The US and the United Arab Emirates hope to have an initial agreement on the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets to the Gulf state in place by December, as the Trump administration studies how to structure a deal without upsetting Israel.
Sources close to the negotiations said the goal is to have a letter of agreement in place in time for UAE National Day celebrated on December 2.
Any deal must satisfy decades of agreement with Israel that states any US weapons sold to the region must not impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” guaranteeing US weapons furnished to Israel are “superior in capability” to those sold to its neighbours.
With that in mind Washington is studying ways to make the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 more visible to Israeli radar systems, two sources said. Reuters could not determine if this would be done by changing the jet or providing Israel with better radar, among other possibilities.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz was due to meet his US counterpart Mark Esper in Washington on Tuesday.
A Pentagon spokeswoman told Reuters, “as a matter of policy, the United States does not confirm or comment on proposed defence sales or transfers until they are formally notified to Congress.”
Once a letter of agreement is signed, a fine may be levied against any party that terminates the deal. Several political and regulatory hurdles must be cleared before the sale may be completed and Capitol Hill aides cautioned a deal may not be possible this year.
Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, told reporters in August that in general, the United States aims to complete a letter of agreement for new F-35 sales in about six months.
Because of the qualitative military edge restriction, the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 has been denied to Arab states, while Israel has about 24 jets.
The United Arab Emirates, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, has long expressed interest in acquiring the stealthy jets and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal made when they agreed to normalise relations with Israel.
Sources familiar with the negotiations said a working idea was for Israeli air defences to be able to detect the UAE F-35s with technology that effectively defeats the stealth capabilities of the jets.
F-35 fighter jets sold to the UAE could also be built in a way that ensures the same planes owned by Israel outperform any others sold in the region, defence experts say.
Washington already demands that any F-35 sold to foreign governments cannot match the performance of US jets, said both a congressional staffer and a source familiar with past sales.
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