UAE Could Become the First Middle Eastern Country After Israel to Get the F-35

Despite apparent plans to buy advanced Russian fighter jets and the United States rebuffing the requests for years, the United Arab Emirates reportedly remains interested in joining the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. The U.S. government has had long-standing concerns that such a sale could undermine Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge” in the region, but jet’s controversial and centralized computer brain, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), might actually help soothe those fears.

On Nov. 4, 2017, Defense News reported that experts and insiders had made clear that the UAE had a continued desire to buy F-35s, in spite of the United States’ repeated rejections of its requests. The Gulf country has been seeking a preliminary briefing on the program since at least 2011. However, U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have already approved a number of politically sensitive arms deals that the previous Administration of President Barak Obama had been inclined to delay or block outright.

“The Trump team has agreed to consider the request,” an anonymous former Pentagon official told Defense News. “It’s not a ‘yes’ yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen once the dust settles.”

The “dust” in this case is an ongoing and complex political dispute been a number of traditional American allies in the Middle East, including the UAE, and Qatar, which began in June 2017 and is something we at The War Zone have explored in detail previously. The United States has reportedly been working behind the scenes to smooth over the situation, which has threatened to disrupt American military operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Both the UAE and Qatar host thousands of American personnel at major air bases, which are essential to the coalition air campaign against the terrorists, as well other regional counter-terrorism and security efforts.

A US Air Force F-35A., USAF

It’s not clear how much that dispute has really impacted American arms trade in the region, though. In May 2017, the United States announced plans for a more than $100 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia, which has since led the multi-national boycott and economic blockade against Qatar. The next month, with the crisis in full swing, Qatar confirmed it was moving ahead to buy advanced American F-15QA fighter jets. Earlier in November 2017, the U.S. State Department approved the possible sale of $1.1 billion support package, including military construction projects to expand the countries air bases, to go along with those aircraft.

The Trump administration has made clear that containing Iran and its influence in the Middle East and beyond are among its top policy goals and the UAE is a key partner in that undertaking. Emirati F-35s would serve as a clear deterrent to any overt Iranian military action in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in the Middle East. In addition, they could be a valuable tool for gathering electronic intelligence on Iranian air defense networks and other capabilities during even routine patrols.

Instead, it is the U.S. government’s policy of doing everything in its power to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge that seems to be the real issue keeping the UAE locked out of the F-35 program. Enshrined into American law, the United States has an obligation to make sure that arms sales do not degrade Israeli military superiority over its neighbors, regardless of their relationship with the government in Jerusalem.

“The way our policy works now is Israel versus all other Arab countries,” Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-UAE Business Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby group, told Defense News. “But they have no negative intentions toward the Israelis and don’t see themselves going to war with them. And as such, they don’t want decisions being held up based on how other Arab countries may affect Israel’s QME.”

In this case, Israel may be increasingly inclined to agree for both political and technical reasons. The UAE shares a number of foreign policy objectives, especially with regards to Iran.

In addition, Emirati forces routinely take part in U.S.-led and other multinational counter-terrorism operations against Islamist extremists. And though it does not recognize Israel diplomatically, the government in Abu Dhabi has cultivated increasingly military relations with the country and participates in training exercises with Israel Defense Force (IDF) personnel in third party countries. In March 2017, the Israeli Air Force sent personnel to Greece to join their Greek, Italian, American, and UAE counterparts for an aerial drill called Iniohos 2017, as seen in the video above.

But what might finally convince Israel and its political allies in the United States to finally let the UAE into the F-35 club is the IDF’s own unique relationship with the jet. In May 2017, the Israeli Air Force revealed it would be getting a one-of-a-kind Joint Strike Fighter test bed to help develop its own future modifications and upgrades largely independent of the global program’s management. On top of that, Israel is the only country to have secured the rights to conduct its own depot level maintenance, including on engine and airframe components, within the country.

