WASHINGTON — Two years ago, the Dubai Airshow was abuzz with the news that the United States was preparing to open talks with the United Arab Emirates about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, signaling that U.S. officials perhaps believed the time was right for an Arabian Gulf nation to get its hands on one of the most highly anticipated and sensitive pieces of American technology.
But as this year’s Dubai Airshow kicks off, that buzz has quieted, and the status of those bilateral engagements are unclear. Experts believe that an F-35 sale is likely years away, and some say the aftermath of Turkey’s removal from the program may have made the United States too gun shy to export the jet to nations with military ties to Russia.
“The Persian Gulf countries have been on [F-35 manufacturer] Lockheed Martin’s radar screen for years, but at the moment, I don’t think that any sale proposals are imminent,” said Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute defense analyst with strong ties to industry. “The UAE would be the most likely candidate, but especially given what has happened with Turkey on the F-35 it just doesn’t seem likely that a deal would happen soon.”
While U.S. Defense Department officials have said clear that Turkey will be unable to acquire the F-35 unless it abandons its plan to set up the Russian S-400 air defense system, it has been less clear on the implications for other nations wishing to purchase the F-35.
A spokesperson from the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office referred Defense News’ questions to the Air Force’s international affairs office. Kelli Seybolt, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, referred questions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
However, Pentagon acquisition head Ellen Lord during an Oct. 29 briefing restated the Defense Department’s decision to remove Turkey from the F-35 program, pointing to Ankara’s progress in standing up its S-400, which could be operational by the end of the year. As a result, the department will not deliver Turkish F-35s to Ankara, and all contracts to Turkish defense contractors will transfer to U.S. companies by March 2020.
Two factors could lead to the U.S. approving an F-35 sale to a Gulf nation sooner rather than later, said Rebecca Grant, a defense aerospace analyst and head of IRIS Independent Research. For one, the U.S. government could see value in allowing certain countries that participated in the fight to defeat the Islamic State group — such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain — to battle terrorist groups using a fifth-generation platform.
The jet’s potential for missile defense missions is also attractive to partners in the region, she said. The Pentagon has conducted experiments to assess whether its sensor suite could be used to monitor and track intercontinental ballistic missiles and is evaluating whether to develop a weapon that would allow it to intercept ICBMs.
“They could certainly use the capabilities any minute now,” Grant said, adding that she expects to see real signs of impending sales three to five years from now. “Of course that would mean starting to talk about it fairly soon,” she acknowledged.
Future sales to Gulf countries have already figured into Lockheed Martin’s projections. The company anticipates sales of about 4,600 F-35s over the life of the program, with Middle Eastern orders helping to boost numbers from the roughly 3,200 aircraft under contract or planned to be purchased by customers, Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said.
“There is a desire in the Middle East [for the F-35],” Hewson said during the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference in May. “At some point, I think the U.S. government will look at technology release to the Middle East, much like they have F-15s and F-16s today.”
But Moscow also sees the Middle East as fertile ground for its own weapons sales, including for Russian-made fighter jets and air defense systems like the S-400.
Russia’s state-sponsored media outlet Tass has reported that talks between Russia and Qatar about a potential S-400 buy are in an “advanced stage.” Saudi Arabia has also entered into discussions with Russia about buying the S-400, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has pitched as the answer to security concerns stemming from Iran.
“For self-defense, for the defense of one’s country, we are ready to provide help to Saudi Arabia,” Putin said during a joint news conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September.
“It is enough to take a wise government decision, as the leaders of Iran did before, buying the S-300, and as President Erdogan did, buying the latest air defense system, S-400 Triumph,” Putin said, according to Bloomberg. “They will protect any infrastructure objects in Saudi Arabia effectively.”
Some analysts believe Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program sets a precedent that any other country that buys the S-400 will be unable to order the jet.
“If you’re not going to sell F-35s to a NATO ally that’s buying Russian air defense equipment, you’re certainly not going to get permission to sell F-35s to somebody who is actually not even a formal ally if they are buying Russian air defense systems,” said Gary Schmitt, a national security analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s the circle that can’t be squared.”
The United States will likely continue to look the other way when Gulf nations buy certain technologies like tanks and artillery from countries like Russia and China, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. However, more sophisticated air defense capabilities like the S-400 will probably be off limits to countries that want the F-35, he said.
“Armored personnel carriers? Who cares. But if it has tracking radars and can transmit data in large quantities, that’s a no-no,” he said. “They know the rules.”
Thompson of the Lexington Institute said it “seems obvious” that any country that wants the F-35 will have to pass on Russian air defense systems. "However, there is a separate issue here,” he said. “If any other country in the region was operating Russian air defenses, that itself might have some implications for the security of the F-35 technology.”
But Grant disagrees, saying that even if Gulf nations were to buy the S-400, the U.S. Defense Department has ways to safeguard the F-35’s most sensitive capabilities by varying its hardware and software. “My personal view is that this can be customized for a variety of different allies and partners,” she said.
Before events with Turkey took center stage, it was thought that the main barrier for F-35 exports to the Gulf would be the U.S. commitment to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge. However, analysts said Israel’s head start in obtaining the F-35 and its propensity for modifying its fighters with advanced tech will likely assuage concerns.
"There are some fairly easy ways in which an F-35 sold to an Arab country could be made less of a threat to Israel,” Thompson said, adding that Lockheed has already identified “a technical fix” impacting the stealth characteristics of the plane that would make the aircraft more visible to the Israeli military.
“But the technology security issue, that’s another issue,” he said.