Should the United States Sell Fighter Jets to the Gulf?
The timing and phasing of recent U.S. arms deals in the Middle East underscore the complicated balance for the United States of addressing the concerns and needs of multiple partners in the region who frequently view each other with suspicion.
The White House approved the sale of fighter aircraft to Qatar and Kuwait in late September, and the State Department formalized its sign-off in November. Congress now has thirty days to pass legislation to block deals before they move forward. The sales, worth more than $32.2 billion, will include as many as 72 F-15 Strike Eagles to Qatar and 32 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to Kuwait. An expected sale of F-16 Fighting Falcons to Bahrain, however, appears to still be waiting approval.
After being on hold for three years, reports that sales would be approved in September came just two weeks after the signing of a new 10-year $38 billion military aid package to Israel.
Among the economic and strategic reasons for Washington to approve the deal: The production lines of the Boeing F-15 and F-18, and the Lockheed F-16, are scheduled to close if they do not receive new orders. If they close, the only advanced fighter the United States will be producing after 2020 is the F-35 Lightning II – an as of now unproven aircraft. A loss of the infrastructure and skilled workforce that produces the high-tech F-15, F-16 and F-18 fighter aircraft will put the American defense industrial base at risk.
Also, in keeping these critical production lines open, the potential for follow-on orders increases. The U.S. Navy, for example, has indicated that it hopes to buy more F-18s and it has warned of a fighter shortfall if the production lines are closed.
If the United States were to disapprove the sale of new fighters to the Gulf states, other weapons producers would be eager to gain a larger share of Middle East arms sales, with fighter sales representing the ultimate prize. In fact, the delay of fighter sales has already resulted in Qatar purchasing 24 Rafales from France and Kuwait ordering 28 Eurofighter Typhoons from Italy – both with capabilities comparable to the U.S.-made planes.
Another argument in favor of the sales: In the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, many Sunni Arab states have grown alarmed by the White House’s concessions to Iran under last year’s controversial nuclear deal. They are further unsettled by Washington’s unwillingness to challenge Tehran’s regional aggression. Providing fighter aircraft to these countries gives them the capability to counter Iran and target its proxies, while cementing a dependence on the U.S. for parts and maintenance support. The respective air forces will also be trained by the United States, which can give Washington leverage. The interoperability of these aircraft with other U.S. allies is also key to the success of future coalition missions such as the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The sales will also help the United States sustain major U.S. military installations that support the campaign against ISIS and serve as deterrence to Iran. Al Udeid Air Base near Doha, for which the United States recently signed a lease until 2024, is home to a key command center that directs all allied air and space operations for the Middle East. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is meanwhile headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, while Kuwait remains an important staging area and logistical hub for U.S. military operations in Iraq.
The Gulf states are very much in the market for new aircraft. Qatar’s aging Mirage 2000s lack such core capabilities as midair refueling. They are primarily meant for an air defense role. This shortfall is evident in their limited role in the campaign against ISIS, where only one escort sortie was flown in support of the initial strikes into Syria in September 2014.