In this post Jack Sargent explores the implications of the US’s intention to sell the F-35 fighter jet to the United Arab Emirates. He argues that this move could present a serious challenge to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, despite the fact that similar US deals with Egypt and Saudi Arabia have failed to overcome Israeli dominance in the region.
In exchange for normalising diplomatic relations with Israel, the Trump administration has signalled its intent to sell the F-35, a world leading stealth fighter jet, to the United Arab Emirates. Since the late 1970s, the United States has provided advanced warplanes to Israel’s rivals — a move which should seriously challenge Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME). However, despite receiving their own F-16s and F-15s (at a time when these planes were the pinnacle of Israeli aerial superiority) Egypt and Saudi Arabia have failed to utilise their large fleets to an extent that would degrade Israel’s QME. Given this, it is tempting to think that the UAE’s potential procurement of the F-35 would not have a serious impact on Israel’s QME. But this is clearly not true. The history of Egyptian and Saudi Arabian military ineffectiveness, the scholarly explanations for this, and the UAE’s own unique history highlight why, given the F-35, the UAE would negatively impact Israel’s QME.
Since the Six Day War in 1967, the US has been committed to ensuring that Israel has a decisive military advantage over its neighbours. This policy was merely de facto until it was explicitly outlined by President Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 publicly committed to ‘ensur[ing] that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge’ through extensive foreign aid. Beginning in 1946, the US has provided nearly $240 billion in such aid to Israel and currently provides $3.3 billion annually. The justification for this support is both pragmatic and ideological. Israel is a critical military and intelligence partner to the US, as well as a fellow liberal democracy in an overwhelmingly autocratic region.
Despite its policy of support for Israel, the US has not only provided warplanes to Israel’s Arab neighbours, but Saudi Arabia has received sophisticated AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes to accompany its roughly 200 F-15s. AWACS are a modern version of the same planes that Israel relied on to devastate the Syrian Air Force in their 1982 air battle over Lebanon, operation Mole Cricket 19. AWACs were supplied to Saudi Arabia to increase influence, improve security during the Iran-Iraq War, and to provide economic stimulus to the then ailing U.S. economy. Likewise, Egypt has received over 200 F-16s, while Jordan operates a fleet of 58 F-16s.
While one may view these procurements by Arab nations as devastating to Israel’s QME, in reality, they do not have this effect. Fascinating scholarship has been developed to explain the underperformance of excellently equipped Arab militaries in contemporary history. In this arena, the works of Kenneth Pollack, Caitlin Talmadge and Risa Brooks are compelling — particularly when considered together. Talmadge observes that ‘regimes facing significant coup threats are unlikely to adopt military organizational practices optimized for conventional combat’ due to trade-offs between guarding against domestic and foreign threats. Pollack takes a different angle and asserts that ‘the greatest problems that Arab armed forces suffered during the modern era…have been driven by…Arab culture.’ He argues that cultural inclinations towards ‘conformity at the expense of creativity’, ‘[t]he fear of shame’, ‘passivity within…patriarchal hierarchies’, ‘cultural preference for heavily centrali[s]ed hierarchies’ and other traits when ‘taken together explain why Arab militaries experienced…disastrous results.’ Finally, Brooks notes that ‘[a]mong Arab forces…there is a tendency to heavily centrali[s]e decision making authority’ which prevents military effectiveness from developing. This is done to ‘retain maximum authority over…subordinates.’ These scholarly explanations individually point to reasons of culture, survival, and autocratic tendencies to justify Egyptian and Saudi military underperformance. When considered in concert with one another, their arguments are persuasive in explaining why, despite the provision of advanced jets by the US, neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia have ever challenged Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.
Egypt’s procurement of the F-16 (starting in the 1980s under the Peace Vector programmes) appeared to close a qualitative military gap between itself and Israel, but the Egyptian military’s incompetence ensured Israel’s continued dominance. The Egyptian military did not (and does not) prioritise logistics, spending ‘only 30 percent’ as opposed to the minimum recommended 50% of US foreign aid on sustaining its military equipment. What’s more, ‘based on time elapsed between depot maintenance visits,’ Egyptian F-16s fly only half as much as their US counterparts. This indicates limited pilot training, in comparison to extensive Israeli pilot training which ensured victory in every major aerial engagement with Arab air forces.
This chasm compounds the existing issues Egypt has with training. The Egyptian military command has been described by Western officials as ‘a tower with a pyramid on top,’ indicating that ‘the amount of responsibility and authority retained at any given level in the Egyptian military is noticeably lower than for a U.S. counterpart.’ The mid and low-level commanders therefore cannot exercise the freedom and decision-making necessary for training success. Further, per Brooks’ research, the desire for control among senior officers also hinders effectiveness. Egyptian training ‘often lacks free play in favo[u]r of rigid, pre-planned scenarios where the outcome is obvious, and no surprises are permitted.’ According to Pollack, the culture of ‘fear of shame’ and ‘passivity within…patriarchal hierarchies’ in the Egyptian military likely prevents change and perpetuates ineffective training. These issues are all a continuation of the systemic problems that were sharply apparent in the 1973 October War. Here, ‘without a detailed script’ set by senior officers, Egyptian forces ‘floundered’ when left to rely on their limited and inadequate training. Finally, the procurement of the F-16 itself also validates Talmadge’s observations about unstable regimes and unconventional military organisation. President Hosni Mubarak sought to ‘appease…the officer corps by showering it with…[advanced] U.S. weaponry…not ‘accompanied…by the organisation, training, and sustainment necessary to render it truly effective.’