One of Israel’s production-standard F-35I aircraft, IAF

This means that Israelis F-35Is can operate independently of the world-wide infrastructure that the U.S. military, manufacturer Lockheed Martin, and various third party countries are establishing to support other foreign Joint Strike Fighter operators. Most importantly, Israel’s aircraft will not be dependent on software updates, and the additional capabilities they might provide, that will come through the ALIS cloud-based computer network.

At present, the system acts as a loading point for a wide array of data, including both maintenance information about the plane’s figurative “health” and mission planning packages, which include route mapping and the positions of potential threats or hazards. Major patches to the underlying software go into the aircraft the same way. In October 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a damning report detailing continued issues with this interconnected system, which was resulting in more than 20 percent of jets sitting on the ground in a non-flyable condition at any one time just due to a lack of appropriate spare parts.

Israel secured its unique arrangement with Lockheed Martin, which may even revival the level of technical information sharing between the company and the U.S. government, after stressing concerns about what would happen if it suddenly got disconnected entirely from this network during a conflict. There is also a fear that ALIS’ centralized nature makes it especially vulnerable to potentially devastating cyber attacks, which you can read more about here.

“The ingenious, automated ALIS system that Lockheed Martin has built will be very efficient and cost-effective,” one unnamed Israeli Air Force officer told Defense News in 2016. “But the only downfall is that it was built for countries that don’t have missiles falling on them.”

Two of the Israeli Air Force’s F-35Is., IAF

Lockheed Martin has not extended this level of access to the F-35’s design and its system architecture to any other country, including stable and reliable American allies such as the United Kingdom and Australia. It seems unlikely that the UAE would be able to extricate itself from the larger online and physical support networks.

As such, if the geopolitical environment in the Middle East were to change dramatically, pitting Israel and the UAE against each other for some reason, it would likely be far easier for the United States to limit the latter country’s ability to use its F-35s. The U.S. government could quickly halt access to vital software updates and logistics support or even launch an active cyber attack on the ALIS terminals in the Emirates to try and disable the aircraft or certain core functions.

To be sure, the United States does have export controls in place regarding existing types of military aircraft it allows companies to export around the world, but none offer the same potential ability to have an instantaneous impact on a foreign power’s ability to continue operations. The Iranian government has shown how it is possible to circumvent such measures, as well, developing an extensive enterprise to try and reverse engineer and illicitly obtain spare parts to keep various aging fighter jets in the air, most notably its dwindling fleet of Grumman F-14 Tomcats. Of course, how capable those planes would actually be in an conflict against an opponent with even just new fourth generation aircraft, especially advanced designs such as Saudi Arabia’s F-15SAs or Qatar’s F-15QAs, is also debatable. 

Of course, allowing the UAE to join the Joint Strike Fighter program would also undoubtedly prompt renewed requests from other potentially controversial American partners, both inside the Middle East and elsewhere, chiefly Saudi Arabia. The same technical issues and possible fail-safes would apply to any of those sales, though.

Two of F-35Is, still wearing US military markings, head home to Israel for formal delivery in December 2016., USAF

If a sale to the UAE did open up the door for an entire new tier of potential F-35 customers, Lockheed Martin could decide to create new, reduced capability “export” version of both ALIS and the aircraft’s on board software. To be sure, the jet’s low-observable features would offer a significant leap in capability for many countries, but with neutered weapon, sensor, and data fusion systems, its actual warfighting ability could be significantly less impressive.

The U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps are already facing criticism about just how “combat ready” their jets are in reality in light of software delays and other issues. Compared to older fighter jet designs, the complicated, sensitive, and highly-controlled nature of the F-35 design means it would be much harder for a country to decide to break ties with Lockheed Martin and seek out a both willing and able third party company to take over supporting and upgrading the planes, as well.

As it stands now, Israel’s F-35I seems to have a qualitative military edge built-in, even when compared to other Joint Strike Fighters. With upheaval across the Middle East and a desire to reinforce its existing partnerships, the United States may finally decide to acquiesce to the UAE’s requests on the understanding that no Emirati Joint Strike Fighter would ever really look or operate like an Israeli one.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.