U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Daniel Snider

U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Daniel Snider U.S. Air Force F-35s fly over the Persian Gulf in 2019.

The Coming F-35 Fiasco

Now that Qatar is asking for the jet, it’s time to consider an entirely different approach to helping Gulf nations defend themselves.

It was only a matter of time before another Arab partner joined the UAE in asking to buy F-35 fighter jets. On Wednesday, Reuters reports, Qatar formally submitted its own request.

I’m not surprised. Like other wealthy Gulf Arab states, the Qataris buy state-of-the-art military equipment from us all the time. The F-35 is just the latest shiny toy they set their eyes on.

But what I’m curious about is the timing. Doha knows full well that UAE may have a hard time getting its wish, which has sparked heated debate in Washington and in Israel.

By raising this issue now, the Qataris are likely to torpedo the transaction not just for the Emiratis but possibly for everybody else in the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

Maybe that’s their goal. You think the Gulf Arab feud has subsided? Think again.

I could be wrong. The demand signal for the F-35 from the Qataris might have been there for some time. But if they really want that plane, now seems hardly the best time to ask for it. The issue is combustible in U.S. and Israeli circles. Pouring gasoline into that fire right now is not the way to facilitate another prospective sale.  

Still, Doha has cleverly put Washington in a tight corner. If U.S. officials do sell the jet to the UAE, how could they say no to the Qataris, who just last week were told that they will be designated a major non-NATO ally? The same Qataris who host U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center, so indispensable for U.S. military operations across the region and beyond?

And if Washington says no to the Qataris, will they reach out to Russia or China for fifth-generation aircraft? That’s not a recipe for success in great power competition, America’s top foreign policy priority.

Of course, Washington could say yes to both Abu Dhabi and Doha, but I’m not sure this would serve our interests, and I suspect the Israelis won’t like the impingement upon their conventional military superiority, which U.S. law says we must support.

It also won’t stop with the Emiratis and the Qataris. Other Arab partners, including the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians, will most likely come knocking on our door to make their own cases for procuring the F-35. And they will have every right to do that. This potential domino effect is exactly what the Israelis fear and have warned Washington about.

So with all these political complexities behind the F-35 sale(s) looming, I wouldn’t be shocked if Washington pulled the plug on this whole operation, at least for the foreseeable future. I believe that’s exactly what will happen if Joe Biden is elected president because he owes nothing to the Emiratis and he already said that his administration would reconsider certain policies toward some Gulf Arab partners.

And even if Donald Trump wins a second term, the issue might — just might — cause such a political headache for the administration that the president might decide to cut his losses.

I, for one, wouldn’t be opposed to that. If I’m an Arab partner, I would do well to heed the advice of a famous verse in the Holy Quran: You may dislike something although it is good for you. In this case, not acquiring the F-35 might actually serve some important national security interests of Abu Dhabi, Doha, and possibly others.

Don’t get me wrong. Certainly it wouldn’t hurt to own the world’s most powerful fighter plane. Maybe the F-35 will strike fear in the heart of Tehran and make it think twice before attacking any Gulf Arab state that owns the aircraft. But maybe it won’t. Deterrence is complicated business. The Trump administration, with all the might of the U.S. military and a policy of “maximum pressure,” has proved unable to dissuade the Iranians from engaging in various acts of violence in the region. The unprecedented conventional assault by Iran against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in the fall of 2019 is a painful reminder of the limitations of deterrence.

And I’m not so sure that air power is a domain in which the Gulf Arab partners should further invest, if only because they’re already quite strong there. To use an American football analogy: if a team has one of the league’s fastest and savviest wide receivers, should they acquire another at the expense of bolstering their weak offensive line?

Granted, the ultimate goal of the team is not to have a balanced roster. That’s a means to an end, not an end in itself. Rather, it is to win. And in national security, it is to deter and defend against threats. But when there’s a gap in your force mix or posture that’s so large and so obvious – in the case of the Gulf Arab partners, it’s their maritime capabilities – serious vulnerabilities will emerge, making it incredibly hard to achieve your national security objectives.

While the Gulf Arab partners have conventional air dominance over Iran’s antiquated air force, that script is flipped at sea. The Gulf Arab navies are so weak that were it not for the U.S. Fifth Fleet constantly patrolling the waters of the region, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be wreaking havoc seven days a week. Yemen is the latest example of how critical it is for the Gulf Arab partners to upgrade their naval capabilities to prevent the Iranians from transferring weapons to militias loyal to them.

So maybe instead of the F-35, how about investing in minesweepers, destroyers, combat ships, and other capabilities to effectively engage in air-sea battle? If there’s one existential threat to the Gulf Arab partners, it is economic in nature. If they can’t export their oil, their economies will struggle, even collapse. We have a powerful presence at sea to deter Tehran from closing the Strait of Hormuz and assaulting our partners, but for how much longer? To compete with China, as the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy suggest, the United States needs more naval capabilities deployed in the Indo-Pacific, and it is likely to get them from the Middle East.

You can blame the Gulf Arab partners all you want for stirring the F-35 pot, but it’s not their fault. We are the ones to blame for not committing to helping them develop proper defense governance mechanisms and rigorous arms procurement processes that will identify what their real military needs are.

If we truly helped Abu Dhabi, Doha, and their neighbors to develop coherent defense-acquisition policies and didn’t obsess over profiting from arms exports, they would no doubt come to the rational conclusion that the F-35, while attractive, is not a critical defense requirement for them.