BEIRUT — Talks over technology agreements. Debates about system integration. Concerns over cooperation with China and Russia.
These are some of the pressure points involved in negotiations between the United Arab Emirates and the United States as the former seeks a fleet of F-35 aircraft. But buying what is arguably the most advanced fighter jet involves more than a simple commercial transaction; it’s like “renewing the marriage vows” between Abu Dhabi and Washington, said Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-UAE Business Council.
That has put the UAE at a crossroads: renew its military vows with the U.S. or turn eastward toward Russia and China.
“Our two military forces interoperate today in joint operations because they share common equipment and training,” Sebright told Defense News. “If this sale goes forward, the UAE will be making a new commitment in defense and military force cooperation with the U.S. for the future. By definition this will mean that the UAE and the U.S. will have agreed to renew their commitment to each other as strategic partners, and any cooperation or influence from Russia and China will be greatly diminished.”
West vs. East
The Biden administration has pressured the UAE to remove Chinese firm Huawei from its telecommunications network, with some fearing this could be an ultimatum where the F-35 deal hangs in the balance. Huawei entered the limelight during the Trump administration, with the federal government alleging the firm’s association with Beijing represents a security and espionage threat.
“Based on my information, the F-35/Reaper program is still stuck,” said Corrado Cok, a defense expert at Gulf State Analytics, referring to a $23 billion arms package approved in the waning days of the Trump administration that included 50 F-35s, 18 MQ–9B Reaper drones, as well as thousands of munitions and hundreds of missiles. “The UAE remains unwilling to bow to Washington’s requests on the scaling down of its relations with China, especially over the issue of Huawei, which the U.S. has set de facto as a precondition for the deal.”
In 2016, Huawei and UAE-based telecommunications service provider “du” launched the world’s first commercial transport software-defined network on the host network to make the UAE’s traditional network more efficient. Three years later, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority asked the tech giant to open a “5G & IoT Joint OpenLab” in Dubai.
Anthony Cordesman, who holds the emeritus chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, isn’t convinced Huawei networks in the UAE could threaten the F-35′s security.
“Secure military communications have nothing to do with commercial communication. Huawei is an internet-linked firm, and it is not linked to many aspects of military operations or communications. They are probably completely different structures,” Cordesman said.
He acknowledged concerns that some Chinese systems could allow the government to read digital communications at the civil level, but stressed this isn’t something that should concern armed forces.
For its part, Russia has pitched an alternative to the American-made aircraft. Russian defense company Rostec and the UAE’s Defence Ministry launched in 2017 a joint venture to co-produce fifth-generation Sukhoi jets, which eventually gave birth to a potentially cheaper aircraft known as the Su-75.
“Yet, with the F-35 deal approved, the Su-75 venture would be set aside and any other Russian-Emirati program on air defense systems would be blocked by U.S. veto,” Cok said. “If finalized, the deal will limit the areas of cooperation with Russia and China because of the strings that the U.S. will most likely attach to it.”
Furthermore, explained Bilal Saab, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, interoperability with U.S. forces would suffer should the UAE choose a Chinese or Russian aircraft.
Where do negotiations stand?
The deal made with the Trump administration for the aircraft was put on hold after President Joe Biden took office. A spokesperson with the U.S. State Department said the new administration will continue processing the contract, but the deal specifics would undergo reviews and consultation with Emirati officials.
If the F-35 shows up at the Dubai Airshow, scheduled for Nov. 14-18, “this will be a strong signal that the negotiations are moving forward in a very positive direction,” Sebright said, noting he doesn’t expect a “breakthrough announcement” at the event.
“Both governments are involved in intense negotiations regarding the specifics of various aspects of the possible joint program. There are still many steps to go, since it is a very complex sale. The F-35 is the most sophisticated fighter in the U.S. arsenal and it is a gamechanger in military capability for any country that becomes a partner in the program,” he said.
Still under discussion are costs, levels of technological and operational capabilities, the provision of sensors and weapons systems integrated on any future Emirati F-35 fleet, and domestic industrial participation in the program. “Finally, with every country there is always a very sensitive policy discussion about ... how the weapons system might be deployed. These provisos or agreed understandings on how the F-35 can be used can also take quite some time to conclude,” he added.
Cok noted the UAE has a network of lobbyists in Washington pushing for a final sale, specifically pointing to Tom Barrack. The chair of Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee recently pleaded not guilty to charges he secretly lobbied the U.S. on behalf of the UAE.
F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin declined to comment on the potential deal.
Agnes Helou was a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.