Emirati F-35 prospects languish amid high-stakes Chinese, US courting

Emirati F-35 prospects languish amid high-stakes Chinese, US courting

MILAN — As the United Arab Emirates seeks closer defense ties with the United States and China alike, the prospects of exporting the F-35 fighter to Abu Dhabi anytime soon may be getting slimmer, according to experts.

On April 23, the chief of joint operations for the UAE Armed Forces met with the commander of the Chinese Air Force in Beijing to discuss options for strengthening collaboration between their services. The meeting served as the Gulf nation’s most recent overture to China, signaling a particular interest in warplane cooperation.

After receiving the first batch of Chinese Hongdu L-15A Falcon jet trainers last year, some observers have speculated that the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter may be the next platform on the country’s wish-list.

This week, senior U.S. and UAE defense officials met for their annual military dialogue in Washington. On the agenda, were “specific discussions,” on integrated air and missile defense as well as cooperation on emerging capabilities, per a statement released by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The release made no mention of the elephant in the room – Abu Dhabi’s request to buy the fifth-generation American combat jet.

The Biden administration froze the sale of 50 Lockheed-made F-35 fighter jets to the Emiratis in 2021, as the bolstered UAE-China defense connection has continued to raise questions among U.S. officials about the future of Washington arms sales to its Middle East ally.

Meanwhile, in 2020, after normalizing ties with the UAE, Israel said that it would not oppose the sale of “specific U.S.-made weapon systems” to the Emiratis, in what many interpreted as a reference to the F-35s. Israel was previously reported to have been against this deal, viewing it as a possible threat to maintaining its regional military superiority.

In recent years, some developments within the UAE-China relationship have been more concerning than others for the United States, said Daniel Mouton, a former U.S. National Security Council official who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

One alarming issue regarded the establishment of a Chinese military facility in the country, which the analyst said would be dangerous “particularly in terms of its ability to observe U.S. activities inside the Gulf state and area.”

“Considering the technology associated with the F-35, the presence of a Chinese military base and expanding Chinese technical infrastructure could have posed a risk to this valuable piece of U.S. technology and to the international consortium of F-35 operators,” Mouton added.

The planned facility was reportedly being built at a port near Abu Dhabi, where a Chinese shipping group operates. Last year, despite the Gulf state’s previous pledge to halt China’s construction at the site, new activity was detected, according to the Washington Post.

While the sale of F-35 warplanes has become something of a white whale for the Emiratis, with Abu Dhabi even threatening to cancel it at one point, Mouton said that the deal remains “viable.”

A Lockheed Martin representative said they could not comment on government-to-government discussions.

Other experts have a gloomier outlook on the long-pending transaction, viewing it as a possible dead end.

“The UAE’s decision to commit to a large Rafale buy [80 aircraft] from France in 2022 is likely a good indication that they know the deal isn’t going anywhere at this point,” Alex Almeida, Middle East analyst at the U.S.-based political risk consultancy group Horizon Engage, said.

“Or at least that the timeframe for an eventual F-35 delivery is so far in the future they’ll need a sizable fleet of new 4.5 generation aircraft to replace the Mirage 2000s they are currently phasing out before moving on to a full fifth-gen platform,” he added.

The F-35 were initially offered as a package deal to the UAE alongside the MQ-9 Reaper manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. This is no longer the case, as the drone acquisition is moving forward and will be integrated with Emirati-made weapons.

The U.S. drone maker, for its part, is still concerned about Chinese dealings with America’s allies.

In testimony before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 17, Nicola Johnson, vice president of government affairs and strategic communications at GA-ASI, warned of China’s rise as a global drone producer. She also flagged weaknesses of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multinational pact designed to curb the spread of missile technology, which governs the trading of certain unmanned aircraft system (UAS) components.

“Strategic partners have pivoted away from American UAS and toward those made by foreign competitors, such as Turkey, Israel and China. Notably China, not a member of the [MTCR] regime, is turning international sales into an engine for revenue that it can use to develop more advanced systems, to the detriment of America’s national security,” she said.

The UAE has purchased an undisclosed number of Chinese Wing Loong drones previously, and has made it clear that it intends to follow “a pragmatic foreign policy,” as Mouton noted.

Last year, GA-ASI opposed the building of a Chinese wet corn milling plant near Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota, due to fears about potential espionage, as U.S. defense companies conduct sensitive tests there related to unmanned aircraft and other advanced weapons.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-China tussle over a key ally in the Gulf is also playing out in the field of civilian technology. Microsoft announced last month that it will invest $1.5 billion in the UAE’s leading artificial intelligence firm, G42.

The deal, which was orchestrated in large part by the White House, comes with the caveat that the Emirati company must essentially kick Chinese suppliers out of its operations, according to the New York Times.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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