The United States and the United Arab Emirates hope to have an initial agreement on the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Gulf state in place by December, as the Trump administration studies how to structure a deal without running afoul of Israel.
The Reuters news agency, citing sources close to the negotiations, on Tuesday said the goal is to have a letter of agreement in place in time for UAE National Day, celebrated on December 2.
Any deal must satisfy decades of agreements with Israel that says any US weapons sold to the region must not impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge”, guaranteeing US weapons furnished to Israel are “superior in capability” to those sold to its neighbours.
With that in mind, Washington is studying ways to make Lockheed Martin’s F-35 more visible to Israeli radar systems, two sources told Reuters.
The news agency said it could not determine if this would be done by changing the jet or providing Israel with better radar, among other possibilities.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz was due to meet his US counterpart Mark Esper in Washington on Tuesday.
The UAE’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The White House declined to comment.
A Pentagon spokeswoman told Reuters: “As a matter of policy, the United States does not confirm or comment on proposed defence sales or transfers until they are formally notified to Congress.”
Once a letter of agreement is signed, a fine may be levied against any party that terminates the deal.
Several political and regulatory hurdles must be cleared before the sale can be completed and Capitol Hill aides cautioned a deal may not be possible this year.
Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, told reporters in August that in general, the US aims to complete a letter of agreement for new F-35 sales in about six months.
Because of the qualitative military edge restriction, the F-35 jets have been denied to Arab states, while Israel has about 24 of them.
The UAE, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, has long expressed interest in acquiring the stealth jets and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal made when they agreed to normalise relations with Israel, Reuters said.
Sources familiar with the negotiations said a working idea was for Israeli air defences to be able to detect the UAE F-35s with technology that effectively defeats the stealth capabilities of the jets.
F-35 fighter jets sold to the UAE could also be built in a way that ensures the same planes owned by Israel outperform any others sold in the region, defence experts told Reuters.
Washington already demands that any F-35 sold to foreign governments cannot match the performance of US jets, a congressional staffer and a source familiar with past sales said.
The F-35’s technical sophistication is tied to its mission systems and processing power and “it’s the computing power that allows you to sell a higher-tech jet to Israel than to the UAE,” said Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington.
“When foreign pilots are in training in the US, they type a code into a user interface as they board the jet. The code will pull a different jet for each pilot based on legal permissions,” Birkey said.
Either way, the actual delivery of new jets is years away. Poland, the most recent F-35 customer, purchased 32 of the jets in January, but will not receive its first delivery until 2024.