Stealth F‑35s to UAE: Could Congress Actually Block It?

 In GCC, UAE, Israel

The top Senator Foreign Relations Committee lead­ers invoked Israel’s need to have a qualitative military edge (QEM), which could make the pos­si­ble sale of the Lockheed Martin F‑35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter to the United Arabs Emirates (UAE) any­thing but a “done deal.” In a show of bipar­ti­san­ship, both Chairman Jim Risch (R‑Idaho) and rank­ing member Bob Menendez (D‑N.J.) high­light­ed their con­cerns to State Department offi­cials over the deal.

“With all due respect, it does­n’t take a rocket sci­en­tist to figure out that if Israel’s the only coun­try in the Middle East that has F-35s, that sell­ing it to some­one else no longer pro­duces that qual­i­ta­tive mil­i­tary edge in the air,” said Menendez, as reported by Defense News.

The pro­posed sale of the fifth-gen­er­a­tion fight­er jets to the UAE could present a long-term neg­a­tive strate­gic impact for the State of Israel, warned the nation’s Air Force Chief Amikam Norkin. While the sale of the air­craft to the UAE isn’t part of the U.S.-brokered nor­mal­iza­tion agree­ment between Israel and the Gulf state, the sale of the jets was seen as having been essen­tial­ly con­tin­gent upon Abu Dhabi’s accep­tance of the deal, The Times of Israel reported.

“These things are not reflect­ed in the strate­gic analy­sis as endan­ger­ing Israel next week,” Norkin warned in an inter­view on Thursday. “These are things that could pro­duce process­es that may, in the long-term strate­gic bal­ance, be less opti­mal for the State of Israel.”

A key fear is that strate­gic changes could occur in the region, and Norkin added that what today seems pos­si­ble in a decade could seem less true. It is notable that while four Arab coun­tries now rec­og­nize Israel, it was years in the making, and Israel has fought brutal wars with its neigh­bors mul­ti­ple times since its inde­pen­dence in 1948. It is still not rec­og­nized by mul­ti­ple other Arab powers — while Iran once had friend­ly rela­tions that changed when the nation’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 top­pled the former sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment.

A pos­si­ble solu­tion to sat­is­fy both sides could see the UAE obtain a downgraded version of the F‑35. This could include a way for Israeli air defens­es to be able to detect the UAE F‑35 with tech­nol­o­gy that effec­tive­ly defeats the stealth capa­bil­i­ties of the fifth-gen­er­a­tion advanced fight­er air­craft. It is not clear how­ev­er if this could entail chang­ing the jet or by pro­vid­ing Israel with supe­ri­or radar sys­tems.

However, the deci­sion as to whether the UAE gets the fight­ers may not be decid­ed in Abu Dhabi or Jerusalem, but in the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D‑Calif.) and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R‑Ky.) have both been vocal in their sup­port for Israel’s QME, while the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D‑N.Y.) along with Vice Chairman Michael McCaul (R‑Texas) have intro­duced leg­is­la­tion that would reit­er­ate the United States com­mit­ment to pre­serv­ing the QME of the State of Israel.

As Defense News report­ed, under the Arms Control Act, Engel, McCaul, Risch and Menendez con­trol the con­gres­sion­al-review process for any for­eign arms sale.

“Any poten­tial arms sales must con­tin­ue Congressional con­sul­ta­tions on meet­ing our oblig­a­tion to retain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and sat­is­fy­ing the other require­ments of the Arms Export Control Act,” Risch said Thursday. 

It is unlike­ly the matter will be resolved soon and pos­si­bly not until after the elec­tion. But even if the sale of the F‑35 is approved, it would likely be six or seven years until any air­craft arrive in the UAE.  

Meanwhile, Israel cur­rent­ly operates two squadrons of the F-35I Adir—a spe­cial ver­sion of the stealth air­craft that fea­tures Israeli-spe­cif­ic avion­ics. In addi­tion, by the time the first planes arrive the United States could be well on the way to intro­duc­ing a six-gen­er­a­tion fight­er air­craft — and such a plane could cer­tain­ly pro­vide Israel with the QEM to take on the F‑35. 

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has con­tributed to more than four dozen mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers and web­sites. He is the author of sev­er­al books on mil­i­tary head­gear includ­ing A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is avail­able on

Image: Reuters.

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