The United States’s State Department has given Congress notification it plans to sell 18 sophisticated armed MQ-9B aerial drones to the United Arab Emirates in a deal worth as much as $2.9bn, people briefed on the matter have told the Reuters news agency.
The move came on the heels of last week’s notification of a potential sale of F-35 fighter jets to the oil-rich Gulf state and one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies.
The sale would mark the first armed drone export since the Trump administration reinterpreted a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations to allow US defence contractors to sell more drones to allies.
Reuters reported the UAE has long shown interest in buying drones from the US and would be among the first customers in line after US export policy changed this summer.
A $600m deal to sell four unarmed but weapons-ready MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones to Taiwan was the first to be formally announced to Congress on Tuesday.
This informal notice for the Reaper-style drones is the precursor to the State Department’s formal and public notification.
The US Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees – whose members have criticised the UAE’s role in civilian deaths in Yemen’s civil war – have the ability to review and block weapons sales under an informal review process before the State Department sends its formal notification to the legislative branch.
The US State Department may wait to formally notify Congress of the sale once staff and members are briefed on the potential sale, one of the people said. The formal notification gives Congress 30 days to object to any sales.
“As a matter of policy, the United States does not confirm or comment on proposed defense sales or transfers until they are formally notified to Congress,” a US State Department spokesman told Reuters.
The armed MQ-9B drones will also be equipped with maritime radar and could be delivered in 2024. The package notified to Congress is for 15 with an option for three additional drones, one of the people said.
The UAE is also seeking a package of Boeing Co EA-18G Growlers, an electronic warfare version of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft, that are capable of jamming radar and other advanced capabilities. Growlers are operated by the US and Australia.
The UAE has long expressed interest in acquiring the stealthy F-35 jets and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal made when they agreed to normalise relations with Israel. The informal notification for 50 Lockheed Martin Co F-35 jets was made on October 29.
But any deal the US makes to sell weapons in the region must satisfy decades of agreement with Israel where the US-made weapon must not impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge”, guaranteeing US weapons furnished to Israel are “superior in capability” to those sold to its neighbours.