WASHINGTON— Two Senate Democrats are hoping to delay the potential sale of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the United Arab Emirates, introducing on Oct. 20 legislation that would block the delivery of aircraft to Abu Dhabi unless the U.S. government meets certain criteria.
If adopted, the “Secure F-35 Exports Act of 2020” could have a far-reaching impact on future sales of the Lockheed Martin fighter jet to other nations in the Middle East. The bill would require the White House to provide a report detailing the technical risks of selling the F-35 to any country that is not a NATO member or not allies Japan, South Korea, Israel, Australia or New Zealand.
For F-35 sales to Middle Eastern nations, the White House must also certify at multiple points during the sales process that the deal does not impede on Israel’s qualitative military edge and that the customer meets certain criteria regarding human rights.
The authors of the legislation — New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California — have argued that President Donald Trump is rushing sales of the F-35 to the UAE without giving Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon ample time to review whether the deal would put Israel at risk by giving its neighbors equivalent technology.
“Ensuring that the United States and its crucial partner in the Middle East, Israel, maintain their critical qualitative military advantages over all potential adversaries is enshrined in law and must be one of the highest priorities of any President and Congress. This rush to close an F-35 deal by President Trump before the end of his term could well undermine that objective,” Menendez said in a statement. “This legislation would require that a fair, comprehensive, and soberly deliberative consideration of any such sale takes place, shorn of extraneous political or other interests.”
Feinstein added that Congress has an obligation to ensure the nation’s most advanced technology remains limited to the use of the U.S. military and its closest allies.
“That’s why this legislation places significant limits on this or any future administration’s ability to sell the F-35 aircraft to the Middle East, where it could threaten our interests and Israel’s military edge in the region,” she said.
It is unclear whether the legislation would apply to the pending sale of aircraft to Singapore, which was approved to purchase four F-35Bs earlier this year. Switzerland and Finland are also considering procuring the F-35, and as non-NATO countries would be subject to the reporting requirements if the bill is passed.
The U.S. government would likely be able to quicken F-35 sales to Europe and the Asia-Pacific region through the bureaucratic hurdles posed by the legislation. However, the bill creates more difficult roadblocks for purchases by Mideast customers — an emerging and mostly untapped market for the F-35.
At the start of the sales process, the U.S. president would need to certify that deals involving a Middle Eastern country wouldn’t compromise Israel’s qualitative military edge, that the jets wouldn’t be used against Israel, that measures have been taken to protect the F-35 from espionage, and that — should the customer nation violate one of those terms — the United States has the means to address that violation.
Then, the White House is required to move through another round of assessments before F-35s are delivered to Middle Eastern buyers. The legislation states that the president must reevaluate whether the sale compromises Israel’s qualitative military edge, and certify that the customer has not committed human rights violations and doesn’t have a history of transferring U.S. arms to terrorist groups, militias, or other adversaries of the United States or Israel.
In addition, the legislation requires the United States take steps to guard the security of the F-35 during the “delivery, operation, storage and servicing of such aircraft,” which could entail larger U.S. government and contactor footprints in Middle Eastern countries that buy the plane.
The president must also certify that the Middle Eastern customer has not acquired foreign technology to compromise the F-35 — particularly Russian or Chinese equipment. This is to prevent a situation similar to Turkey’s ouster from the F-35 program after it purchased the S-400 air defense system from Russia.
News about the potential sale of F-35s to Abu Dhabi broke in August shortly after Israel and the UAE signed an agreement to normalize relations.
Trump’s senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has reportedly pushed for the sale, with Miguel Correa, the National Security Council senior director for the Middle East, also playing a major role in discussions. Emirati military leaders have already been given a classified briefing on the aircraft, The New York Times reported in August.
In September, Reuters reported that the U.S. government is working to solidify an agreement by December that will allow F-35s to be purchased by the UAE without running afoul of Israel. One idea under consideration involves making the UAE’s jets more visible to Israeli radar systems.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.