The US State Department formally notified Congress on Tuesday of the Trump administration’s intent to sell dozens of F-35 advanced fighter jets and 18 armed MQ-9B drones to the United Arab Emirates.
“Today, I directed the Department to formally notify Congress of our intent to authorize the UAE’s proposed purchase of several advanced capabilities that are worth $23.37 billion,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press release.
The proposed sale includes up to 50 F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, 18 MQ-9B unmanned aerial vehicles, targeting technology and some $10 billion worth of munitions, including 1,500 Hellfire missiles and 800 advanced medium range air-to-air missiles.
If approved by Congress, the sale would mark the first ever transfer of the US fifth-generation stealth fighter to an Arab country and the most advanced arms transfer to date to the UAE.
“The proposed sale of this equipment and support represents a significant increase in capability and will alter the regional military balance,” an announcement by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35, the result of the Joint Strike Fighter program, is currently possessed by eight of Washington’s close allies and partners. Four other countries have active orders for the aircraft.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East to possess the stealth aircraft. The United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program last year after Ankara also purchased Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system.
“The UAE’s historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape,” Pompeo said in the statement Tuesday.
“Our adversaries, especially those in Iran, know this and will stop at nothing to disrupt this shared success,” he said, adding, “The proposed sale will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with U.S. partners in a manner fully consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.”
The sale announcement comes as the exiting Trump administration has sought to convince Middle Eastern leaders to recognize Israel in an effort to shore up regional security cooperation against Iran.
So far, the UAE and Bahrain have signed normalization agreements with Israel. Sudan has also said it would normalize ties with the Jewish state.
“Each of those countries, those Gulf states recognize that the shared threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran is very, very real, and now they are working together, building out security and economic relationships and real ties between these countries,” Pompeo said in the statement.
The initiative, dubbed the Abraham Accords, is shaping up to be a last-minute Trump administration substitute for a so far largely unfulfilled effort to shore up the Gulf Cooperation Council as a bulwark against Iran’s military ambitions in the region.
In July, President Donald Trump formally changed the United States' interpretation of an international agreement limiting missile transfers in a move widely seen as intended to give the country an edge on armed drone sales to the Gulf amid competition with China.
News over the summer that US officials had acknowledged a possible transfer of the F-35 to the UAE amid talks over Abu Dhabi’s recognition of Israel had rankled Israel’s defense establishment.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz and former Defense Secretary Mark Esper reached an agreement last month that Gantz hailed as ensuring Israel’s regional military superiority “for decades to come.”
While details of the agreement remain under wraps, Gantz’s office said in a statement that the agreement with the Pentagon led him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to drop objection to the proposed advanced US arms sales to the UAE.
But lawmakers have expressed skepticism about the proposed UAE sale. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said last month that any approval of the sale would require “unimpeachable assurances” that the F-35’s stealth technology would not fall into the wrong hands as China and Russia rapidly modernize their militaries.
Pompeo previously authorized a bypass of a Congressional freeze on major arms transfers to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but a State Department official signaled earlier this month that Congress would be kept in the loop on future planned sales to the region.
“All potential defense sales and transfers are carefully assessed under the U.S. government’s Conventional Arms Transfer Policy to carefully weigh human rights, regional security, and nonproliferation concerns to determine whether a sale is in the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States,” a State Department official said in an emailed statement.
“These proposed sales make the UAE more capable and interoperable with U.S. partners, further enabling us to confront shared regional challenges for years to come," the official wrote.