Will UAE F-35 Deal Be Signed Before President Trump Leaves Office?
The export of the F-35 to the UAE is not without its controversy.
A month ago, the first flight carrying Israeli tourists landed in the city of Dubai in the United Arabs Emirates. It was the latest sign of the normalization between the two Middle Eastern nations, and just a few days later UAE national carrier Etihad Airways announced it would start operating daily nonstop flights to Tel Aviv next year. While that was unfolding, the Trump administration formally notified Congress on November 10 that it would sell fifty Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters to the UAE as part of a broader arms deal worth $23 billion.
A lingering question is whether the incoming Biden administration would seek to derail the deal—possibly as a way to bring Iran back to the bargaining table. President-Elect Joe Biden has publically said he could reenter the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
However, a top arms sale official told Defense News that it is still “possible” that the UAE could sign the contract to purchase the F-35 before President Donald Trump leaves office.
“If you ask if it’s possible, absolutely it’s possible,” Heidi Grant, head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), told Defense News in response to a question about whether the F-35s could be on contract by Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated. “But we don’t control it. We are waiting on the Congress benchmark, then we are going to wait when we offer it to the Emiratis, and it’s up to them as far as timeline. But it’s possible.”
That Congressional benchmark comes at the end of the congressional notification period that is required by law for all Foreign Military Sales (FMS), which are the agreements between a partner nation and Washington with the Pentagon acting as the “go-between” for the purchasing nation and the industrial partner. On November 10, DSCA notified Congress of the potential sale—which means the notification period ends later this week.
The next step will be the letter of agreement between the UAE and the United States.
In this case it is for a reasonably large arms package—valued at $23.37 billion. In addition to the fifty F-35A fighters worth $10.4 billion, it includes eighteen MQ-9B drones worth $2.97 billion and another $10 billion worth of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. It is also important to note that that the prices are estimates and could shift during final negotiations of the deal. It has been seen as a huge win for the American defense contractors, notably Lockheed Martin, but it could also be a political battle that rages on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers, notably Democrats, have been critical of the potential sale on the grounds that it could threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Other than America, Israel has been the sole operator of the F-35 in the Middle East. Another concern is that the UAE has ties to Russia and China and that could pose a threat given the sensitive military technology used in the fifth-generation advanced stealth fighter.
After all, Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, was even expelled from the program due to Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian-built S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile system. Washington, as well as NATO leaders, argued that the F-35 was not compatible with the S-400 and suggested that if Turkey operated both it could present vulnerabilities to the Lockheed Martin-built stealth fighter.
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 Amazon.com.