The US State Department has formally approved the potential $23bn sale of 50 F-35As and 18 MQ-9B remotely piloted aircraft along with munitions and a support package to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The potential sale of F-35s to the UAE would make the country the second in the Middle East to operate the Joint Strike Fighter along with Israel, prompting concerns about how it would affect Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME).
QME is a US foreign policy enshrined in law that commits the US to help maintain Israel’s military superiority over its neighbours in the Middle East.
In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The United Arab Emirates is a long-time vital US security partner. Today, I directed the Department to formally notify Congress of our intent to authorise the UAE’s proposed purchase of several advanced capabilities that are worth $23.37bn, for up to 50 F-35 Lightning II aircraft, valued at $10.4bn; up to 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial Systems, valued at $2.97bn and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, valued at $10bn.
“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.”
Israel has to date ordered 50 F-35s, the same number of fighters as the White House is proposing to sell to the UAE. Israel could increase its fleet to 75 jets in future. Earlier last month, Israel dropped its objections to the sale of the jets to its Middle Eastern neighbour following a deal with the US to bolster its military capabilities.
Any deal to sell the jets must win the approval of Congress, where the sale could face stiff opposition. Discussion around the sale has stepped up in recent months following a deal to normalise relations between the UAE and Israel.
Pompeo added: “The UAE’s historic agreement to normalise relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape. Our adversaries, especially those in Iran, know this and will stop at nothing to disrupt this shared success.
“The proposed sale 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 QME.”
When the State Department gave Congress informal notice of the potential deal last month, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Representative Eliot L. Engel said that the sale “would significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel’s military edge” adding that rushing approval of the deal was “not in anyone’s interest”.
Engel added: “My consideration of this sale will include several factors. First, we must maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, as provided in US law, and ensure Israel’s military superiority in the region, as Israel remains our most crucial ally there. Israel currently has exclusive access in the region to the F-35, which has guaranteed its military edge over the last several years. As Congress reviews this sale, it must be clear that changes to the status quo will not put Israel’s military advantage at risk.”
The lawmaker said that increased activity from Russia and China in the Middle East meant that Congress would need ‘unimpeachable assurances’ that the fighter’s advanced technologies would be safeguarded. He added that a sale to the UAE would ‘inevitably’ generate demand for the jet from other neighbouring countries. In October, Qatar made a formal request to purchase the F-35.
Negotiations on the potential sale of the Uncrewed Aerial Systems (UAS) and F-35As began after the US-brokered Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel was signed. The peace deal normalised relations between the two countries.
Controversy remains over the proposal
The news of the proposed sale came after former US Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and alternate Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv in October. During the meetings, the trio discussed the maintenance of Israel’s QME. Israel is reportedly interested in acquiring Bell’s V-22 Osprey.
In a statement, Gantz said: “As the Minister of Defense of the State of Israel, I tell you tonight, the United States continues to be committed to Israel’s security and its qualitative and technological advantage in the Middle East. In my meetings with senior members of the US administration, headed by Secretary of Defense Esper, we took care to ensure Israel’s security for decades to come and to continue strengthening it.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Senator Bob Menendez said: “As feared, the details of this proposed sale suggest President Trump is seeking to rush through an increase of complex weapons systems into a volatile region seemingly without serious consideration of US interests or the legal parameters of Israel’s QME.
“Claiming Israel will maintain its edge while offering Abu Dhabi the same number of these sophisticated stealth warplanes as Israel simply does not add up. Recklessly accelerating the timeline around a reportedly artificial deadline precludes sufficient consideration of these issues by the national security professionals in the Departments of State and Defense.”
Menendez added: “Congress has statutory authority over foreign arms sales and our responsibilities will not be relinquished. The American public has a right to insist that the sales of US weapons to foreign governments – especially those of this magnitude and lethality – are consistent with US values, our national security objectives, and the safety of our closest allies.
“The Trump administration’s refusal to answer our questions about how the national security interests of both the US and Israel will be served, or undermined, by such a sale is a sure-fire way not to get Congressional support to move forward with this sale.”
Will President-elect Biden change course?
After the potential F-35 sale became public in October, Anthony Blinken, a Foreign Policy Advisor to Biden and former Obama-era official, was reported by the Jerusalem Post as saying that he had ‘concerns’ about what commitments the US Government may have made to the UAE.
Since then, US President Donald Trump lost his re-election bid with President-elect Joe Biden set to take office in January. Democrat Senator Chris Murphy said that the Trump administration approving the sale after losing the election was ‘completely inappropriate’.
Murphy added: “It’s a transparent attempt to narrow options in the Middle East for President-elect Biden when he takes office.