News that the Trump administration is moving forward with the sale of F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates once again underscores the imperative of maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) – and of ensuring that problematic regional actors do not get access to such advanced technologies.
The QME doctrine is a cornerstone of Israel’s national security philosophy. The Jewish state, home to less than nine million people, is surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arab neighbors – too many of whom remain unfortunately hostile to its existence.
Understanding the dangers of this quantitative disadvantage, Israeli leaders have worked to ensure that the country will instead have a qualitative edge: the ability to defend itself through military superiority.
Israel’s Effort to Maintain Superiority
Israel does much to secure this upper hand, requiring its young men and women to complete at least two and a half and two years of military service respectively. This gives the military access to some of the country’s brightest young minds, who are funneled into units focusing on R&D, intelligence, cybersecurity, and other special operations.
Israel also invests heavily in its intelligence services, in order to stay ahead of emerging threats. Intelligence gives Israel a better ability to postpone conflicts – for instance, by striking high-value Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, preventing entrenchment – and win those that eventually erupt. The seizure of an Iranian nuclear archive by Mossad agents in 2018 was a major testament to the Israeli intelligence community’s disproportionate power.
Among OECD countries, Israel has the highest military burden, or military spending as a percentage of GDP. In 2019, Israel’s military expenditure totaled 5.3 percent of GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – a figure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now seeking to increase. In comparison, US military spending amounted to 3.4 percent of GDP in 2019.
Reliance on US Military Hardware
Israel has particularly emphasized the need to develop domestic military capabilities, which give it a vital edge, especially against other militaries that also buy US systems.
As the largest arms supplier to the Middle East, America also plays a critical role in supporting these efforts, including by ensuring that its sales uphold and do not adversely affect Israel’s security. This is the basis of a 2008 law that enshrined Washington’s commitment to Israel’s QME.
Absent this guarantee, American arms could drastically shift the balance of power in the region, with drastic consequences. Israel cannot win wars independently and deter major attacks without maintaining its qualitative edge.
Protecting Israel’s QME
This is why the sale of the F-35s, which are not currently owned by any Middle Eastern country other than Israel, has raised such concern.
While burgeoning UAE-Israel ties have provided hope for a brighter future for both nations and the region, one need look no further than Iran to see how today’s friend can become tomorrow’s enemy.
Yet, through joint dialogue, there are creative ways to protect Israel’s QME while allowing the UAE to obtain the jets. For instance, some of the F-35’s software systems can be reserved for Israeli use, giving it a leg up in a potential fight against the same hardware.
The US could also elevate Israel’s information-sharing clearance to overcome classification barriers that impede cooperation; pursue joint R&D ventures with Israel, akin to the development of the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defense systems; and frontload defense assistance that has already been agreed to under the 10-year memorandum of understanding that Washington and Jerusalem reached in 2016. Many options exist.
F-35s in the Middle East
Of course, one significant concern with the UAE’s potential procurement of F-35s is that other countries may follow suit. For example, Qatar has already requested to purchase the jets. A sale to Doha, which has not normalized relations with Israel, remains extremely worrisome.
Qatar has supported radical Islamist groups across the Middle East, while its global media network Al Jazeera too often promotes their ideology. Doha also collaborates with Iran, which sows discord throughout the region, and maintains an intimate partnership with an increasingly-belligerent Turkey, which has ran roughshod over Greek and Cypriot rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, attacked US-backed Kurdish forces that fought ISIS, and rolled out the red carpet for Hamas.
Allowing Qatar to purchase the F-35s before it has formal diplomatic relations and real normalization with Israel would signal US approval of Doha’s problematic policies, endanger Israel’s security, and encourage further regional procurement. By shutting down the request, Washington could conversely hold Qatar accountable for its behavior and take a firm stance in support of Israel’s QME.
While mutual interests undergird the US-Israel security alliance, so do goodwill and a commitment to dialogue. Working together, Washington and Jerusalem could certainly find solutions to challenges facing Israel’s QME that would benefit both.
IDF MG (ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. Amidror was formerly the National Security Advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the head of Israel’s National Security Council from 2011-13.
Originally published in The Defense Post