Key point: The United States is committed to maintaining Israel's military edge, but will that last forever?
In a June 2017 article in the National Interest, I advocated that the United States provide Israel a long-lasting regional monopoly on the F-35 joint strike fighter. My line of argument was that since Israel’s aerial superiority—which remains critical to its Qualitative Military Edge (QME)—is already being seriously eroded through the sale of large quantities of advanced U.S.-made fighters and munitions to the Gulf states, Israel’s only real advantage would be through the exclusivity of its F-35 “Adir” fighters.
The Israeli belief that it would be, for a considerable amount of time, the sole regional recipient of the fifth-generation F-35 played a significant role in its acquiescence to the sale of large numbers of advanced fourth-generation fighters to the Gulf states under the Obama administration. Time and time again, Israel was reassured that the sale of F-35s to the Gulf states was not on the table.
Now, however, it appears that the Trump administration is actively considering the potential sale of the F-35 to the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. Air Force’s vice chief of staff, Stephen Wilson, recently confirmed that the Department of Defense has begun preliminary talks with the UAE on this issue.
While a final decision on any such sale is still far off, recent reports based on what appears to be orchestrated off-the-record briefings by the administration and/or industry officials, represent the opening shot in the drive to gain approval for the sale.
The reports serve as a “trial balloon” to test and to try to influence the degree of an Israeli push back against such a move. The reports were carefully laced with references to the long time-frame for first deliveries and to the limiting of the F-35 sales to the UAE only. While no public comment has been made by Israel, the Defense News report by Barbara Opall-Rome included reference to a “source” that privately said that “Israel is unlikely to object if initial steps are limited only to the UAE, and will not trigger wider approval for other GCC states.” References to a long time-frame, approval being limited only to UAE and the appearance as if some in Israel do not object to the sale, though fallacies, are designed to pre-influence the Israeli stance towards the move.
A second audience that the reports are designed to influence is Congress. Given the importance that the Congress attaches to Israel’s QME, a long process of accustoming it to the possibility of selling F-35s to the Gulf states is needed. Here, an important linkage with the Israeli position exists. The weaker the Israeli objection, the more probable it will be to persuade Congress in the future to approve a deal and vice versa.
The reports also serve to reiterate Washington’s commitment to the UAE and its potential willingness to deliver on the major Emirati arms request dating back to 2011. The UAE has adopted a number of strategies designed to signal its dissatisfaction with America’s refusal to enter talks on the sale of the F-35. On the one hand, it recently signed an expanded U.S.-UAE Defense Cooperation Agreement, while on the other it has refused, up to now, to conclude a pending deal for thirty new F-16 Block 61 fighters.
Abu Dhabi has also added pressure on the United States by outlining an agreement with Russia to build a next-generation fighter. This comes at a time when the administration is forging a new strategy to counter Iran that requires Gulf support. The recent announcement by the UAE of a deal to upgrade eighty of its F-16s—coinciding as it does with the new U.S. willingness to enter preliminary talks on the F-35—highlights the linkage drawn between the issues by the UAE.
The sale of F-35 strike fighters to the UAE cannot be limited only to the Emirates. Rather, such a deal will be cited as precedent for other Gulf states and they will demand that they get F-35s as well. How can the United States refuse a future Saudi request for the F-35 once they have been sold to the UAE? Past arms deals with the Gulf states shows that once thresholds are crossed—for example, the sale of advanced fourth generation fighters or long range precision-guided munitions (PGMs)—the proliferation of such capabilities among the Gulf states is widespread and rapid.
A second fallacy is that even when the UAE takes possession of the F-35 fighters, Israel will retain the advantage, being the more experienced operator of the fighter and with its F-35s being slightly more advanced than those sold to the Gulf states. In this manner, Israel’s QME will be maintained. In reality, the release of F-35s to the Gulf states is a fundamental military game-changer that, in combination with the advanced fourth generation fighters and the tens of thousands of sophisticated munitions, will cancel out Israel’s QME. The network enabled operation of Gulf F-35s and their large quantities of advanced fourth generation fighters will at a minimum put them on par with the Israeli air force. The only plausible way in which to maintain Israel’s aerial superiority, given the release of the F-35 to the Gulf states, is to provide it with the F-22.
A third fallacy is that the Gulf countries have a viable Russian alternative. Even if the Gulf countries and the Russians were able to develop a fifth-generation fighter, it would be seriously handicapped in the field of network-enabled operations in the modern battlefield. The United States would not allow such platforms to communicate with the fourth-generation American made fighters that make up the backbone of the Gulf states’ air forces. A stand-alone fifth-generation Russian made fighter would thus go against the grain of the requirements for the battlespace of the future.
The sale of F-35s to the UAE would set a dangerous precedent that would lead to further sales to other Gulf countries and would critically undermine Israel’s QME. Ignoring the private opinions of opaque “sources,” Israel must express its strenuous objection to the release of the F-35 to any and all Gulf and Arab countries.
Shimon Arad is a retired colonel from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). His last position (2011–16), was Head of the Strategic Planning Unit in the Political-Military and Policy Bureau of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. This article first appeared in 2017.