Calculating the risks of selling the F-35 to the UAE

Israel has to take into account several factors.

ISRAEL HAS to examine carefully how much the US wants to sell the F35 to the UAE.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
ISRAEL HAS to examine carefully how much the US wants to sell the F35 to the UAE.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
On September 15, an agreement was signed between the UAE and Israel. Abu Dhabi’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said then that the UAE is “like any country that takes its military seriously, seeking to modernize its military always.”
For several years now the UAE has been seeking to buy the F-35 (Joint Strike Fighter). Israel has some concerns about that since the F-35 is a highly advanced weapons system.
The UAE and Israel were never actual enemies. Their militaries did not clash with each other. There aren’t many reasons for conflict since the two states don’t share a border so there were no territorial disputes. Iraq, which also doesn’t share a border with Israel, dispatched an expeditionary force during past Arab-Israeli wars. Even Saudi Arabia sent units to fight Israel in past wars, but not the UAE.
Furthermore, in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Arab states, including the UAE, sought an Israeli victory over Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah. It is part of an ongoing struggle between Iran and its foes; among them are Israel and the UAE. The UAE and Israel are allies and now also peace partners, but it is yet to be seen what kind of relations they will have. Conflict of interests, mutual suspicion etc., could undermine their ties. The F-35 issue seems to be their first main challenge.
Israel has to take into account several factors. Strategically both the UAE and Israel are paying a price for the accord. For the UAE, Arab states more or less accept the agreement. The Arab League refused to pass a resolution, proposed by the Palestinian Authority, to condemn the normalization between Israel and the UAE. Yet some states, such as Turkey and Iran, reject it. The UAE might face retaliation.
There might be a cost to Israel too, such as in regard to the F-35. This is an important matter but Israel has to decide if it is worth opposing. One aspect is the expected Emirati response to such an Israeli approach.
Israel has to examine carefully how much the US wants to sell the F-35 to the UAE. There are US interests on the strategic, political and economic levels. One of them is that if the UAE does not receive the F-35 it might turn to Russia.
Israel can wait for the US election on November 3 to see if there is a change in the administration and Congress and the country’s Middle East policy. After that Israel should evaluate if and how much political capital to invest in preventing or at least slowing down and limiting the sale of the F-35 to the UAE.
The United States has been committed to preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Therefore the US might sell inferior F-35s to the UAE. That happened before when the US sold F16s to Egypt. Yet the UAE has to agree to such a move.
The UAE, which has developed quite an impressive military might, is known as the “Little Sparta.” In the Middle East, only Saudi Arabia buys more weapons than the UAE. The regime in the UAE seems stable but it might become a “little Iran,” i.e. its policy and or the regime itself might change and become anti-Israel and anti-American (it usually comes together). The same could happen with other Arab states that hold US weapons. In such a case these Arab states will find it very difficult to maintain and operate their sophisticated American weapon systems, such as the F-35, without US military aid (training, delivery of ammunition, spare parts etc.)
It seems the process in Congress of approving the F-35 deal with the UAE could be “messy and time consuming.” Some assume it might take years, maybe a decade, until the UAE gets the F-35, because of production delays and since other states are supposed to receive the plane before the UAE. Even then, the Israel Air Force has been integrating the F-35 since 2016 so it will have much more experience with the plane, including in combat, compared to the UAE.
If Iran tries to produce a nuclear weapon, Israel might strike Iran. Israel, as part of an attack on Iran, might need political support from the UAE. Abu Dhabi has to feel secure enough in countering possible Iranian retribution against the UAE. The F-35 will help in this matter. Furthermore, even before any war, Iran will have to pay more attention to the UAE, due to its growing military strength, and it might be at the expense of investing in Iran’s proxies.
The F-35 is an amazing aircraft but its success still depends on many other factors, starting with the quality of its pilot, ground crews and commanders of the unit and many other military personnel. The IAF has a much more impressive reputation than the UAE. The F-35 could do much by itself but during a mission it might need assistance from other aircraft, such as command and control aircraft, drones and rescue helicopters to save air crews.
If the UAE attacks Israel the former will have to make sure its F-35s receive the help they require, which might not be that easy to organize and coordinate. The UAE might absorb heavy losses in both pilots and planes during a battle against the IAF. The UAE might not want to pay a high price, losing its elite pilots and finest weapons in fighting the wrong enemy.
The F-35 can’t reach Israel if the plane takes off from the UAE. The UAE will need to refuel in mid-air or in an Arab state near Israel, one that would join the UAE in fighting Israel. Therefore an Emirati attack will be part of an Arab military alliance. The probability of such an Arab coalition, let alone one that will include Gulf states is low, even very low. There are talks about creating an “Arab NATO” but it has to be reliable and powerful. Furthermore its aim will be to confront Iran, not Israel.
The UAE’s economy depends on the oil and natural gas industry. The UAE also had developed its tourism and trade. All that will be in danger, because if the UAE bombs Israel, the latter will return the favor.
All in all Israel has to consider various factors regarding the sale of the F-35 to the UAE. Some of them are calculated risks that could be taken if the overall Israeli policy requires it, even if it is for lack of a better choice.
The writer has been studying the country’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the IDF and worked for the Defense Ministry as a researcher. He has published six books. His latest is: Containment in the Middle East, (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).