US defense officials quash rumors of potential F-35 sales to the UAE

Key Points
  • UAE military officials have previously expressed their desire for the fifth generation, or stealth, technology.
  • The UAE is among the U.S.'s largest weapons customers and most trusted allies in the Gulf, and already has a fleet of 80 F-16 Desert Falcons.
  • Inviting a Gulf country into the F-35 program could reverse a long-held U.S. policy of upholding Israel's "qualitative military edge."
An F-35A Lightning II aircraft fires an AIM 120 missile.
Source: U.S. DoD

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Pentagon and State Department officials threw cold water on any notions of U.S. ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) potentially getting the Lockheed Martin F-35 this week at the Dubai Air Show, as America's flagship fifth-generation fighter jet made its first appearance at the Middle Eastern expo.

Talk of the Gulf state's candidacy for the joint strike fighter — the most expensive military program in history — began two years ago when it was reported that President Donald Trump was considering a longtime request by Abu Dhabi to take initial steps toward future procurement of the F-35.

And at the last Dubai Air Show in 2017, U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson publicly confirmed rumors that such discussions with the UAE were underway.

But speaking to reporters in Dubai on Monday, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper signaled that was no longer the case.

"No, no," Cooper told CNBC when asked whether those talks were happening. "The question (of) are there any considerations or conversations about the F35 — the short answer is no."

"The long answer," he said, "is we have been working with them and continue to work with them on upgrading, expanding their F-16 capability and upgrading and expanding their F-16 posture, so that is where we are." The UAE's Air Force is home to a fleet of 80 F-16 Desert Falcons, a multi-role fighter aircraft.

The assistant secretary would not elaborate on whether the Emiratis still wanted the jet, but UAE military officials have previously expressed their desire for the fifth generation, or stealth, technology.

Ellen Lord, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters the same week that "There have not been any classified briefings (with the UAE on the F-35). There will not be any discussions this week."

VIDEO2:1202:12
US halts delivery of F-35 equipment to Turkey

The Emiratis procuring the F-35 would make sense for several reasons, analysts say. They're among the U.S.'s largest weapons customers and most trusted allies in the Gulf, having deployed troops alongside the American forces in Afghanistan, Somalia and Kosovo, as well as aiding in counterterrorism efforts.

"Allowing the UAE to acquire the F-35 would be a natural progression in the defense trade relationship, as the UAE seeks to operate the most advanced equipment that is available," Charles Forrester, principal aerospace defense analyst at IHS Jane's, told CNBC.

The Trump administration has pursued a strategy of enhanced engagement with the Emiratis, in 2017 inaugurating the U.S.-UAE Defense Cooperation Agreement. They also have a common major adversary: Iran.

More partners for the expensive platform would also help drive down costs for all of its participants, which include several NATO states, and Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson has highlighted the Middle East as a potential future market for the jet.

"There is a desire in the Middle East (for the F-35)," Hewson said during a conference in May. "At some point, I think the U.S. government will look at technology release to the Middle East, much like they have F-15s and F-16s today."

VIDEO0:5200:52
Israel says it's the first country to use F-35 fighter jet in combat

But a major problem is that the value of the F-35 is in its stealth characteristics, explained Jack Watling, land warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "This means adversaries need to not get access to the technology."

"In the case of a number of countries who may very well be interested in it as a platform, there would be concerns about the security of that platform with regard to either Russian or Chinese technicians getting access to it."

Gulf states have increased their engagement with Moscow in recent years, and the UAE is a buyer of China's Wing Loon armed drone platform, among other Chinese-made technology.

"The UAE is ... one of those states where a number of people in the program — not least Israel — might have serious concerns," Watling said.

Israel's 'qualitative military edge'

Inviting a Gulf Arab country into the F-35 program would also be a reversal of a long-held U.S. policy of upholding Israel's "qualitative military edge," or QME, whereby Israel maintains a technological advantage in the region when it comes to defense capabilities. It was the second country to have the jet after the U.S., and has a current declared total of 16, having received its first jets in 2016.

Because of the policy of maintaining Israeli QME and other strict U.S. export requirements, "The possible sale of F-35 in the current strategic environment is unlikely, as Israel has only just begun to receive its F-35s," Forrester said.

"Similarly, as the program is a multinational one, current export restrictions from some European partners may curtail the ease of sales to the UAE."

"However," he added, "it is not completely unlikely that the UAE will acquire the F-35 in the future, or another fifth- or sixth-generation aircraft that is under development."