Is America Fueling an Arab-Israeli Arms Race?

Israel receives its first two fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Flickr/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

Israel’s qualitative military edge is already eroding.

Following the announcement of a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, President Trump is reported to have “underscored the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security, including to the maintenance of Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge” during his May 22 meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also reported to have said there was “nothing entered into with the arms sales agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries that do not fully allow us to fulfill our commitments to Israel and the longstanding security arrangements we have with Israel.”

The fanfare surrounding the announcement of this huge arms deal obscures the fact that Israel’s air superiority, which remains the key component of its Qualitative Military Edge, is already in the process of being eroded from the growing sales of large numbers of advanced fighter jets to Arab countries over the last five years.

With hundreds of advanced fighters armed with thousands of air-to-air missiles and tens of thousands of precise guided munitions at its disposal, a Sunni Arab aerial coalition could inflict high losses on Israeli aircraft, cause considerable damage to its vulnerable civilian and military infrastructure, and make the fight for air superiority more difficult and costly—this even with the F-35 fighter at Israel’s disposal.

The F-35 alone cannot completely offset the destructive power of the growing quantity of qualitative Arab aerial offensive capabilities. Such a confrontation would leave Israel with serious damage. However, the recent decision by the Israeli security cabinet, to increase the number of F-35s Israel will purchase from thirty-three to fifty, is important. A larger number of these planes will certainly contribute to Israel’s aerial strength and help it prevail.

However, it is imperative that Israel have a regional monopoly on the F-35 fighter well beyond the next decade. Without this monopoly, Israel will lose its already narrowing air superiority altogether.

The Balance of Aerial Capabilities

If pending fighter deals with the Gulf states are implemented in the coming years, they will possess a large quantity of formidable U.S.-made air capabilities. The combined number of advanced U.S.-made fighters in their possession is expected to stand somewhere between 250 and over four hundred. These include between thirty-six and seventy-two new F-15s for Qatar, twenty-eight to forty F-18s for Kuwait, 154 F-15 SAs to Saudi Arabia, seventeen F-16s to Bahrain and thirty F-16s to the UAE. The advanced configuration of these fighters includes the advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, sophisticated avionics, thousands of lethal air-to-air missiles, and tens of thousands of standoff air-to-ground precise and autonomous munitions.

In addition, the Arab and Gulf states have also ordered, in recent years, advanced fighters from European and Russian manufacturers. These include Egypt, which has ordered twenty-four Rafale fighters from France and up to fifty Mig-29s from Russia. Qatar has purchased twenty-four Rafales from France, and Kuwait has ordered twenty-eight Eurofighters. In addition, Oman has ordered twelve Eurofighters; Saudi Arabia has purchased seventy-two.

All in all, current and pending advanced fighter deals, including enhanced radars and avionics, precise guided munitions (PGMs) and air-to-air capabilities, could add up to between 450 and 510 over the next few years.

Given this accumulation of advanced offensive aerial capabilities (“quantity of quality”) by Sunni states, Israel’s traditional qualitative advantages in the air are being eroded. Technologies that once gave Israel a distinct advantage, including advanced airborne radars and avionics, air-to-air missiles, long- and short-range PGMs, aerial detection, tracking and air defense systems, are all becoming increasingly present in growing quantities across the region.

This is a fundamental game changer regarding Israel’s ability to defend its airspace and successfully interdict enemy aircrafts. Israel’s vulnerable military and civilian strategic infrastructures could become increasingly exposed to precise targeting from long-range PGMs and standoff capabilities. This is a recent development that is not fully balanced or canceled out by Israel having the F-35 at its disposal.