The Saudi Arabian case is no different. In 1978, Saudi Arabia began to purchase the advanced F-15 fighter jet in the face of strong Israeli opposition. The outright failure of Saudi Arabia to fully utilise this advanced weapon system can be traced to the chronic failings of the Saudi military. The Royal Saudi Armed Forces have relied heavily on foreign support throughout history. In 1976, the CIA noted that ‘it will be some time before the government will be able to develop technically qualified Saudi personnel.’ In 2004, it was reported that ‘[a] lack of overall readiness, poor aircrew and maintenance to aircraft ratios…severely reduced the effectiveness of its F-15s’. Saudi AWAC planes suffered the same fate, with ‘the crews hav[ing] shown only limited capability to manage [it]’ and instead ‘rely on the [US Air Force] for help.’ This is in sharp contrast to Israel’s excellent use of the F-15 and AWACS, in Operation Mole Cricket 19.
In 2015, the Saudi military was wholeheartedly reliant on foreign contractors to pursue the war in Yemen. The words of Brooks, Talmadge and Pollack offer powerful explanations for this. For example, the Saudi royal family’s joint efforts to ward off the threat of coup while maintaining a parallel military organisation, the National Guard, hinders the adoption of ‘organizational practices optimized for conventional combat,’ as per the Talmadge thesis. Saudi Arabia has also failed to ‘bring its manpower quality and sustainment capabilities into balance with its equipment’. Despite having immense resources and strong links with the US and UK, the Saudi Air Force has never realised the full capability of its vast fleet. In seeking to understand this, there is the real possibility that, as Pollack would argue, Arab culture has smothered military innovation in Saudi Arabia. Such assessments are enhanced by Brooks’ research highlighting how the centralisation of control among select members of the Saudi elite and their desire to retain authority severely hampers any effort to reform.
While the works of Talmadge, Brooks, and Pollack provide multiple explanations for why Egypt and Saudi Arabia cannot threaten Israel’s QME with their own F-15s and F-16s, they cannot account for the UAE’s impact on Israel’s QME if the UAE is provided the F-35. The UAE is not immune to cultural criticisms, the detrimental impacts of coup proofing, or the negative effects of centralising power. Yet, unlike its neighbours, these factors have not stopped the UAE from operating militarily at a Western standard.
Instead, David B. Roberts’ new scholarship successfully explains how the UAE developed military competence where others have failed. By borrowing concepts from public policy research, Roberts shows ‘how a pivotal leader, deeply secured in his position, can, motivated by a perceived threat, drive through the difficult changes necessary to develop effective military forces.’ Roberts argues that the Gulf War ‘shocked [Emirati] leaders’ out of ineffective military practices and then ‘galvanised and motivated’ Deputy Supreme Commander Mohammed bin Zayed to undertake ‘difficult changes’. These involved ‘empower[ing]’ foreigners in the UAE military with elite support to assist with genuine reform, a ‘more pragmatic’ approach to buying only ‘relevant equipment’, and unifying the various military forces in the Emirates. These changes were honed and refined in military deployments abroad.
The UAE has the military competence, technical capacity, and proven ability to fully utilise the F-35. The development of Emirati military ability can be traced back to the impetus for change the Gulf War created in the ruling elite. This resulted in a genuine focus on training and development. In 1999, the UAE deployed its Apache attack helicopters to Kosovo under French command. This was then leveraged into involvement in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Here, F-16s provided close air support to NATO forces. Australia is the only other non-NATO nation entrusted with such a sensitive task. As clandestine French analysis states, the UAE operates at a Western level. As a result, the UAE now has the technical ability to sustain a variety of cutting-edge weapons systems, such as a highly advanced variant of the US F-16. The Emirati military has also successfully onboarded and deployed advanced technical weapon systems from Sweden and Russia. The UAE has capitalised on this military effectiveness by intervening directly in Yemen and Libya. In both cases, the UAE operated effectively in complex conflicts.
Emirati F-35s could herald the end of unquestioned Israeli air supremacy in the region. Israeli F-16 and F-15s, despite their superior training, would be at a severe technological disadvantage to an Emirati military armed with F-35s. Unlike previous instances in which Israeli pilots trounced poorly trained Egyptian and Syrian pilots in comparable aircraft, Emirati F-35 pilots would not succumb to their Israeli rival’s superior training so easily.
Though the UAE may never purchase the F-35, the possibility cannot be ruled out given the sale’s tacit acceptance by Israel and the transactional nature of the Abraham Accords. Debate on the merits of this sale will inevitably involve reference to large fleets of Saudi F-15s and Egyptian F-16s and their subsequently minimal impact on Israel’s QME. As this article has shown, the military ineffectiveness of the Saudi and Egyptian militaries prevented them from genuinely challenging Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge. The reasons for this are well documented and have existed since the 1960s and 1970s. Conversely, the UAE has succeeded where Egypt and Saudi Arabia have failed. The advent of Emirati F-35s will have significant, and likely negative, implications for Israel’s QME and to suggest otherwise is to ignore the multitudinous differences between the UAE’s case and that of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Jack Sargent is a recent graduate of LSE’s History of International Relations MSc Programme. His research focuses on Middle Eastern regional security issues and nuclear proliferation. His dissertation examined the nuclear ambitions of the Shah of Iran.