DUBAI — The U.S. Defense Department has begun talks with the United Arab Emirates about a potential sale of F-35 joint strike fighters, the U.S. Air Force’s number-two general said Friday.
The statements, made by Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Stephen Wilson during a roundtable with reporters ahead of Dubai Airshow, confirm an earlier report by Defense News. The story cited sources close to the talks that claimed President Donald Trump’s administration was considering delivering a classified briefing on the jet’s capabilities to UAE officials.
“Specifically with the F-35, you look at all of our partner nations now and as we look at their requirements. Here in the Gulf, they share many of the same adversaries and many of the same challenges, so discussions are ongoing now with the administration on partner nations that may require them,” Wilson said, adding later that UAE is one of the countries currently discussing the matter with the United States.
“Any time you go through that, there’s a process to do that, so they’ve started the process. And with that, any dicsusions bilaterally between nations is held close. So furhter things on that will have to come from the UAE,” he continued.
Wilson would not confirm when a classified briefing could occur, saying “that is part of the discussions and the process going forward.”
If a deal moves through, the UAE would become the first Gulf nation to acquire the F-35, which is manufactured by Lockheed Martin. However, it could potentially face several barriers that may dash hopes of a sale. First and foremost is potential objections from Israel over a perceived erosion of its qualitative military edge.
However, sources had told Defense News that Israel is unlikely to raise alarms over a deal with the UAE, unless the United States also decides to start up negotiations with other Gulf countries.
Others argued that it may take a decade to work out a contract with the UAE and for Lockheed to deliver its first F-35 — more than enough time for the United States to meet its commitments to preserve Israel’s military edge in the Middle East.
Wilson acknowledged that the United States will have to work with U.S. partners to ensure a sale to UAE doesn’t raise security concerns.
“That’s part of all the things we’re going to look at going forward,” he told reporters.
Another potential roadblock could be the UAE’s dealings with Russia. At IDEX earlier this year, Russia and the UAE signed a memorandum of understanding to codevelop a fifth generation fighter, which would be produced by Russian defense industry heavyweight Rostec and based on the MiG-29 fighter aircraft.
Asked whether that partnership could deter the United States from allowing a foreign military sale of the F-35 to the UAE, Wilson declined to comment.
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.