Trump reveals plan to sell F-35 fighter jets to UAE — but hurdles remain

Two Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fly during a military aeronautical training exercise. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a stealth multirole fighter. (Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Nicolò Campo | LightRocket | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Donald Trump administration on Thursday notified Congress of its intent to sell 50 Lockheed Martin F-35 II joint strike fighters to the United Arab Emirates, in a sale that could amount to $10 billion.  

The news came less than two months after the signing of the Abraham Accord, an agreement establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, which has opened up a wealth of opportunities in trade, technology and security cooperation.  

The UAE has for years had its eye on the F-35, the most advanced fighter jet platform on the market. But the main hurdle was Israel, which is legally guaranteed a qualitative military edge (QME) by the U.S. that ensures a technological advantage over its neighbors and exclusive access to some of America’s best arms.    

So it was major news when Israel’s defense minister last week said the country would not oppose Washington selling “certain weapons systems” to the Emiratis — widely interpreted as a green light for the F-35, which Israel already owns.  

Unfathomable just a few weeks ago, the development speaks volumes about Israeli-UAE relations and the rapidly fortifying alliances against Iran that will define the Middle East for decades to come. If approved, the sale would make the UAE only the second country in the region to get the fifth-generation system. 

“It really is a nail in the coffin of the old Middle East,” Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told CNBC. “That the Israelis have no objection suggests that the agreement between Israel and the UAE isn’t just based on mutual interest, but also on trust. The potential sale of the F-35 to the UAE signals just how seriously the Emiratis take the Iranian threat.”  

Still, there is no done deal yet. Congressional and bureaucratic approvals, as well as security concerns — like ensuring that no highly classified information about the platform’s capabilities or missions can be accessed by hostile powers — remain key hurdles.

Not just a jet; a ‘game-changer’ 

The F-35 is not just a jet, experts stress. It is the Pentagon’s most expensive procurement program to date and is thought to be more advanced than anything else on the market. It is known for its ability to identify and eliminate threats before it is detected, stealth technology, supersonic flight speeds and highly-classified passive tracking capabilities. 

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II fighter jet at a ceremony on

Lockheed Martin

“The thing that makes it really a real game-changer is the combination of that stealth with the ability to gather huge amounts of information through its sensor suite without giving itself away,” Justin Bronk, a combat airpower and technology specialist at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told CNBC.

The jets currently sell at $100 million apiece. “The F-35 is qualitatively heads above what Iran possesses,” Rubin said. “It gives the Emiratis the ability to retaliate against Iran for any malign activities.” 

Will Congress approve? 

The Trump administration is reportedly working on ways to uphold Israel’s QME as part of the plan, which will likely involve sales of other weapons and technologies.  

But Congressional approvals, as well as passing U.S. export control regulations, “should not be assumed as automatic,” said Charles Forresters, principal analyst for MENA industry at IHS Janes.  

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements as they participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and some of its Middle East neighbors, in a strategic realignment of Middle Eastern countries against Iran, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020.

Tom Brenner | Reuters

In response to the Trump administration’s move, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel expressed “concern,” saying in a statement Thursday that “rushing these sales is not in anyone’s interest.”  

A potential new U.S. administration could also cause delays. On Thursday presidential candidate Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser expressed “concerns about what commitments may or may not have been made to the UAE with regard to the F-35.” 

‘A serious security risk concern’

Exporting the F-35 to the Gulf could be “another potential way for Chinese and Russian in particular, but also potentially Iranian, intelligence operations to gather sensitive information about the jet,” says Bronk.  

Defense espionage is common, and while China and Russia don’t have military bases in the UAE, there is a substantial level of engagement between the countries. “Chinese technicians do regularly work for and with the UAE air force … So it is a serious security risk concern for the U.S.,” he said.

Aware of the concern, Forrester says the UAE has been “working hard to improve its security and intellectual property controls,” launching a trade control office and working with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, who have regional headquarters in the country. 

Even with all necessary approvals from Congress, U.S. weapons sales move slowly. From signature of sale to jet on tarmac generally takes at least five years, Bronk said. 

But the rapidly forming alliances in the Middle East and continued heavy spending by Gulf countries — as well as increased selling by U.S. rivals like China and Russia — are fast reshaping the region’s dynamics. Gulf ambitions are growing, and “at the same time, as the Iranians pivot toward China,” Rubin said, “it defines the Persian Gulf as the new front line in great power rivalry.” 

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