-35 and provide its systems, could probably ensure that any UAE JSFs would be visible to Israeli sensors while Israeli F-35s remain stealthy. While the UAE aircraft would be markedly superior to those operated by Iran, Israel's qualitative military advantage in the region would still be maintained.
It may seem a little presumptuous to bring up the topic of selling the F-35 to the UAE before there are even signatures on a formal agreement between that state and Israel. But the threat posed by Iran to the Gulf, Israel, and indeed the entire region continues to grow. The F-35 is not a bargaining chip. However, it is a decisive military capability which, when operated by the U.S. and its allies and friends, can create a regional and even global deterrent capability. So, let us talk about who else should be invited to join the F-35 club.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.