JERUSALEM and WASHINGTON — As Qatar and Kuwait anxiously await clearance from the White House to purchase new tranches of advanced fourth-generation fighters, Israeli concerns about maintaining its military edge rest on a simple belief: that Israel will retain regional exclusivity over the fifth-generation F-35 for the foreseeable future.
That the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations would not be allowed to purchase the F-35 until long after Israel has incorporated the fighter into its arsenal has been a widely held, if rarely articulated, belief for some time in the defense community.
But officials in both nations seemed to acknowledge the reality in the lead up to a visit by US President Barack Obama to the region.
Asked if he thought the F-35 should be sold to Gulf nations sometime in the next decade, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, the number two civilian at the Pentagon, indicated such a move was unlikely.
"Right now, we do not have any expectation for selling the F-35 in the near term, beyond the countries that have already bought into the program," he said March 15 in response to a query from Defense News.
As broad as that comment is, it also represents the most forward-looking statement to date regarding Washington's commitment to maintain a generational gap in fighter capabilities between Israel and the GCC states.
Top US officials have previously stressed the present state of affairs, whereby Israel "is the only nation in the Middle East to which the US has sold this fifth-generation aircraft," as Obama noted in an August 2015 letter to Rep. Jerold Nadler, a New York Democrat and stalwart Israel supporter.
Work's comments were welcomed in Israel on Wednesday amid speculation that Obama — in Saudi Arabia for a summit meeting with GCC leaders — would announce approval of sales of F-15 Silent Eagles to Qatar and F/A-18s to Kuwait.
The sales had been delayed for two years, in part, sources say, due to Israeli concerns of their impact on Washington's legally bound commitment to preserve Israel's so-called Qualitative Military Edge (QME).
"We've known that US policy is not to provide F-35 to other countries in the region for many years into the future, but it's nice to hear this expressed publicly and explicitly," Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deputy chief of staff told Defense News.
In a private exchange prior to a Jerusalem press conference, Golan said he doubted whether GCC states would even be interested in the coming decade in requesting the fifth-generation fighter given the complexity of the system.
"This is a very complex system that requires a whole new concept, entirely new maintenance and, of course, the net to connect it all. Our working assumption and our hope is that we will have at least a decade jump on our neighbors with respect to this aircraft."
When asked if pending fourth-generation fighter sales to the Gulf would erode Israel's QME, Golan said there is always concern of shifting alliances or upsets in the regional power structure, but that the IDF is reassured by a full and expanding spectrum of US-Israel strategic cooperation, including exclusivity on the F-35.
"We work hard and very closely with our American counterparts in order to let America have good business in the Gulf region and enhance its interests in this region," Golan said. He noted that Israel and the US "basically share the same interests" when it comes to Gulf States.
But at the same time, he said that the two countries maintain regular and intimate contacts to ensure that US actions in the region do not jeopardize Israel's long-term security.
"The discussions with our American counterparts are very productive. There's an in-depth understanding of our challenges and up until now, we've found the right balance in order to make it a calculated risk from Israel's perspective," Golan said.
US Sen. Joe Donnelly, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee, said US arms sales to the region and its impact on Israel's QME was an agenda item when he and other lawmakers met last month with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"What came out is – and I can't speak for him – is that Prime Minister Netanyahu always wants to maintain the QME, the military edge," Donnelly said.
However, Donnelly noted the bonds appear to be getting stronger between GCC countries and Israel. "I think the enemy of my enemy has really brought a common bond to make sure Iran does not advance on any front," he said.
Donnelly said his recent swing through the Mideast also touched on regional interest in the F-35.
"Everybody wants the newest plane, so it did come up… in a number of places where they were talking about the capabilities of the plane," Donnelly acknowledged. "It came up, but just on the periphery of the discussions."
In an interview last week, Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY, of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said he, too, recently met with Netanyahu in Israel to discuss Israel's QME and US involvement in the region writ large. Preserving Israel's QME is "a very big concern," the lawmaker said.
"In a new threat environment where Iran can accelerate its ballistic missile capabilities, we have a responsibility to provide defensive technologies to our allies. But today's ally may be tomorrow's enemy, because they were yesterday's adversary. So I think that's going to require some more calibration and long-term thinking," Israel said.
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Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.