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F-35 Lightning II Coming to Abu Dhabi?

Why Selling its Latest Fighter to the United Arab Emirates is the Best Way for the U.S. to Uphold its Regional Interests

November 07th - 2017

The United Arab Emirates maintains one of the highest military budgets per capita in the world, and has in recent years undertaken extensive efforts to develop a modern and elite air force capable of countering regional rivals. The force's fighter fleet is currently comprised entirely of light platforms, primarily the French Mirage-2000 American F-16E, the latter being the most advanced variant of the advanced U.S. fighter ever designed and in service exclusively in the UAE.

As a longstanding client for U.S. arms Abu Dhabi has since at least 2013 sought to acquire the F-35 fifth generation light multi role fighter to further modernize its capabilities alongside those of other U.S. partners across the world. With Turkey, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and NATO states across Europe acquiring the fighter, it seemed only fitting for the UAE to induct the jet into service in its own air force. Indeed, the Emirates has never inducted a non Western fighter into its air force and as a close Western partner seeks the latest Western arms for its military. The U.S. has however been reluctant to sell the F-35 to Middle Eastern partners other than Israel - as it has stated that it is committed to preserving the Israeli Air Force's qualitative edge over the Arab states - whether friendly or otherwise.

Unable to purchase the F-35 from the United States, or anything with outstanding capabilities to match the far more potent F-14, F-15 and F-35 fleets of its neighbors, the UAE began to look to Russia for alternatives. As a result the country has entered negotiations to acquire several dozen Su-35 advanced air superiority fighters - making it potentially the largest operator of the fighter outside Russia itself. The country has also begun joint development of a fifth generation fighter, possibly based on Russia's own Su-57, for its Air Force. The United States has as a result lost not only a market for sales of advanced fighters to its Russian rival, but the balance of power it has sought to maintain in the Middle East has also been undermined far more than it would have had it initially agreed to sell the Emirates the F-35.

In regard to Israel, not only is the proposition that the UAE could or would have any desire to threaten it absurd as noted by Israeli military analysts themselves, but the fact also remains that the F-35 is far less threatening that the Su-35 or a potential new fifth generation fighter incorporating Russian technologies. All operators of the F-35 rely on the U.S. to provide necessary codes for operation, and should they U.S. seek to do so they could easily prevent the UAE from using its fleet by withholding these. As an extremely high maintenance platform, withholding spare parts would also be an effective way of grounding the UAE's fleet within days should the state ever step out of line with the United States' regional designs. The F-35 and the exact details of its capabilities are also well known to both the United States and Israel, allowing them to counter it far more effectively than an unknown Russian fighter. Israel's F-15 fighters will likely prove more than a match for Emirati F-35s, something that cannot be said should the Arab Sheikhdom field the Su-35. The Su-35 has a far longer, range, far greater payload, far higher manoeuvrability, longer ranged missiles (R-27 vs. AIM-120B/C) and several other considerable assets which make it a far more dangerous fighter than the F-35. While the F-35 was never designed as an air superiority fighter and integrates only some primarily defensive air to air combat capabilities, the Su-35 was first and foremost designed to destroy the elite of an enemy airforce in the sky - the same role as Israel's F-15C. Abu Dhabi's acquisition of the Sukhoi poses a far greater threat to Israel should it for any reason 'go rogue' than the F-35 ever could, and the country's lack of air superiority fighters would remain a crippling disadvantage in any air war with countries such as Israel which field such heavy and specialised platforms. It is therefore strongly in line with both U.S. commercial and strategic interests, as well as with Israel's own security interests, to allow the UAE to purchase the F-35 and thus undermine its growing military cooperation with Russia and prevent its acquisition of the Su-35.

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