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COMMENT: Selling Fighter Jets to the UAE Is All About Israel

·7-min read
FILE PHOTO: An Israeli Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet performs during a graduation ceremony of Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim Air Force base in Israel's Negev desert on December 26, 2018. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO: An Israeli Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet performs during a graduation ceremony of Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim Air Force base in Israel's Negev desert on December 26, 2018. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

By James Stavridis

The landmark peace deal between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain is great news in terms of constructing a regional coalition against Iran. It may also help convince the Palestinians that they are no longer at the center of Arab politics, and bring them to the negotiating table. It perhaps gives the administration of President Donald Trump a minor talking point that won’t really matter to most Americans.

But the most complex and controversial aspect is that the deal may create the conditions for massive U.S. arms sales — including fifth-generation fighter aircraft — to Arab nations, beginning with the UAE. While Trump said he has “no problem” selling the advanced planes to an Arab nation, it raises legitimate concerns for Israel’s security.

Let’s start with the importance of the F-35 Lightning, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. It is the dominant combat aircraft in the world today, bar none. (Disclosure: I have consulted in the past for Northrop Grumman, one of the subcontractors.) It has a highly stealthy profile, advanced human-machine interfaces and powerful command-and-control features that integrate it into broader combat networks.

Israel is one of the key international partners in the program; it received its first F-35s in 2016 and plans to purchase 50 or more.

The problem with providing the F-35 and associated combat systems to Arab states, at least with all their technological capabilities, is that it might erode Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” or QME — an assurance from the U.S. that it will not sell its most advanced weapons to Israel’s potential military opponents.

FILE PHOTO: A United Arab Emirates Air Force Mirage 2000 (L), UAE F-16 Desert Falcon (C) and a U.S. F-35A Lightning II (R) fly a partnering flight in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, in the Arabian Gulf, May 29, 2019. Picture taken May 29, 2019. Chris Drzazgowski/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: A United Arab Emirates Air Force Mirage 2000 (L), UAE F-16 Desert Falcon (C) and a U.S. F-35A Lightning II (R) fly a partnering flight in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, in the Arabian Gulf, May 29, 2019. Picture taken May 29, 2019. Chris Drzazgowski/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS

There is precedent going back to the Camp David accords in the 1970s of giving advanced military technology to Arab states — Israel’s then-enemies Jordan and Egypt. Opponents of any new sale in Congress and Israel, however, correctly point to U.S. law on the matter, which guarantees that Washington will not allow the QME to be weakened.

The Emiratis, whose interests in Washington are skillfully represented by Ambassador Yusef Al Otaibi, say that a new deal would be exactly that — a new arrangement for a new era. They point out that unlike Egypt and Jordan, they have never attacked Israel.

What are the biggest considerations in deciding whether any sale should go forward?

First, the U.S. must look at how the technology that would be shared in an F-35 sale would be protected. When I was supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we were negotiating F-35 sales to the European allies, and the first conversation was always about security issues.

These included physical protection of hangars and airfields, and of any manufacturing conducted in a foreign country; the guidelines under which the maintenance process would be conducted; what cybersecurity barriers would be in place; and the reliability of the security-clearance process for all those in possession of the technology (from commanders to pilots to wrench-turning jet mechanics).

A second factor in the U.S. decision is the regional geopolitics. The UAE has been a reliable contributor to U.S. and allied operations. Its forces played roles in the Balkans, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya and against the Islamic State. As NATO commander, I was deeply impressed by the Emiratis’ military professionalism, especially during the Libyan campaign. My counterpart at U.S. Central Command (and future defense secretary), General Jim Mattis, called the UAE “little Sparta.”

While Washington has broadly opposed the UAE’s participation in the Saudi-led military campaign against rebels in Yemen, the overall alignment between the nations is high.

FILE PHOTO: Members of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces perform military drills during the "Union Fortress 6" military parade in Al Hamra, Ras al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates November 1, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike
FILE PHOTO: Members of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces perform military drills during the "Union Fortress 6" military parade in Al Hamra, Ras al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates November 1, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike

Providing the Emiratis with advanced weaponry would not only strengthen the alliance against Iran, it would help avoid arms-sales competition from Russia and China. A cautionary example is the purchase by Turkey, a NATO partner, of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia, which will probably cost the Turks their participation in the F-35 program.

A third element is the so-called “under the table” relationship existing between UAE and Israel for more than a decade. As head of U.S. European Command, which includes the military relationship with Israel, I saw firsthand the nascent cooperation between the Israelis and the Sunni Arab states in Special Forces, air defense, cybersecurity and long-range surveillance. The F-35 deal, should it come to fruition, would seem to be a logical extension of that cooperation.

It could also be a magnet that eventually pulls Saudi Arabia into similar peace arrangements with Israel, and into high-tech arms deals with the U.S. This would have even more geopolitical advantage for Washington than the UAE deal.

Finally, the views in Israel must be considered. Domestic politics there are always fractious, and the coalition government does not seem fully aligned over bringing the UAE into the F-35 program. The sale probably has the blessing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — although he is denying it — but not of Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who under the complicated power-sharing agreement is slated to become prime minister late next year.

If all these political and foreign-policy considerations can be ironed out, the debate ultimately becomes a fairly technical military discussion. Would Israel possess “superior military means,” as the QME law stipulates, even after the F-35 becomes part of the Emiratis’ inventory?

The answer depends on the precise configuration of the F-35 that is sold to the UAE (there are several variations, and it’s possible to sell a version without all its advanced technology); the capabilities of Israeli’s air defenses (first rate now, and not entirely dependent on U.S. equipment); and the degree to which Israel and the UAE can set up integrated air-surveillance and communication systems.

I participated in these sorts of technical discussions at the Pentagon on several occasions. They can get emotional, and take months or even years. Conversations we had for several years with Brazil about technology transfer and sharing with the F-18 Hornet ultimately failed, and the Brazilians ultimately purchased Gripen fighters from Sweden. Yet the Trump administration seems motivated to declare victory on the deal before the November election.

This circled can be squared, but maintaining the QME will require the U.S. to increase its support to Israel more broadly. This can be done first by allowing accelerated procurement under the current Memorandum of Understanding — a 10-year agreement with the Israelis on aiding their overall security — which would bring not only the F-35 but also new F-15X fighters and KC-46 refueling tankers.

The U.S. could also increase the quantity and lethality of precision-guided munitions in the War Reserve Stocks, a cache of weaponry maintained by the U.S. inside Israel for use in an emergency.

Washington could increase the intelligence flow to Israel (already high, but not quite at the level of the Five Eyes program of English-speaking nations) and conduct more technology sharing in cybersecurity; cyberwarfare can provide enemies strong counters to new kinetic technology like the F-35. Finally, as the Israelis normalize relations with increasing numbers of their neighbors, Washington may want to sign a formal mutual defense treaty with Tel Aviv.

Given the rising threat of Iran, the U.S. would be smart to improve the UAE’s defenses. But protecting commitments with Israel takes priority. It will be a complicated process, one that can’t be rushed to meet the exigencies of the U.S. electoral calendar.

James Stavridis is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former NATO Commander-in-Chief, and retired Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also the operations manager for the Carlyle Group and chairman of the advisory board of McLarty Associates.

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.