Should Israel Worry about the Sale of Advanced Aircraft to the UAE?

September 24, 2020 | Shimon Arad and James Stavridis
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On Tuesday, the Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz came to Washington and met with his American counterpart Mark Esper to discuss the possibility that the U.S. will sell its top-of-the-line F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates. Despite the breakthrough in relations between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, many Israelis fear that selling the aircraft to the UAE would erode the Jewish state’s qualitive military edge over its neighbors—which the U.S. is required to by an act of Congress to uphold. Shimon Arad explains these concerns:

In the volatile Middle East, circumstances and intentions change far more rapidly than capabilities. Examples from the region’s recent history include the so-called “Arab Spring,” the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, and the antagonistic Islamist turn of Turkey

Second, the decision to release the F-35 stealth fighter to the UAE would be a precedent that it would be impossible not to extend to other Gulf states—especially Saudi Arabia. . . . Once this threshold is crossed, it will be harder for Washington to deny other highly advanced weapons systems to Egypt, Jordan, or Morocco.

Third, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have no real military need for the F-35, and their existing fourth-generation F-16s, F-15s, and Eurofighters . . . are more than a match for Iran’s outdated air force. The . . . Gulf States need . . . improved defensive capabilities rather than the means to carry out surprise stealth attacks.

By contrast, James Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and the former supreme commander of NATO forces, argues that Washington can sell Abu Dhabi the jets without eroding Israel’s qualitative edge if it agrees to “increase its support to Israel more broadly.”

This can be done first by allowing accelerated [arms] procurement under the current Memorandum of Understanding—a ten-year agreement with the Israelis on aiding their overall security—which would bring not only the F-35 but also new F-15X fighters and KC-46 refueling tankers. . . . Washington could [also] increase the intelligence flow to Israel (already high, but not quite at the level of the Five Eyes program of English-speaking nations) and share more of its cybersecurity technology; cyberwarfare can provide enemies strong counters to new [hardware] like the F-35.

Given the rising threat of Iran, the U.S. would be smart to improve the UAE’s defenses. But protecting commitments with Israel takes priority.

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