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US officials say they can seal F-35 sale to UAE before Trump leaves

The Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II supersonic aircraft on the amphibious assault ship USS America. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The U.S. could seal a controversial deal sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates before President Trump exits the White House in January, a top defense official said Friday.

“You ask if it’s possible? Absolutely it’s possible,” said Heidi Grant, who leads the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the Pentagon office that oversees foreign arms sales. Grant was asked by reporters at the Pentagon whether UAE could sign a contract for the planes before Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is to be sworn in as president.

“But we don’t control it,” she said during a briefing at the Pentagon.

Congress is expected to vote next week on whether to approve potential arms sales totalling $23 billion to the Gulf monarchy, including 40 F-35s worth $10.4 billion, MQ-9 Reaper drones, and various bombs and missiles. Opponents say the sale is inappropriate due to the UAE’s role in the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen. They also say the sale of the high-tech fighter jets could weaken Israel’s military edge over other nations in the region, which the U.S. is required to preserve.

The sale could get more scrutiny in a Biden administration if it’s not completed before inauguration day. The Trump administration offered the F-35 to UAE after it agreed to recognize Israel, which already flies the jet.

“The UAE F-35 package is much more [than] selling military hardware. It is about advancing a more stable and secure Middle East,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, wrote Thursday on Twitter in response to Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a lawmaker trying to block the sale. “It enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing US assets for other global challenges – a bipartisan US priority.”

Even if Congress does not block the sale, a number of bureaucratic hurdles remain before a contract for Lockheed Martin-made jets is finalized. UAE must submit a letter of offer and acceptance, or LOA, to the State Department.

“That’s a bilateral process between the United States and UAE,” R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for Political-Military Affairs, said during Friday’s briefing. “That does not have a particular set timeline. Obviously, when we work on LOAs, in any case, the partners certainly would like to see it done sooner than later, but it does not have date specificity.”

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