UAE F-35 Stealth Fighter Deal Hangs By A Thread Amid Chinese Espionage Worries

Multiple reports indicate that the United Arab Emirates is now poised to drop plans to buy F-35s and MQ-9 drones.

F35 UAE Desert
U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Duncan C. Bevan

The effort to sell F-35A stealth fighters to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken another turn, with the Emirati government threatening to scrap plans to buy the aircraft, as well as MQ-9B drones, due to concerns over stringent safeguards to protect these systems against Chinese espionage. The development comes less than two weeks after it was announced that the UAE was to become the biggest export customer for the French Dassault Rafale fighter, placing an order for 80 jets worth $16 billion.

According to a report today from the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Warren P. Strobel, citing unnamed U.S. officials, the UAE government has informed Washington by letter that it plans to abandon the deal to buy 50 F-35As, up to 18 MQ-9Bs, and $10-billion-worth of advanced munitions. That arms package, approved at the end of the previous Trump administration, was valued at up to $23.37 billion.

U.S. Air Force/Maj. Rodney Ellison

U.S. Air Force F-35As from the 421st Fighter Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, arrive at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, in May last year.

“The UAE has informed the U.S. that it will suspend discussions to acquire the F-35,” an Emirati official said in a statement, according to the WSJ. “Technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions, and the cost/benefit analysis led to the reassessment.”

However, the same UAE official also said the United States “remains the UAE’s preferred provider for advanced defense requirements and discussions for the F-35 may be reopened in the future.”

U.S. officials have confirmed receipt of the letter.

Meanwhile, a report from Breaking Defense paints a more pessimistic picture, quoting an unnamed UAE official as saying that discussions about the proposed deal have been “suspended” indefinitely pending a “full reassessment” of the terms of the agreement. According to this report, the letter sent to Washington served to withdraw the letters of offer and acceptance, or LOAs, the government-to-government agreements that identify the defense equipment and services to be sold by the U.S. government. 

The move is the latest signal that all is not well in the military relationship between the United States and the UAE, with the China factor being the key point of concern. In particular, the Emirati government considers that security requirements demanded by the United States are unacceptable. These safeguards are specifically intended to keep sensitive military technology and capabilities from falling into Chinese hands.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski

A United Arab Emirates Mirage 2000, a UAE F-16 Desert Falcon, and a U.S. F-35A during a partnering flight in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, in May 2019.

While the UAE deal had previously been in limbo, it may now be dead in the water. Or, as the WSJ surmises, the Emirati government could be seeking better terms by threatening to back out. Possible evidence for that is the upcoming visit to the Pentagon by a UAE delegation, due this week, and the fact that the letter in question was written by a lower-ranking Emirati official.

Washington now appears to be faced with a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the security surrounding the F-35, and to a lesser extent the MQ-9, must remain sacrosanct, protecting one of the most important capabilities for the Pentagon and many allies. At the same time, industry and government are keen to push through a lucrative deal, despite opposition from some lawmakers in Washington. Their concern is driven by different factors, including the erosion of Israel’s so-called “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East and criticism of the UAE’s role in the civil war in Yemen and also in Libya.

Indeed, soon after taking office, President Joe Biden hit pause on the UAE arms deal but ultimately decided to go ahead with it, albeit with new caveats attached.

As for the Chinese role in all this, the UAE’s relationship with Beijing has already been highlighted as a worry. Earlier this year, it appears that Washington was forced to apply pressure on the Emiratis to ensure that China halted construction work on a secretive military facility in the UAE.

Other signs of a military relationship between China and the UAE have also alarmed U.S. officials. In May this year, it was reported that U.S. intelligence had become aware of at least two People’s Liberation Army aircraft arriving in the UAE to deliver unknown cargoes, presumed to be military in nature.

Outside of military issues, there are broader concerns about the economic ties between China and the UAE, including the Emirati relationship with Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei Technologies. That company has long been earmarked as a potential means for Beijing to conduct espionage or disrupt communications.

Coincidentally, it was British plans to have Huawei install communications infrastructure that led to calls from some U.S. lawmakers to abandon plans to permanently station its own F-35As in the United Kingdom. In the event, the United Kingdom scrapped the Huawei plans, although the UAE still relies on the company for its communications needs.

With this in mind, it seems likely that the United States has slapped additional security measures on the potential F-35 sale to the UAE, although the precise nature of what these might involve is not currently clear. Whatever the case, the UAE has clearly taken exception to the move.

At the same time, U.S. defense executives have remained upbeat about the prospects of signing off on the deal.

During the Dubai Air Show last month, Mira Resnick, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security, told the Associated Press: “The F-35 is already in this region, whether it’s Israelis flying the F-35, whether it’s American F-35. We would like the UAE to be able to operate the F-35 in a way that [they] can be our security partners and to deter threats, including from Iran.”

U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan

U.S. Air Force F-35As and Israeli Air Force F-35I Adirs during exercise Enduring Lightning III over Israel, in October 2020.

It certainly seems possible that the United States and UAE can still come to an agreement over the sale, with the requirement for F-35s still extant, despite the recent decision to buy Rafales.

The United Arab Emirates Air Force and Air Defense already operates two fighter fleets, sourced from France and the United States.

While the Rafales are potentially planned as long-term replacements for the Mirage 2000-9 fleet, that still leaves the service with F-16E/F Block 60 Desert Falcons, too, meaning that procurement of the F-35 is not necessarily an urgent issue. The original plans had called for the first F-35s to be delivered to the UAE in 2027 and there are ongoing upgrade programs to keep the F-16 and Mirage fleets viable until well beyond that date.

U.S. Air Force/Lawrence Crespo

A United Arab Emirates Air Force and Air Defense crew chief performs a pre-flight inspection on a Mirage 2000-9 prior to a Red Flag 13-2 mission on the Nellis Air Force Base flight line in 2013.

Should the United States and UAE work out a solution to the security issue, there is still the possibility that the Emiratis could reject other conditions imposed by the Biden administration. According to the WSJ, these likely include a guarantee that the UAE will not use its F-35s in its military operations in Libya and Yemen.

Now, having lined up Rafales, the UAE may well be more willing to bide its time and ensure that it gets the deal it wants. However, the United States is likely unwilling to modify its hard line on security issues, especially when it comes to fears that fifth-generation fighter technology could end up in Chinese hands or data pertaining to it being compromised.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com