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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

UAE Shows Considerable Interest in Acquiring F-35 Stealth Fighters; Why it Remains Strongly in America's Interests to Provide Them Amid Growing Tensions with Iran

July 12th - 2018

With the United Arab Emirates having long sought to acquire Lockheed Martin F-35A light stealth fighters, an aircraft provided by the United States to a number of its allies across the world from Japan and South Korea to Israel and Italy, the country’s armed forces have reportedly dispatched officials to Israel to assess the performance of the aircraft. Israel and Turkey are the only Middle Eastern states to field the F-35, with nine jets currently in active service in the Israeli Air Force. Due to the friendly and strengthening relations between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, both leading Western clients in the region, Israel may well be willing to provide the UAE with assistance in modernising its air fleet. Turkey for its part not only lacks F-35 jets in active service, but its relations with the UAE have long been poor with sharply conflicting interests in a number of theatres.

While the United States has reportedly denied Abu Dhabi its fifth generation jets, in part to retain Israel’s technological advantage over the Arab states, the risk posed to U.S. interests and to those of Tel Aviv appear minor to non existent should Abu Dhabi be provided with the light stealth fighters. Even with the F-35, the UAE Air Force would lack a heavy air superiority fighter capable of matching the capabilities of the Israeli F-15C in air to air combat, or a specialised strike platform analogous to the F-15I, which would leave it at a considerable disadvantage. Combined with the extremely small risk of the Western aligned client state ‘going rogue’ and turning on Israel, and the F-35’s high maintenance requirements and heavy reliance on a regular supply of parts from the United States to operate, the UAE’s acquisition of the fighter remains a negligible risk. Equipped with the fighters however, it would be better placed to combat common regional adversaries - particularly the Iranian military across the Persian Gulf against which the United States and Israel increasingly sought to build a coalition of regional allies.

The UAE currently fields F-16E jets as its prime fighter, based on a light airframe which first entered service 40 years ago in 1978 and incorporating a number of new technologies developed for the F-35. These are deployed alongside older and less sophisticated French built Mirage 2000 aircraft, and the country entirely both lacks heavier and more specialised jets and stealth technologies. Abu Dhabi’s previous inability to acquire the F-35 has led it to consider acquiring Russian fighter jets, either the Su-35 ‘4++ generation’ air superiority fighter or a fifth generation design which could be developed especially for its defence needs. Ultimately it remans strongly in the interests of both the Western Bloc and of Israel to provide the UAE Air Force with the F-35, both to strengthen their ally’s capabilities against common adversaries and to prevent further proliferation of Russian technologies - which Washington in particular has expressed a strong desire to undermine. Doing so will present minimal risks due to the high maintenance requirements of the F-35 and Abu Dhabi's extreme reliance on Washington for its defence, while also earning considerable export revenues for U.S. manufacturers and increasing interoperability with allies' next generation fighters. 

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