Administration notifies Congress it plans to approve F-35 sale to UAE

The Trump administration is moving ahead with a planned F-35 fighter jet sale to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), potentially tipping the scales of military power in the Middle East.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) on Thursday confirmed that the administration had informally notified Congress of the sale, which would allow the UAE to buy the fifth-generation fighter jet, currently owned only by Israel in the region.

Engel, who warned that rushing the sale “is not in anyone’s interest,” urged his colleagues to consider the stakes in selling the advanced aircraft to the UAE.

“This technology would significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel’s military edge. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a game-changing stealth platform boasting advanced strike capability and unique sensor technology. The export of this aircraft requires very careful consideration and Congress must analyze all of the ramifications,” he said in a statement.  

The Trump administration had sought to advance the F-35 sale after the UAE and Israel agreed to normalize their relations, including a signing ceremony at the White House last month.

The deal at first threatened to disrupt the thaw, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials initially opposed the UAE buying the F-35.

Abu Dhabi, which has long wanted to buy the F-35 from Washington, has in the past been thwarted over concerns that selling it the U.S. military’s most advanced aircraft would violate the American commitment to maintaining Israel’s military advantage in the region.

The U.S. commitment to Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge is enshrined in a 2008 law.

But Israel signaled last week that it would not oppose the F-35 sale, with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz saying in a joint statement that Israel would not stand in the way of “certain weapons systems” deals after Washington agreed to unspecified upgrades for Israel’s military.

U.S. lawmakers in both parties, however, are wary of selling the UAE the aircraft over concerns it would run afoul of the U.S. commitment.

“As Congress reviews this sale, it must be clear that changes to the status quo will not put Israel’s military advantage at risk,” Engel wrote.

He adds that F-35 technology also must be safeguarded from adversaries including Russia and China, two countries active in the region.

“The American people will require unimpeachable assurances that our most advanced military capabilities will be protected,” he said.

Engel also worries about potential demand from others in the region to acquire U.S. weapons, increasing the quantity of powerful armaments in the hands of other countries.

“Will the price for normalization with Israel be an infusion of advanced weapons? Is this wise?” he asked.

In a separate effort, last week two Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would potentially slow down the sale by requiring the administration to certify that Israel’s qualitative military edge would not be jeopardized before it can move forward with selling the F-35 to other Middle Eastern countries.

Ensuring that an adversary can’t gain access to sensitive military weaponry is a common benchmark for considering whether to sell an ally or partner nation a defense system.

The administration last year removed Turkey from the F-35 program after the NATO member obtained the Russian-made S-400 air defense system. Washington feared Moscow, through Ankara, would be able to use the system to glean sensitive information on F-35 technology.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Benny Gantz Eliot Engel F-35 Israel UAE United Arab Emirates

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