By: Naftali Shavelson  | 

A Solution to the F-35 Problem

On August 13, President Donald Trump announced a historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Known as the Abraham Accord, it provided for fully normalized relations between the wealthy Gulf nation and the Jewish state, the third such agreement between Israel and an Arab country. Concurrently, Israel would officially suspend plans to apply sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria, formalizing what was already the likely conclusion of months of legislative and administrative gridlock.

It seemed like everybody won: the US administration snagged a major diplomatic achievement to bolster its legacy (and election prospects), Israel got a reliable Sunni peace partner in the Middle East and the UAE gained access to a technological and military powerhouse aligned in its struggle against Iran.

However, things turned out not to be quite so simple. Days after the announcement of the accord, newspapers began reporting on a secret clause allowing the UAE to purchase America’s F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, the most advanced stealth fighter in the world. This was troubling for a few reasons: firstly, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz was seemingly left in the dark about this aspect of the deal. More importantly, though, until this agreement came to light, Israel was the only country in the Middle East to maintain a fleet of the fearsome aircraft. This was a manifestation of what has been known for years in Washington as Qualitative Military Edge (QME).

Essentially, U.S. law requires America to uphold the Israeli military’s technological and tactical advantages over regional threats to allow it to deter numerically superior adversaries. By carefully tailoring Middle East arms sales and by providing a steady stream of military aid to Israel, the U.S. has tried to ensure that its most important regional ally will stay a step ahead of those who aim to harm it. Understandably, Israelis were upset by this secret deal, which seemed to undermine the core tenet of that understanding. But Emiratis were also angry that their newfound peace partners were still viewing them as potential enemies when it came to military hardware. This issue puts all three players, the U.S., Israel and the UAE, in a tough spot, and, if left unchecked, could lead to a diplomatic freeze between these countries mere weeks after the start of their relations.

It’s a problem alright, but I’d like to propose a solution.

For years, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) has been covertly developing a new stealth bomber to shore up its long-distance strike capacity. While fighters like the F-35 are cheaper and more versatile, they run into range issues and have trouble carrying the weights of some of today’s larger bombs. That’s where bombers come in: they can fly many times farther than fighters while carrying a payload many times larger.

America’s current bomber fleet consists mostly of B-52 Stratofortresses with no stealth capacity that have been in service for the better part of a century. For missions requiring stealth, the USAF has a few B-2 Spirits, amazingly complicated aircraft with initial unit costs of an eye-watering $2.1 Billion. These are so expensive they’re almost impossible to actually use in any real capacity, costing over $135,000 per flight hour just to get off the ground. For that reason, America has been trying to build a new bomber with stealth capacity to serve the USAF into the 2060s. Enter the B-21 Raider. Costing “only” about half a billion dollars apiece, the new long-range strike bomber will ensure America’s military edge over its enemies (no other country currently operates a true stealth bomber) without breaking the bank.

Historically, the U.S. has kept its stealth bombers out of the hands of other militaries, turning down extremely lucrative arms deals in order to ensure the exclusivity of its top product. Times, though, are changing. Russia and China are both working on their own next-generation bombers, which could enter service around the same time as the USAF’s. By sharing the B-21 with a handful of very close allies such as Israel, the U.K. and South Korea, America could ensure that the Western sphere of influence remains strong and fully defended. It would also allow those allies to pursue goals aligned with America’s interests while keeping the spotlight away from the U.S. and suppressing talk of U.S. military globetrotting. Specifically, by selling B-21s to Israel, America could provide its most effective response yet to Iranian saber-rattling — if Iran went too far, Israel would use its B-21s to attack Iran itself, a possibility that has been precluded in the past by the lower range of Israel’s fleet of fighter jets.

America’s selling of its stealth bombers would be unprecedented, but we live in an age of a presidential administration that both loves breaking rules and has a deep commitment to bettering the welfare of the Jewish State. If there’s anyone who will recognize the opportunity this deal provides and be crazy enough to carry it out, it’s the 45th president of the United States. By opening the B-21 program to Israel, the U.S. gains access to advanced Israeli tech that will doubtless make the new aircraft even better (as happened with the F-35). America also gets an ally to do its Middle-Eastern dirty work, since Israel’s regional goals so closely reflect America’s, and since Israel has a history of actually implementing them. Finally, America achieves a painless solution to its laws enshrining Israel’s QME.

Israel gets a cutting-edge stealth bomber to ensure its regional supremacy for years to come. The UAE gets the fighter jets it wanted. And at the end of the day, the historic Abraham Accord is strengthened, allowing two fledgling allies to work even more closely together to ensure the stability and prosperity of the world’s most volatile region.

Everybody wins. That’s how it was always supposed to go, right?

Photo caption: A U.S. Air Force F-35A
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons