There is plenty of support in Washington for the sale of F-35 multirole stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Such support exists even though the agreement had been concluded in an abnormal manner—it was signed on the very day President Trump left office. The arms deal would result in $23 billion in U.S. exports, create American jobs, and shore up the order books of Lockheed-Martin and other U.S. defense contractors in what could be a period of declining U.S. defense budgets. The sale also has very strong support from pro-Israel interests in Washington, who see it as shoring up the normalization of diplomatic and commercial relations under the Abraham Accords. Moreover, the deal would aid the now-more-overt military partnership between Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to balance against threats from Iran. The U.S. military also has had a close relationship with the UAE for decades, building interoperability via joint exercises, and working together with Abu Dhabi making a small contribution in Afghanistan. The Emirati military has often been referred to approvingly by U.S. military officials as “Little Sparta” for their professionalism and competence.
The United States does have an interest in strengthening Emirati capabilities to defend itself against Iran, particularly in light of the need for the U.S. to reduce its own military footprint in the Gulf. However, the Biden administration was right to hit the pause button and re-evaluate this sale, along with other systems for the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The issue at stake with the F-35 sale, however, is different, and not closely related to exerting pressure to end the conflict in Yemen. Rather, it revolves primarily around whether or not it is in the U.S. national interest to have the UAE armed after 2027 with a stealth strike fighter which would give it a much greater offensive military edge over Iran and potentially others. The strategic context in the Gulf has changed considerably in recent years with Iran able to hold Saudi and Emirati fixed infrastructure at risk with a combination of accurate ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones, ushering in an era of mutual vulnerability which Iran is unlikely to concede in any future negotiations on regional security. This asymmetric capability has been Iran’s primary focus in recent years, and will probably continue to be so even with the United Nations arms embargo having lapsed in October 2020. Iran’s air force is extremely weak, consisting mostly of 1970s vintage American aircraft like the F-4 and F-14, and without modernization upgrades available to other users of the F-4. Moreover, a handful of MiG-29s are Tehran’s only more modern aircraft. The U.S. and French fighter aircraft and air defense systems which the UAE has are more than adequate to defend against any fixed-wing aircraft threat from Iran. The addition of the F-35 would serve mainly to augment Emirati offensive capability, having a stealth strike platform which could penetrate deep into Iranian airspace with greatly reduced vulnerability to Iran’s air defenses compared to its existing fleet of aircraft.
The core analytical question the United States needs to ask is whether this enhanced Emirati strike capability would contribute to stability in the Gulf in a potential future crisis—one in which America might have a more modest contingent of its own forces in the region. The Emirati Air Force already has plenty of offensive capability to react to any Iranian use of conventional missiles with strikes against Iranian military sites and infrastructure targets, including with standoff munitions which limit vulnerability to air defenses. What the F-35 would add is the ability to penetrate Iranian airspace with much less risk, and specifically to deliver the larger explosive payloads which are available with precision-guided gravity bombs. That distinction would be particularly applicable to strikes which were aimed at hardened targets like underground facilities where Iran’s missiles are stored, where a first strike in a crisis could seek to collapse the entrances and thereby take those out of action. It is clearly in the U.S. interest to have the UAE able to mount a robust response to Iranian aggression, but it is less clear that it serves U.S. interests to create more of a temptation to strike first against Iran’s asymmetric capabilities in a potential future crisis, particularly where the mismatch in fixed-wing aircraft capabilities is already so wide. The United States needs to do a thorough analysis of the risks and potential benefits of enhancing their offensive capability.
The other point policymakers in Washington need to analyze is what impact this would have on Emirati power projection capability outside its immediate neighborhood. Emirati foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed has become increasingly ambitious and muscular, particularly in the last few years. The Emirati and Saudi interventions in Yemen have drawn much attention, but the Emirati military also has been actively involved in the most recent phase of the Libyan Civil War, carrying out airstrikes in support of the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar, and also in the Horn of Africa. The introduction of F-35s in significant numbers raises the question of whether such an “edge” over the combat aircraft of adversaries could embolden them in those interventions. If the UAE could spare a few stealth aircraft to send to Libya today, would that embolden them to strike more directly at Turkish support for Haftar’s opponents in Tripoli? Given the long lead time for delivery, this is a question for the future, but broader implications of the introduction of stealth aircraft beyond maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge in the region deserves more scrutiny.
Finally, while America and China are strategic competitors, the United States should think through whether there might be a common interest in having a quiet understanding about mutually refraining in introducing some military technologies to the Gulf. China has many tools through which it seeks to enhance its power in the region, but it is noteworthy how little of this has involved arms sales. Globally, China is not a top-tier arms exporter, falling way behind the United States, Russia, and even France in sales volumes, despite their technological sophistication. To be sure, they were the first to introduce anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran in the 1980s and are current suppliers of armed drones to the UAE and other U.S. partners, but these are not leading-edge technologies. The United States and China both have a strong interest in avoiding any scenario in which regional powers in the Gulf destroy each other’s energy and petrochemical infrastructure, and the Iranian strike on Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019 demonstrated this vulnerability. It would make sense for Washington to broach the idea with Beijing of how both countries might stabilize the situation in light of the mutual vulnerability of infrastructure, and whether refraining from introducing U.S. stealth technology to the UAE might dovetail with China refraining from doing anything to improve Iran’s Air Force.
Greg Priddy is an independent consultant on global geopolitical risk based near Washington, D.C. He has previously held positions at Eurasia Group and the U.S. Department of Energy. You can follow him on Twitter: @GregPriddy1.