WASHINGTON ― A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced new legislation Wednesday that would halt the Trump administration’s push to circumvent Congress and expedite a $23 billion sale of F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and munitions to the United Arab Emirates.
A series of resolutions were announced after lawmakers said they failed to get satisfactory answers from State Department officials over plans to sell the sophisticated weapons. Lawmakers say the administration’s rush to complete the sale is ignoring risks to sensitive military technology posed by UAE’s ties to Russia and China ― and to Israel’s qualitative military edge, or QME, in the Middle East.
Proposed by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the four joint resolutions would reject the sale of 50 F-35s, 18 MQ–9B Reapers, as well as thousands of munitions and hundreds of missiles. Altogether the sale, cleared by the State Department just over a week ago, would constitute the second-largest ever sale of U.S. drones to a single country.
“As I tried to warn the Trump administration, circumventing deliberative processes for considering a massive infusion of weapons to a country in a volatile region with multiple ongoing conflicts is downright irresponsible,” Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement.
“There are a number of outstanding concerns as to how these sales would impact the national security interests of both the United States and of Israel. As a result, Congress is once again stepping in to serve as a check to avoid putting profit over U.S. national security and that of our allies, and to hopefully prevent a new arms race in the Middle East.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is set to introduce three resolutions this week to stop arms sales to the UAE, Politico reported Wednesday.
The news came a day before representatives from the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs were scheduled hold a closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the package this month following the signing of peace agreements between Israel and the UAE and signaled the administration’s intent to complete the deal before Trump exits office. But lawmakers of both parties have introduced legislation aimed at requiring the State Department to first answer tough questions about the fast-moving sale and its ramifications on national security.
Pompeo, in his announcement of the F-35 deal, said that it was consistent with America’s commitment to ensuring Israel’s “qualitative military edge” ― a U.S. legal standard that Israel maintain a military technological advantage over its neighbors.
Advocates, and now lawmakers, have worried aloud that ― in spite of the Trump administration’s further assertions the deal will enable the UAE to address threats posed by Iran ―the armed drones and precision-guided munitions included, could be used in Yemen or Libya.
Murphy said the UAE has violated past arms sales agreements, resulting in U.S. arms ending up with militia groups, and they have failed to comply with international law in Libya and Yemen.
“I support the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but nothing in that agreement requires us to flood the region with more weapons and facilitate a dangerous arms race,” Murphy said in a statement.
The 1976 Arms Export Control Act provides special procedures through which lawmakers can introduce a joint resolution of disapproval against a proposed arm sale. In the Senate, a resolution can be discharged from the Committee of jurisdiction, forcing a vote on the Senate floor.
If the resolutions fail and the deal clears Congress, it’s not entirely clear what action the incoming Biden administration would take. President-Elect Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Anthony Blinken, told reporters in late October that the deal is, “something we would look at very, very carefully, and make sure that the QME is preserved and also very important that Congress play a role.”
Once in office, Biden may have a chance to overturn the Trump administration’s plans, said Bill Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy
“The rush to ram through this sale before the Biden administration comes in is a transparent maneuver to tie their hands by locking it in as soon as possible,” he said. “But if the deal clears Congress, there may be an opportunity for the Biden administration to reverse course and nix the deal.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.