Should U.S Sell F-35 Lightning II Stealth Fighters Jets To UAE?

Should U.S Sell F-35 Lightning II Stealth Fighters Jets To UAE?
 F-35 Lightning II aircraft at the Vermont Air National Guard Base, South Burlington (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Miss Julie M. Shea)

As we have reported earlier the U.S. Rejected UAE Request To Purchase F-35 Stealth Fighter Jets?

The U.S. government and Lockheed Martin are looking to expand the F-35 stealth fighter program and market the aircraft beyond the nine original partner nations

The United Arab Emirates has emerged as a leading potential client for the next generation jets which could potentially become one of the fighter’s largest foreign operators.

The UAE has shown a strong interest in acquiring the F-35A since long before the platform entered service in the U.S. Air Force, with the Gulf State having closely modelled its military along Western lines.

The country’s foremost fighter is currently the F-16E ‘Desert Falcon,’ the most advanced variant of the F-16 Fighting Falcon ever developed, and its induction into service in the early 2000s made the UAE Air Force the second in the world to deploy ‘4+ generation’ F-16 Fighting Falcons equipped with AESA radars after Japan.

The country previously hosted U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors at Al Dhafra airbase near Abu Dhabi, from where the America jets carried out sorties over Afghanistan and Syria and maintained a strong presence near Iranian borders. The airbase currently hosts a sizeable fleet of advanced American aircraft including F-35A and F-15C fighters.

Although the UAE is the Western Bloc’s closest defence partner among the Arab nations, and shares a number of common defences interests including combating the Ansurullah Coalition in Yemen and containing Iranian regional influence, the United States has proven reluctant to supply Abu Dhabi with the F-35.

There have been a number of strong arguments both for and against the sale, with arguments against it made on the basis that it would undermine the longstanding U.S. policy of denying Arab states access to hardware which could compromise Israel’s qualitative advantage in the Middle East.

Such sales could have grave implications for Tel Aviv’s security should any of these Arab states ‘go rogue’ and turn against the Western-led order in the region. While such concerns have been waived in the past, most notably with the sale of F-15C fighter air superiority fighters to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, the offensive nature of the F-35 as a radar-evading strike platform designed to penetrate enemy airspace means it could be particularly dangerous in enemy hands. Such arguments have been put forward by a number of U.S. and Israeli experts as a basis to deny the UAE access to the F-35.

Supporting the case for a sale of the F-35 to the UAE is the fighter’s extreme reliance on an American centered network, its high maintenance requirements and need for a near-constant supply of spare parts – meaning the U.S. would have little trouble grounding the Emirati fleet should Abu Dhabi ever ‘go rogue.’ Without U.S. support, the F-35 fleet would be effectively useless.

To further guarantee an Israeli advantage, which Abu Dhabi appears willing to accept, variants of the F-35 with downgraded software similar to those previously set for export to Turkey could be sold to the UAE.

This Israeli advantage will be all the more distinct in light of a number of factors, including its access to advanced AWACS aircraft, its deployment of complementary F-15I heavyweight fighters and its indigenous electronic warfare systems integrated onto the F-35I Adir design.

Measures can also be taken to ensure Israel has access to more sophisticated air to air missiles such as the AIM-120D and upcoming AIM-260, while the UAE could be sold the AIM-120C which has a 40% shorter range and less sophisticated electronic warfare countermeasures.

Thus there appears to be little danger to U.S. or Israeli security interests which could result from an F-35 sale to Abu Dhabi.

The benefits of an F-35 sale to the UAE are considerably greater when considering the potential costs of denying the country access to the fighter. The UAE is currently developing a fifth-generation fighter with Russia under a joint program based on the MiG-35 medium fighter design.

The country has also shown a strong interest in acquiring Su-35 heavyweight fighters and is expected to show an interest in acquiring the next generation Su-57. Such sales would be strongly against the U.S. and Israeli interests for a number of reasons.

Russian fighters are not reliant on an American centered network or on U.S.-supplied parts as the F-35 is, meaning there will not be options available to ground the UAE’s fleet should Abu Dhabi act contrary to Western interests.

Furthermore, as the capabilities of such fighters are less well known to the U.S. and its allies, countering them on the battlefield could prove considerably more difficult, with Russia also likely to provide considerably more advanced air to air missiles such as the hypersonic R-37M to equip these fighters.

The balance of power in the case of a UAE-Israeli clash would also favor the former to a far greater extent should it acquire the Su-35 or the Su-57 in particular due to their heavyweight high-performance airframes and many significant advantages across the spectrum over the F-35.

An additional drawback of refusing the F-35 to Abu Dhabi, perhaps the most significant, is that a large UAE purchase of advanced Russian fighters would provide major subsidies to the Russian defence sector, which the Western Bloc has gone to great lengths to strangle of export revenues.

Such funds will largely be invested in research and development for next-generation technologies to compete with the Western Bloc’s own defence manufacturers Larger production runs for the Su-57, MiG-35 components, R-37M missiles and whatever else Abu Dhabi purchases will meanwhile reduce the costs of these systems for Russia itself through economies of scale.

In light of these factors, and considering the benefits allied F-35 units could bring to the American position when deployed so near the Iranian border in large numbers, it would be strongly in the U.S. interest to offer the F-35 to Abu Dhabi in the very near future.

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