Argument

Why the United States Shouldn’t Sell Jets to the UAE

Selling F-35s to the United Arab Emirates could give Russia access to U.S. technology and erode Israel’s regional military edge.

A United States Air Force F-35B Lightning II fighter jet performs an aerial display during the Singapore Airshow media preview on Feb. 9.
A United States Air Force F-35B Lightning II fighter jet performs an aerial display during the Singapore Airshow media preview on Feb. 9. Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Last month, the United Arab Emirates became the third Arab country to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. This milestone, which was formalized through a White House signing ceremony earlier this month, was accompanied by discussions about the imminent sale of U.S. F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly opposed the country’s purchase of F-35s, but the Trump administration is working on a compromise that allows the U.S. government to sell the fifth-generation fighter jet to Abu Dhabi without eroding Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. The preservation of Israel’s qualitative military edge—its ability to deter aggression from regional adversaries through technological and tactical superiority—has been a guiding principle of U.S. policy toward the Middle East since the 1960s and a codified tenet of U.S. law since 2008.

The prospective sale of F-35s to the UAE has faced pushback in the United States. The UAE’s alleged war crimes in Libya, which include an attack on a refugee detention center near Tripoli and a drone strike that killed unarmed cadets in Tripoli in January, as well as its oversight of torture facilities in Yemen, have raised ethical challenges to the deal. The country’s tightening relationship with China has provided further grounds for criticism.

There are also concerns about the possibility of Russia and China supplying sophisticated military technology to Iran, in order to counteract the enhancements of the UAE’s aerial capabilities resulting from F-35 transfers. While these countervailing factors are concerning enough, the UAE’s growing strategic partnership with Russia provides an equally compelling rationale for shelving F-35 sales to Abu Dhabi.

Although the UAE is often described as the most trusted U.S. counterterrorism partner in the Arab world, Abu Dhabi has worked with Russia on bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s international legitimacy and enabling Libyan National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. This crisis-level military cooperation is intertwined with a broadly strengthening bilateral relationship. In June 2018, Russia and the UAE signed the first strategic partnership agreement between Moscow and a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country. Russian President Vladimir Putin described Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as an “old friend” ahead of his October 2019 visit to the UAE, which resulted in $1.3 billion in new commercial deals between the two countries.

In light of this growing partnership, the United States should refrain from exporting F-35s to the UAE until Abu Dhabi takes tangible steps toward decoupling from Russia. The precedent of suspending F-35 sales to Turkey after it purchased Russia’s S-400 missile defense system and announced plans to cooperate with Russia on constructing the S-500 system should be applied to the UAE. Unless the UAE distances itself from Russia, there is an unacceptably high risk of inadvertent transfers of U.S. technology to Russia via Abu Dhabi and Russian missile defense systems becoming interoperable with F-35s.

Russia’s security partnership with the UAE is deeper than its relationship with Turkey, as it consists of arms sales, logistical cooperation, and active collaboration on weapons system development, so the risks associated with selling F-35s to Turkey are amplified in the UAE’s case. In spite of tensions engendered by Abu Dhabi’s diplomatic relations with the Taliban and military support for separatist rebels in Chechnya during their 1994-96 war with Russia, the UAE was the fourth-largest purchaser of Russian weapons in the year 2000.

The UAE’s purchases of Russian arms contrasted with Saudi Arabia’s refusal to buy weapons from Russia and created the foundations for a robust security partnership between Moscow and Abu Dhabi. This partnership has continued to strengthen under U.S. President Donald Trump’s watch. Since 2017, the UAE has purchased Russian Pantsir S-1 missile defense systems for use in Libya and the $40 million Kornet-E anti-tank missile system, which has been deployed to Yemen. This indicates that the UAE could operate F-35s alongside Russian-made missile defense systems.


Who Is Buying F-35s

The global fighter jet program has grown to eight partner nations and six foreign military sales customers since its inception.

Source: Lockheed Martin

 

The United Nations reported earlier this month that waves of Russian and Emirati jets have illegally supplied arms to Haftar’s forces in Libya, which underscores their logistical coordination in that theater. Russian Wagner Group private military contractors have conducted reconnaissance missions in support of Emirati drone strikes, and the UAE is involved in the recruitment of Chadian and Sudanese soldiers to fight for the Wagner Group. Russia and the UAE are also regularly share intelligence on counterinsurgency operations in Syria, which strengthen Assad’s hold on power.

Russian-UAE joint operations could alert Russia to potential vulnerabilities within F-35s, which could allow Moscow to produce missile defense systems that can shoot down U.S. aircraft.

