US-China Rivalry: US Lockheed Martin F-35 Sale to the UAE

Author Name: Maheen Shafeeq      25 May 2021     Defense

The UAE is reportedly purchasing US's fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II jets. The expected delivery date of this purchase is scheduled for after 2025, and it is anticipated that F-35s would be operational on the UAE soil by the end of this decade. Since 2010, the UAE has wanted to procure the F-35. However, the sale was finally formalized during the Trump administration as part of a side deal to the Abraham Accords that initiated normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE. The US Congress is formalizing the deal to sell 50 advanced stealth F-35 fighter jets, and this contract worth $23.37 billion includes 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from General Atomics as well as air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles by Raytheon. The acquisition of F-35 is consistent with the UAE’s desire to have a technologically advanced modern military in the region. Since air power projection has become the new standard of superiority, the UAE is also engaged in upgrading and diversifying its military to assert its position in the Middle East.

Although the deal was negotiated during the final days of Trump in the Oval Office, the Biden Administration reviewed it in January 2021 given its controversial nature. Three US Democratic Senators in the Biden Administration moved legislation to halt the sale on the grounds that the Trump Administration had circumvented the Congress Review Process and that F-35 deal poses a national security risk. They believe that such a major deal of advanced weapons should not have been made by an outgoing president. However, the attempt to stall the sale could not stand for long as the UAE is considered Washington’s ally and had previously purchased and operated F-16s, Patriot, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) which carry some of the most advanced US technology. This level of trust between the two states is also significant as the UAE - a key security partner of the US - hosts about 3,500 US military personnel at its military bases. Additionally, the US and the UAE have a similar approach towards Iran, which justifies the famous IR quote ‘enemy’s enemy is a friend’. Previously, threat from Iran being a prominent factor for the US-UAE alliance led to an ‘emergency’ US weapons sale of $8 billion to the UAE during the Trump administration. Many in Congress believe that the current sale of F-35 could similarly be defended by declaration of another emergency, however, a counter opinion is that the emergency card was a ‘one-time event’. Nonetheless, the F-35 would have an impact on the security calculus to deter Iran.

Despite expression of interest in F-35s by other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the requests were turned down. The UAE is the first Arab nation and the second country in the Middle East after Israel to procure the Lockheed Martin’s F-35s. However, the deal is undoubtedly not free of substantial terms and conditions that would require the UAE to comply with the end-user agreements. The conditions of the sale require the UAE to ensure that it neither transfers these jets nor any of their parts to any other state or non-state actor without prior US approval. Another term requires the UAE to guarantee the US that the F-35s would not be based in a third country for expeditionary operation. The F-35s can only leave UAE territory for peacetime exercises with friendly countries. The deal also binds the UAE, like other recipients of US defence equipment that employment would abide by laws of armed conflict and human rights. The condition based on human rights most likely refers to the UAE’s support of the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign in Yemen that is reportedly involved in human rights violations. Since the US terminated its support to the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemeni conflict, it also expects the UAE to cease its support. In 2019, the UAE ended its military backing to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that it thinks is one of the reasons that the F-35 deal became possible alongside normalization of UAE- Israel relations. Ending UAE’s support to the conflict in Yemen is not the only US expectation. The F-35 deal heightened US expectations from the UAE with regards to its competitor in the region, China.

China remains a threat to the F-35 deal that many in the US congress fear could sabotage US military equipment in the UAE. Defence espionage is a US fear since Chinese technicians often work for the UAE Air Force. Although China does not have military bases in the UAE, there is significant Chinese integration in various aspects of the UAE’s defence, technology, and economy. For instance, the UAE is progressing with installation of Huawei 5G network which could interfere with the communication of US military systems as the advanced military equipment require 5G network; and if the communication is carried out using commercial 5G, the Chinese company could exercise control over the communication. This aspect of insecure communication not only gives the Chinese company control over communication, but could also compromise intelligence, logistical, and strategic cooperation between the UAE and US. On the other hand, Beijing has also poured billions of dollars into research regarding strategic application of Artificial Intelligence which compliments the UAE’s technological advancement.

Additionally, the UAE has a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with China that requires the former to “transfer information and expertise in communication technology, artificial intelligence, satellites and space and other advanced technologies.” Therefore, it would be unwise to think of China as an ineffective influence in the region. China’s military sales to the UAE have seen a substantial increase. In 2018, the UAE purchased $40 million worth of weapons from China. It was when the US declined to sell UAVs to the UAE under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), that it turned toward China. In 2011, China sold 5 Wing Loong I drones to the UAE. After this procurement, the UAE was keen to become the first export customer of Wing Loong II drones that it received in 2017. In order to arm the Wing Loong II drones, the UAE also bought 500 Blue Arrow-7 missiles from China. In comparison, the Wing Loong II is more advanced than MQ-1 Predator as it is capable of carrying up to 12 weapons, and incorporates new avionics, engine, and sensors. This shows that the UAE in order to uphold its strategic alliance with China and defence partnership with the US would have to collaborate with both the states in a manner that ensures protection of sensitive military information of the other state. This indeed presents a great challenge of balancing relations for the UAE, given its growing coziness with two competitors. Regardless, the US would not want to see Abu Dhabi move closer to the Chinese camp as that could undermine Washington’s influence in the region. However, this aspect does give the UAE leverage over the US that it can exercise in the form of moving closer to China.

Another factor that may complicate the sale of F-35 to the UAE is the qualitative military edge (QME) of Israel. Israel has publicly opposed the deal on grounds of QME as since 2008, the US has enshrined in its law that its military sales would not undermine Israeli military superiority in the region. Although this became law in 2008, US foreign policy has worked to ensure Israeli military superiority since the 1960s. Israel is protesting against the sales as at the moment it possesses a fleet of 20 F-35s, while the sale to the UAE is a fleet of 50 F-35s. Israel believes that the F-35 is a full weapon system and its possession by the UAE Air Force would be a ‘dramatic upgrading’ of its forces which could be a ‘game changer’ for the region. While Israel is questioning for which conflict the UAE needs F-35s, it also believes that this upgrade is not a direct threat, but could initiate a trend that may have an influence on regional security.

The possession of stealth F-35s could heavily impact the Middle East’s regional power dynamics. The rapid US and UAE alliance formation and a huge sum of $ 23 billion sale could have a notable influence on global arms trade. This could spur ambitious leaders of the region to start a cycle of advanced and sophisticated military acquisitions. Other US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey could also be driven to pursue their interest in F-35s. Likewise, as the deal is meant to deter Iran, the latter could also pursue acquisition of advanced fighter jets such as the Chinese J-10 or the Russian Su-30SM. Moreover, Iran could also move towards other military defence options such as the S-400 air defence system.

Nonetheless, despite the concern of increasing regional volatility, there are less chances for the Biden Administration to scrap off such a significant deal made by its predecessor. The blockage of the deal could mean that the vacuum could be filled by US' competitor China which would ultimately undermine American interests in the Middle East. The US believes that there is still time to iron out any inconsistencies that remain in the deal as the UAE has not yet paid for the purchase. Efforts to derail the sale could go in vain as the reasons behind the US-UAE F-35 deal outweigh its potential fallout.

Maheen Shafeeq is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). She holds Masters in International Relations from the University of Sheffield, UK. The article was first published in Khaleej Mag. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.