The Emirates will bring to Camp David a strong case for buying F-35s.
For their support for a treaty to put the Iranian nuclear program on ice, the Gulf Cooperation Council governments are coming to Camp David with shopping lists. Specifically, the GCC states have signaled in advance that they will want advanced weapons, including F-35 stealth fighters, to counter a potential resurgence in Iranian power. But not everyone in American government is enthused about that quid pro quo. As Jay Soloman and Carol Lee reported in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina says that he is
very worried that President Obama will promise every military toy they’ve always wanted and a security agreement short of a treaty, with the understanding they have to be sympathetic to this deal. If I get a hint of that, a whiff of that, then I would do everything I could to block every bullet and every plane.
That’s condescending. In the first place, GCC governments face a serious threat. Any ratifiable treaty would need to release the $100 billion of Iranian money that’s impounded in Western banks. The Iranians seem natural troublemakers, and that sort of windfall could finance a lot of trouble, either in the form of Russian weapons or legions of Hezbollah mercenaries.
Indeed, in their recent paper Artful Balance: Future US Defense Strategy and Force Posture in the Gulf (March 2015), Bilal Saab and Barry Pavel argue for not just a security agreement, but that actual treaty that Graham fears. Even short of signed papers, the US should want GCC countries strong enough to stand up to the Iranians on their own. The US would like to continue to backstop them, but without that culturally unappreciated heavy local presence. This means continued reliance on naval power. But Saab and Pavel also argue that the US Navy needs ultimately to stop sending its super-carriers into the Persian Gulf, as they are too easy for the Persians to target in those constricted waters.
The alternative is what Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners recently called “Airpower for Now”—strike aircraft and precision standoff weapons capable of keeping threats to the GCC far from the GCC. That gets to the second issue with Graham’s quip about “every military toy”—not all Arab armies are as useless as the Iraqis that crumbled before ISIS. There’s a reason that General Mattis calls the Emirates “Little Sparta.” They get the job done. As such, they should be trusted to know what they need, and not just what looks cool.
There is that matter of Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” enshrined in law at 22 USC 2776. No other state in the Middle East is supposed to get American weapons that would denigrate Israel’s ability to “defeat any credible conventional military threat … while sustaining minimal damage and casualties.” Again, not every army is Iraq’s. After taking a vicious beating from the Israelis in 1967, the Egyptians came back and handled them pretty roughly along the Canal in 1973. In 2006, Hezbollah reminded the Israelis not to get complacent. So one can understand the concern. But Egypt is now friendly, and has long had F-16s and M1 tanks. Turkey vacillates, but has long been promised F-35s. And if lacking diplomatic relations, the GCC hates those Hezbollah guys. So who’s looking after whose security?
That is, there is some space and time for political maneuvering. The Emirates’ military prowess, coupled with their political reasonableness, could provide cover for a sale of F-35s there, but not elsewhere. Moreover, any promise of F-35s to the UAE Air Force would be subject to the production schedule: lots of development partners, including Israel, must get theirs before new customers take deliveries. Even a signal of a future sale would undo some of the damage to America’s reputation as a reliable arms supplier, which France has usefully exploited in Dassault’s string of recent sales of Rafales in India, Egypt, and Qatar. And while France deserves accolades for helping keep threats at bay, the US might want to get back in the game. The GCC lives in a tough neighborhood, and could use a few more of those bullets and planes.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.