Why Is the Sale of F-35 Stealth Fighters to the UAE So Controversial?

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November 12, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: UAEF-35F-35IIsraelArms Sale

Why Is the Sale of F-35 Stealth Fighters to the UAE So Controversial?

Israel is not fully happy but it might not have reason to worry.

Arming the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with dozens of F-35s will place fifth-generation stealth fighter technology in close proximity to Iran, a move which could massively uptick the possibility of bringing threat-focused leverage to any U.S.-Iran negotiations. It would also bring new strategic and tactical firepower dimensions right onto the Persian Gulf, complementing Israel’s fleet of F-35s with new kinds of U.S. allied-power projection. 

Having F-35s that close to Iran greatly quickens the pace at which stealth fighters could attack and, in conjunction with Israeli F-35s, changes the potential scale of any allied strike or military engagement being contemplated by U.S. allies. The UAE is literally right across the Strait of Hormuz bordering Iran within less than 100 miles. This kind of proximity gives the UAE a quick strike option against many places within Iran without having to refuel the aircraft. It also enables more dwell time and a much greater scale of attack should the UAE, Israel or other U.S. allies wish to quickly overwhelm Iranian Air Defenses with multiple F-35s. 

“The package will include 50 F-35 jets, as well as 18 Reaper drones and thousands of bombs and missiles,” according to a report from the Times of Israel. 

Of course any F-35s sold to the UAE, while still extremely capable, would be export variants intended for U.S. allies, yet the computer technology, stealth properties and weapons capability of the fast-modernizing F-35 would present a new series of problems for Iran or other countries with possible interest in defending against it. 

However, the decision is not without controversy, as some lawmakers and senior Israeli leaders have voiced considerable concern that an F-35 sale to the UAE would jeopardize Israeli security, in light of the well-known history of Arab-Israeli tensions in the region. 

However, the U.S. has long based its Navy’s 5th-Fleet headquarters in Bahrain right near the UAE and regularly operates in the CentCom theater. Should the United States retain its key position as an ally to both Israel and the UAE it might function to offset some of the trepidations being expressed by Israel. 

The proposed sale also points to a significant and often overlooked strategic and tactical reality in the Middle East, which is the vital extent to which U.S. security and war aims have been supported and helped by allied Arab nations. Saudi Arabia, for instance, conducted strikes against ISIS and recently made an enormous purchase of F-15s. Many members of the U.S. Coalition against ISIS were Arab countries with regional security and geopolitical interests somewhat aligned with Washington. Also, having Arab allies in any potential future engagement greatly strengthens any U.S. political or diplomatic positions entertained by the United States, given that it speaks to an important vital cultural, religious and political sensitivities. 

Iran continues to commit itself to the destruction of Israel, and the concern among Israeli leaders is simply that, given the longstanding history of Arab-Israeli tensions, the UAE could someday partner with other Arab countries to threaten, intimidate or even attack Israel, however likely. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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