WASHINGTON ― Senate appropriators are calling on the State Department to certify that a pending sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the United Arab Emirates would not threaten Israel’s military edge or make U.S. military systems vulnerable to Russia and China.
The bipartisan legislation, introduced Nov. 10 by the GOP-led Senate Appropriations Committee, represents another potential hurdle for the U.S. sale of up to 50 F-35s worth $10.4 billion, 18 MQ-9Bs worth $2.97 billion, and $10 billion worth of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the package the same day the legislation was introduced.
The Senate committee included the certification requirement in its fiscal 2021 appropriations bill for the State Department and foreign operations. It follows proposals to limit appropriations based on similar concerns last month from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
The two panels, whose members have criticized UAE’s role in Yemen’s civil war and pointed to its defense ties to Russia and China, review major arms sales. Amnesty International last week called on Washington to halt the sale of weapons that could be used in the Yemen conflict and said UAE has used armed drones in Libya, breaking a long-standing UN arms embargo there.
Another advocacy organization, the Center for International Policy concluded in a new report that, in spite of the Trump administration’s assertions the deal will enable the UAE to address threats posed by Iran, the armed drones and precision-guided munitions included, “are more likely to find practical use in Yemen or Libya.”
Though Democrats who have been the most vocal with their concerns, some Republicans in Congress are also skeptical, said Brad Bowman, a former Senate staffer now with of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“You have Republicans who are pro-Israel and are concerned that we not leak F-35 technology to China and Russia,” Bowman said. “This is the aircraft we’re going to be relying on for decades to come, and this is not a slander against the UAE, but we have to make sure that any country that gets that technology is going to protect it.”
The provision from Senate appropriators reads: "Prior to the sale of the F–35 joint strike fighter to the UAE, the Secretary of State, in consultation with heads of relevant Federal agencies, shall certify and report to the Committee that such sale: (1) does not diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge; and (2) poses no vulnerabilities to U.S. military to U.S. military systems and technology vis-a`-vis the Russian Federation and [People’s Republic of China].
To avoid a government shutdown, Washington has to come together and pass a budget deal before stopgap spending legislation expires Dec. 11 or pass another funding patch.
The F-35 deal follows the signing of the Abraham Accords, a normalization agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. Pompeo, in his announcement of the F-35 deal, said it recognized UAE’s need to defend itself from Iran and that it was consistent with America’s commitment to ensuring Israel’s “qualitative military edge” ― a U.S. legal standard that Israel maintain a military technological advantage over its neighbors.
Though arms sales are subject to congressional holds by tradition, the Trump administration could move aggressively on the sale, and then, if lawmakers objected, they could introduce a joint resolution of disapproval to block the sale.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.