Selling F-35s to Saudi Arabia Risks an Arms Race

By Karina MacLean

Karina MacLean is a senior B.A. student in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, studying Government & International Politics with a minor in International Security.

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Karina MacLean is a senior B.A. student in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, studying Government & International Politics with a minor in International Security.

OPINION — American arms sales have surged in recent years, transcending both political parties and presidential administrations. Saudi Arabia in particular has benefited from this increase. Total arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia increased by 96 percent between the Bush and Obama administrations. The trend continued in 2017, with $18 billion in new sales completed. Recently, bipartisan support appears to be waning due to concerns regarding weapons use in Yemen. Despite the recent objections and efforts by Congress to block proposed sales, Saudi Arabia remains Washington’s largest customer for military hardware, by far. Now, the Kingdom wants the United States to sell them the most advanced fighter currently available: the F-35.

Some scholars view F-35 sales positively, as a way to maintain U.S. global dominance or to remedy the collective action problem posed by the U.S. alliance network. Without a viable alternative, the assumption is that F-35 sales will become a necessary acquisition for allies and arms customers alike, increasing global reliance on U.S. weapons while reducing ally reliance on U.S. military support. Considering this, some may consider Saudi Arabia a potential F-35 candidate. However, this sale creates major risks for both Middle East and U.S. security.

Saudi possession of F-35s would significantly alter the military balance of power in the region and could initiate a chain reaction throughout the Middle East. At minimum, it presents two major problems.

First, selling F-35s to Saudi Arabia would undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Protection of Israel’s QME has been a factor in U.S. arms sales for decades. However, since the 2008 Naval Vessel Transfer Act, it has become a legal contract. Second, an F-35 sale to Riyadh would unnecessarily escalate tensions with Iran. Policy experts suspect that concerns regarding Iran are behind the Kingdom’s push for the F-35.

Taken together, these two problems raise the risk of starting a Middle Eastern arms race.

Israel is the superior military force in the region and already has F-35s, expressing an interest in purchasing fifty more. For years, Washington has upheld its commitment to ensuring that any weapons sales to the Middle East do not jeopardize Israel’s standing as the dominant military force or their comparative edge in any potential conflict with another Middle Eastern nation.

Historically, Israel-Saudi Arabia relations have not been friendly and, at times, the Saudis have even been “implacably hostile.”  U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia have a history of fueling these tensions. When President Ronald Reagan announced a substantial arms deal with the Saudis in 1981, including five Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, it immediately sparked Israeli disapproval. Israeli officials considered Saudi Arabia a threat to their security and feared the sale would jeopardize their “technological edge” as it would give the Saudis the ability to track Israeli aircraft. The AWACS deal set off a bitter multi-year congressional battle and foreign policy debate.

But if AWACS threatened Israel’s military edge, F-35s would erase it entirely. Israel is currently the only Middle Eastern country to have F-35s, giving Israeli forces the ability to travel through the region undetected. Dating back to 2015, Israeli officials have stated that they view F-35 regional exclusivity as essential to maintaining their military edge. To now equip the Saudi military to be on-par with Israel’s would be considered a direct threat to Israeli security.

It is only very recently that relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have started to improve, largely due to both countries’ continued cooperation with the U.S. and mutual concerns regarding Iran. Washington encourages these improved relations and, while Saudi Arabia and Israel are tolerant of each other to secure continued U.S. support, the two are nowhere near allies. Still, a stable framework of cooperation between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel would be highly beneficial in enhancing stability in the region. The introduction of F-35s would tarnish prospects for this, upending the regional military balance of power and irreparably fracturing these emerging positive relations.

While undermining relations with Israel, F-35 sales would simultaneously exacerbate tensions with Iran. Tehran’s regional aggression is the one security threat warranting continued U.S. cooperation with the Kingdom. Like many in Washington, the Saudis perceive Iran as pursuing an “expansionist, sectarian agenda,” to the detriment of Sunnis in the Middle East, with which it is actively competing for dominance in the region. Saudi Arabia is also concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and continued sponsorship of terrorism. Taken together, Saudi Arabia has an understandable interest in containing Iranian influence. Given a shared interest in checking Iranian expansion, the United States relies on the Saudis to deter Iranian aggression. Arming the Saudi military is not without risks but, done strategically, can serve U.S. interests in deterring Iran without requiring further U.S. engagement in the region.

But further sales are unnecessary. Saudi Arabia already has F-15s, which are a more than sufficient deterrent to Iranian aggression as they are more capable than any fighter in the Iranian inventory. To give Saudi Arabia anything more than what is necessary for effective Iranian deterrence risks emboldening the Saudi military.

From the U.S. perspective, maintaining the status quo that currently exists is highly preferable to direct confrontation. The military hardware Washington sells to Saudi Arabia should serve both its deterrence of Iranian aggression and also restrain Saudi Arabia from further escalation. It is highly unlikely that the Saudi military will exercise restraint amidst continued provocations from Iran should they acquire the most advanced weaponry currently available. Should escalation occur, it threatens to entrap the United States in another Middle Eastern war with multiple powers.

As it stands now, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel essentially echo the same sentiment regarding war: they do not want it. They are, however, prepared and willing to fight if conflict does break out. Once Israel and Iran feel threatened, neither will allow the perceived military imbalance to continue unchecked. Rather, they will take steps to bolster their own military capabilities, seeking to regain a sense of security. For Israel, this would likely mean acquiring additional weapons. Saudi Arabia may perceive this as a threat and increase their own capabilities once again. Iran, given their economic troubles, may respond by other means, including increasing their support for proxies. This would then further exacerbate the existent proxy wars, while also raising the potential for additional, new conflicts. These reactions are likely to become an ongoing cycle and to spread to countries across the Middle East.

An F-35 sale to Saudi Arabia risks creating a security dilemma and an arms race in the immediate future, increasing the potential for a wide scale war in the Middle East. A relatively subdued U.S. response to recent Iranian provocations, including the Saudi oil attack, has come as a surprise, casting doubt on U.S. commitment in the region. Rather than selling F-35s, Washington should reaffirm its own commitment to Iranian deterrence. This would decrease the concerns currently driving the Saudi pursuit of F-35s, without risking an arms race.

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