Even if UAE gets F-35s, Israel will retain the military edge

SECURITY & DEFENSE: Normalization deal with Arab nation is better than no deal, says ex-IDF general

A US Marine Corps F-35B fighter jet drops a laser-guided bomb at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (photo credit: US NAVY VIA REUTERS)
A US Marine Corps F-35B fighter jet drops a laser-guided bomb at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
(photo credit: US NAVY VIA REUTERS)
A historic normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates seemed to disappear from the headlines as soon as it was announced. Instead, the fear that the Gulf state may procure the world’s most advanced jet, rendering Israel’s qualitative military edge ineffective, has been the headline of the week.
Though Washington has been selling Abu Dhabi millions in military deals, it has been bound to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the Middle East before selling any advanced weaponry to regional states.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has said that the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel could allow the Gulf state to clinch unspecified new US arms sales, and the UAE, which is among the world’s biggest defense spenders, is currently in the process of building up its armed forces.
Abu Dhabi has made no secret that it is interested in purchasing the fifth-generation fighter jet.
But Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have drawn a hard line against the sale.
Nevertheless, in an interview with Emirates’ state-run news agency WAM, US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that the sale of the F-35 and other weapons to the UAE is “on the table.”
Ortagus, who is accompanying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his trip to several Middle Eastern and African countries to urge them to follow the UAE and establish diplomatic relations with Israel, said that the deal is being discussed and that there are “a lot of discussions about all the various hardware elements, aircraft and other things that are on the table.”
The UAE, some 2,648 kilometers away, has never actually been at war with Israel. The two countries – according to foreign reports – have been signing security and defense deals worth billions over recent years.
Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council and the IDF Planning Directorate, told The Jerusalem Post that there is no deal in which one side gets everything that it wants.
“It’s like any other deal. You give up something and get something in return,” he said. “There is always some kind of price to pay.”
According to him, Netanyahu “did not have to pretend” that the clause was not part of the deal; rather, “he could have said that certain concessions were made. It is still something where the advantages of signing are much better than not.”
ISRAEL IS the second country after the United States to have received the state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and is the only air force in the Middle East to fly it.
The IAF was the first to use the F-35 in combat, in 2018, just months after it declared the aircraft’s operational capability, and since then it’s been reported by foreign sources to be playing a central role against Iran in Israel’s Campaign Between the Wars.
By November the IAF will have 27 F-35i Adir aircraft and will open three full squadrons of the advanced jet in the coming years. The IAF is also now considering whether to purchase an additional 25 F-35s to give the Jewish state a total of 75 stealth fighter jets.
The F-35i Adir is heavily tailor-made to fit Israel’s own specifications and is embedded with Israeli-made electronic warfare pods as well as Israeli weaponry, all installed once the planes have landed in Israel.
Israel is also one of the few to be allowed to modify the advanced fighter, and at the beginning of the month received an experimental F-35 which will act as a test bed for the country’s planned modifications.
The experimental F-35 “is the only one in the world and unique for the IAF,” a source in the air force recently told the Post, adding that Israel wanted this plane so that it could integrate into it and certify unique Israeli technology.
And while the US has kept most of the advanced jets’ capabilities confidential, sources have told the Post that there are things that Israel knows about the plane that even Washington doesn’t.
The ability to modify the jet might be one way to keep Israel’s QME. And purchasing other, more advanced, platforms from the US may also be an option.
With most of Israel’s aircraft decades old, the IAF is currently in the final legs of closing deals to purchase new air platforms, including new fighter jets. The money for the deal is to come from a part of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in 2016 between Jerusalem and Washington which would see Israel receive $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade to purchase American-designed weapons systems.
But like the state, Israel’s military does not yet have a budget and has had to make cuts to its multiyear program. It cannot, however, make cuts to crucial platforms that help it retain its QME, especially as regional threats become more complicated.
Will Jerusalem demand even more funds in the next MOU it signs with Washington in exchange for the UAE receiving the F-35? Or could this be a covert start to a campaign by Jerusalem to get new advanced platforms or weapons from Washington?
The timing would be perfect, ahead of the US elections, which may remove Trump – viewed by Netanyahu as the president who has been the strongest supporter of Israel in years – from office.
Is Bibi in a rush to sign deals before he is gone? If so, one such option that would without a doubt maintain Israel’s superiority in the Middle East would be the F-22 Raptor, which is currently flown only by the US Air Force.
The F-22 is an advanced tactical fighter aircraft developed for the USAF and is considered the first fifth-generation fighter after it entered service with the USAF in 2005.
Using low observable technologies and modern avionics, the F-22 has been designed to rapidly project air dominance with stealth and range. The supersonic jet can be armed with an M61A2 cannon, six AIM-120 AMRAAMs, two AIM-9 Sidewinders, two 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munitions and two AIM-120s.
But maybe Israel doesn’t need aircraft to keep its QME. What about advanced heavy weaponry like the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator or the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB)?
The MOAB, nicknamed “Mother of All Bombs,” is considered the largest nonnuclear bomb in the USAF’s inventory and was used only once, against Islamic State terrorists, dropped on a deep tunnel complex in eastern Nangarhar province in Afghanistan.
Both bunker busters are in use only by the United States and would provide Israel with the ability to effectively destroy Iranian infrastructure deep underground.
BUT WHATEVER Israel demands in return, it knows that the UAE might not be the only country in the region that ends up requesting that Washington sell it the advanced jet.
“We have to make a distinction between the UAE and other counties which may get similar weapons systems,” Eiland said.
With a significant distance between the two countries, and a stable friendly regime in power, as well as the fact that the main reason that it wants similar weapons is to deter Iran, in some ways it’s good military news that Abu Dhabi will procure the F-35.
Israel, Eiland said, has no say in deals between the US and Arab countries and “has been disappointed in the past when Washington made deals which were much more dangerous than this one.”
For example, the US sold F-16s to Egypt in 1980, only a year after a peace deal was signed between Cairo and Jerusalem, and before it was implemented. While Cairo has since turned into a strategic partner, less than a decade before the sale, Egypt played a key role against Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Egypt also has more advanced Apache attack helicopters than Israel.
Washington also sold Saudi Arabia F-15s and AWACS early warning aircraft in the 1980s and recently signed a deal with Riyadh and Qatar for advanced F-15s.
And what about Turkey? Until recently, Ankara was part of the F-35 project, before it was booted out by Washington after it bought advanced S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. Though a NATO member, Turkey has been increasingly aggressive in the Mediterranean and pivoting away from the West.
Israel should anticipate similar requests from countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia and other countries which may be more dangerous, Eiland said, “but it will take years.”
While Egypt and Jordan have signed peace deals with Israel, perhaps the possibility of getting such jets will be that last push that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states need to sign similar normalization deals with the Jewish state.
So “is the deal better than no deal?” Eiland asked. “At the end of the day, the answer is yes.”