The frequency of Russia-UAE consultations on security issues could lead to a scenario where Emirati F-35s and Russian Pantsir S-1s or S-400s are used in tandem with each other. These joint operations could alert Russia to potential vulnerabilities within F-35s, which could allow Moscow to produce missile defense systems that can shoot down U.S. aircraft.

In addition, Russia and the UAE are potentially primed to cooperate on fifth-generation fighter jet development. In February 2017, the Russian defense giant Rostec announced that it would work with the UAE Ministry of Defense on co-developing a fifth-generation light combat fighter jet. This jet, which would be developed over a seven-to-eight-year period, would be more sophisticated than the MiG-29 jets that Russia currently uses. These upgrades would increase the competitiveness of their pricing and quality and allow Rostec to compete more effectively with U.S. defense companies.

While this joint project has initially been placed on hold, Russia also targeted the UAE as a partner in the production of Su-57 fighter jets in November 2019. Russia’s outreach came days after the UAE launched the Edge conglomerate to facilitate its development of its own military technology. As Russia has invested considerably in the modernization of its air force since 2011, it could leverage the UAE’s possession of F-35s to glean information that supports its own aircraft construction plans.

Even if this risky scenario does not unfold, the transfer of F-35s to the UAE will further erode the credibility of U.S. secondary sanctions linked to purchases of Russian weapons. These sanctions are mandated by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was ratified by the U.S. Congress in July 2017. The threat of CAATSA’s implementation has complicated India’s ability to purchase Russia’s flagship S-400 missile defense system, and Turkey and Egypt face prospective sanctions due to their purchase of the S-400 and Su-35 jets, respectively. If the UAE receives F-35s despite its purchases of Russian weaponry, the perceived allowance for political favoritism in U.S. sanctions policy could strain Washington’s relationships with countries at risk of CAATSA sanctions.

The erosion of CAATSA’s credibility and the resultant belief among Arab countries that recognition of Israel is an antidote against Russia-related sanctions creates a dangerous moral hazard. Russia has historically viewed the UAE as a window to enter the Arabian Peninsula’s lucrative arms markets. An F-35 transfer to the UAE could trigger a spate of Russian arms sales across the Gulf, as U.S.-aligned monarchies no longer see military cooperation with Russia as an impediment to receiving the most prized U.S. military technology.

Alternatively, if U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden’s desire to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and reengage with Iran engenders frictions between the United States and its Gulf partners, CAATSA’s damaged credibility could encourage Gulf countries to retaliate by purchasing Russian arms.

Diplomatic precedents and deals allowing for a rapid-fire series of Russian arms shipments to GCC countries are already in place. Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase the S-400 during King Salman’s historic visit to Russia in October 2017. Riyadh’s interest in the S-400 peaked after U.S. Patriot systems were ineffective during the September 2019 attack on the Saudi oil company Aramco’s assets in Abqaiq. Since the Saudi-led blockade began in June 2017, Qatar has also periodically expressed interest in acquiring the S-400. Similarly, Bahrain views Russia as a crisis-proof arms vendor, as it supplied weapons to Manama after the United Kingdom and France suspended sales in 2011. If Iran’s aggression in the Persian Gulf increases and the United States does not come to the aid of its Arab partners, there is a very real risk of these countries following the UAE’s lead by purchasing Russian weaponry.

Due to the risks of perilous technology transfers and damage to the credibility of U.S. secondary sanctions, the United States should not sell F-35s to the UAE until it scales back its relationship with Russia. Thus far, the Israel-UAE deal and Russia’s strident support for the lifting of the U.N. arms embargo against Iran have not diluted the strength of the Moscow-Abu Dhabi security partnership. Flights to support Russian Wagner Group contractors in Libya averaged around 35 times a month in August. As the UAE is reportedly involved in financing Russia’s military contractor deployments, there is no demonstrable change in the two governments’ military cooperation.

The United States has already used Israel’s normalization with the UAE as a lever to pressure China, as it has encouraged joint Israeli and Emirati investments that compete with Beijing’s port construction initiatives in Haifa. It should impose similar pressure on the UAE over its relationship with Russia. By taking action on this issue, U.S. policymakers will also counter a strategic partnership that has played a significant role in undermining U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. In the process, the United States might develop a healthier relationship with the UAE and end the climate of perceived impunity that allows Abu Dhabi to openly defy U.S. interests throughout the region.

Samuel Ramani is a nonresident fellow at the Gulf International Forum and a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. Twitter: @samramani2

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