Procurement: Arab F-35s


November 26, 2020: The United States has agreed to sell the UAE (United Arab Emirates) as many as fifty F-35 stealth fighters for $10.4 billion, 18 MQ-9 Reaper UAVs for $3 billion and $10 billion worth air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles. This sale was made possible by the UAE leading the move for Arab oil states to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Israel. The UAE is considered the most reliable and trustworthy of the Arab Gulf oil states and the nation most at risk from Iranian aggression. Iran has long claimed to own portions of the UAE and this latest arms sale will make the UAE even more capable of defending itself against any Iranian attack. Despite the UAE situation the F-35 sale may be blocked by opponents in Congress because of U.S. laws mandating that American military aid to the Middle East maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.

The UAE has long been a major customer for American weapons. Over the last two decades the UAE has ordered over 10,000 JDAM kits to turn unguided bomb GPS/laser guided weapons. This was seen as essential to enable the UAE to deal with any Iranian threats. There is also the fact that UAE armed forces are small, about 65,000 troops, and many of them (the exact number is kept secret, but is believed to be about a third) are foreigners with UAE citizenship. Most of the nine million people in the UAE are neither citizens, nor even Arabs. About 20 percent of the UAE population are citizens, and only about ten percent of the total population is Arab. The majority (80 percent) are foreigners, mostly from South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh and India). The rest are from the West, Africa and Iran. This is not unusual in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf. Few UAE citizens want to join the military and not all those who do are able to complete the training necessary to learn how to operate modern weapons systems.

While the thousands of aircraft, helicopters, armored vehicles and other high-tech systems UAE has bought since the 1990s look impressive, the actual impact of all this lethal hardware depends a lot on the skill of those using it. In this department, the UAE has some serious problems. It is generally very difficult to get the UAE to even discuss the situation. But the purchase of high-tech weapons indicates that the UAE wants to get the most out of the few UAE citizens they have in the military. Most of the pilots of their 155 F-16 fighter-bombers are UAE citizens, and these aircraft are currently the primary weapon used to deal with an Iranian attack.

The UAE and other Arab oil states do not want to become dependent on mercenaries so they began introducing conscription. Kuwait had conscription, mainly to provide protection from Iraq and Iran, but dropped it in 2001. In 2017, with the Iranian threat increasing Kuwait brought back conscription. Meanwhile, other small Gulf Oil states introduced conscription for the first time. Qatar did so in 2013 and the UAE in 2014.

The UAE has been having an interesting experience with conscription. In 2018, four years after adopting conscription the UAE increased the length of time conscripts must serve on active duty. Those with a high school education will serve at least 16 months and those who did not finish high school for 24 months. Back in 2014 implementing conscription was seen as a bold move for a wealthy Arab oil state. But the UAE felt they had no choice. Conscription was needed so the UAE could create a reserve force of trained citizens and be less dependent on mercenaries. The growing Iranian threat was causing many radical ideas to become acceptable in Arabia. The main idea behind the UAE conscription plan was to get all qualified (for military service) Emirati men aged 18-30 trained so they can fight effectively if called up in an emergency. In effect, the UAE wants to emulate the Israeli system. Initially, the UAE only planned to keep conscripts in uniform for 9-24 months and that was mostly for training. College educated men would stay in longer and be trained as officers or technical experts. After that everyone will be in the reserves and organized into units that will train regularly for as long as they are able. That usually means for about twenty years. That was the plan and it was meant to be a work in progress because details were expected change as the program is implemented. The UAE goal was to have an armed force of 270,000 trained troops within days of mobilization. Before conscription, the UAE relied on volunteers (a mixed bag) and mercenaries (very expensive and an ancient custom in the region) and the numbers were not impressive, especially compared to what more populous (and militarily competent) Iran could send. To operate and maintain their F-35s the UAE will need hundreds more skilled UAE citizens willing to serve in the military.




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