The Trump administration is seeking to push through an unprecedented arms deal for the United Arab Emirates, including 50 of the fifth-generation F-35 stealth warplanes and 18 Reaper drones, according to a report on Tuesday.
John Hudson of The Washington Post tweeted that his source says the deal will be worth $10 billion and will include Mark-82 bombs, guided bombs and missiles.
The deal is important for several reasons, and it is worth looking at how it came about, how the US has pledged to maintain Israel's military superiority in the region, and what it means for the UAE's military power.
The potential deal has been in the news since August when the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel, pushed by the Trump administration, was announced. At the time, rumors that the F-35s were part of the deal were dismissed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More reports in early September about a secret clause to the deal were also denied by Netanyahu.
By October, reports indicated that Israel did not oppose the F-35 sale; Defense Minister Benny Gantz met his US counterpart, Mark Esper, on October 21 and again on October 29.
Although Esper has now been removed by Trump, the US-Israel discussions between August and October have changed the narrative on the F-35 deal. Esper pledged to support Israel's Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in September and October.
"I want to state, again, how committed we are to Israel's Qualitative Military Edge when it comes to defense sales, and our commitment to Israel's security, which has been longstanding – and it's guaranteed and ironclad," Esper said in October.
The arms deal for the UAE cements the Abraham Accords and keeps US policy in line with Israel's need to have the best defense technology in the region to outmatch any adversary.
But what about the UAE?
This is a game changer for the Emirates. According to Defense News, back in 2017, the UAE told the US it was seeking 24 F-35s and that it wanted to replace or upgrade its 63 French Mirage 2000 jets. The F-35 is a unique airplane developed by Lockheed Martin. Around 585 of the aircraft have been built since 2011, with 131 delivered in 2019, according to the company.
Israel began taking delivery of its first of 50 F-35s in December 2016. It now has two squadrons. No other country in the Middle East has the plane. Turkey was supposed to receive it, but after Ankara bought Russia's S-400 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile system, the US appeared to cancel the Turkish deliveries, or at least put them on permanent hold.
While Saudi Arabia and Qatar likely want the plane too, the UAE deal appears to be moving quickly. If the Emirates received 50 of the planes, it would make the country one of the major users in the world with more than the four Singapore has and more than Belgium, Poland and South Korea have.
The cost of each aircraft is almost $100 million, depending on the type, making it a huge investment. But it comes with a lot of technology, making it a stealthy data-sponge that is essential for today's warfare environment.
Israel and the US have trained three times this year with US F-35s based in the UAE's al-Dhafra base. This means the Emirates is already linked to the strategic F-35 alliance system of Israel and America, even without having the plane.
The UAE has an impressive air force and it has engaged in operations in the region: against ISIS and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. It was also accused of using drones in Libya. The use of the drones is controversial because Chinese-supplied drones appeared in Libya to aid the Egyptian-backed Benghazi-based government of Khalifa Haftar. But regardless of the drone issue in Libya, the overall operations of the UAE show that the Emirates knows how to project power.
The UAE currently has 77 F-16s and 63 Mirage 2000s. It also has reconnaissance aircraft and airborne early-warning and control aircraft. It has a large number of transport planes, such as the C-17 and C-130, and dozens of trainer aircraft and helicopters making it one of the most powerful countries in the Gulf.
The Emirates pushed for its own unique F-16 design in the Block 60 edition of the aircraft tested and delivered between 2003 and 2005. This "Desert Falcon" variant was super-advanced, with 50 single-seaters and the others two-seater variants, according to The Drive. They were considered the most advanced F-16s at the time, more than the US fleet. However, reports indicate that the UAE may sell some of them if it gets the F-35.
In 2011, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress of a sale of maintenance and support for the F-16s in the UAE for a total of $100m. The UAE also wanted armed drones from the US as far back as 2003. According to reports at the time, Abu Dhabi asked the US about the possibility to get the Predator B UAV. The US stalled, claiming that its commitments to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) prevented it being sold.
The Emirates asked again in 2005 and told Washington it would look elsewhere if it didn't get US drones, because it needed them to patrol its coastline. It eventually bought drones from South Africa, developed some of its own and expressed interest in Chinese drones. This led the US in 2020 to finally open up drone sales, concerned that friendly states were all moving toward China for UAVs.
At the time, the UAE was also looking into US Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATCMs) of surface-to-surface missiles, which Bahrain was acquiring. According to The Diplomat, the UAE also had Scud-B missiles, supplied in the 1990s by North Korea, and the US preferred that Abu Dhabi have an American missile instead.
The UAE has also been a major buyer of arms since the late 1990s, sometimes ranking first in terms of foreign arms procurement agreements globally. For a small country, it was buying a lot of foreign arms. Congress noted in 2006 in a report that "the Gulf states' arms purchase demands were not only a response to Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, but a reflection of concerns regarding perceived threats from a potentially hostile Iran."
In 2019, the UAE also requested 452 patriot missiles for $2.7b. This was an outgrowth of a 2008 discussion in the Emirates over building an air defense shield estimated to cost $9b. At the time the UAE was considering technology from Russia and the US and also looking at defense players in Brazil, Switzerland and Europe, The National said.
By May 2020, the UAE was operating nine US-made Patriot batteries. Raytheon in the US makes the Patriot. It is also a partner of Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.
The number of US systems that the UAE now has ties it in well with the US and Israel, which operate many of the same systems. This could lead to a kind of trilateral strategic alliance between the UAE, Israel and the US, working on air defense and flying F-35s and F-16s together. The UAE has already been called "little Sparta" because of its outsized military investment. The term may not be apt, it may be more like little Athens, which also invested heavily in defenses and naval supremacy.
The F-35 deal, along with the Reaper drones, would give the UAE one of the most powerful air forces in the Middle East and unique capabilities to operate in the region. This could deter Iran and also give the UAE the ability to strike back against any aggression. Iran's attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil-processing facilities, and its mining of ships near the UAE in the Gulf of Oman in 2019, show that Iran feels it can behave with impunity.
Having a proper air defense system that covers all approaches to the UAE, and a powerful air-power capability like the F-35s, would transform the Emirates. The UAE has been a partner, hosting a US base and supporting America against ISIS and in Afghanistan. It is also a partner in worldview with Israel, opposing Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran's threats.
There is no reason to believe this threatens Israel. The UAE already poured resources into weapons in the 1990s and early 2000s, and there was little concern its F-16s would harm Israel. Israel also now has an ask in Washington regarding its own desires to potentially acquire more F-35s, F-15s, accelerate the delivery of the KC-46 Pegasus or get the V-22 helicopter. There are also considerations; Israel may want other favors from the US in the coming months and years.
There is no reason to believe this threatens Israel.
It is not clear how Congress will react to the $10 billion UAE deal. Voices may want to balance it or sabotage it by asking about a similar deal for Qatar. Congress could put "speed bumps" in the way of the deal, slowing it down, according to Defense News. Outgoing head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, would be key to that. He has said "this technology would significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel's military edge.
"The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a game-changing stealth platform boasting advanced strike capability and unique sensor technology," he said. "Israel currently has exclusive access in the region to the F-35, which has guaranteed its military edge over the last several years. As Congress reviews this sale, it must be clear that changes to the status quo will not put Israel's military advantage at risk."
The Trump administration is likely leaving office, and its ability to get this deal done before leaving and before even conceding the election is a key question. If the deal doesn't go through, or goes through in a reduced amount, it will still be a game changer for the UAE.
This will make the Emirates more dependent on the US and more closely knitted into the US-Israel strategic relationship, creating a bond of F-35 users in the region. That would be a major step forward.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.