F-35 Demonstration Team members sprint to their positions during the ground show at the Defenders of Liberty Air & Space Show at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on May 17, 2019.

F-35 Demonstration Team members sprint to their positions during the ground show at the Defenders of Liberty Air & Space Show at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., on May 17, 2019. Senior Airman Alexander Cook / U.S. Air Force

The Clock is Ticking On F-35, Drone Sale to UAE

Lame-duck approval of sale could allow UAE to sign contract for weapons before Biden takes office.

The clock is ticking on the Trump administration’s push to sell F-35 fighter jets, armed Reaper drones, and a bevy of bombs and missiles to the United Arab Emirates.

The State Department notified Congress Tuesday that it had approved the $23.4 billion sale. Lawmakers now have 30 days to object. But there’s little chance of stopping the deal, experts said.. 

“Somebody could put a hold [on the sales], but the chances of them getting a veto-proof majority in both houses is probably nil,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

Last year, lawmakers put holds on 22 arms deals to UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, citing the civilian deaths in the U.S.-assisted Saudi and UAE bombing campaign in Yemen, and the Saudi assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But the administration pushed the deals through by invoking an emergency authorization in May 2019.

This year’s F-35-Reaper-bombs package is a reward for UAE’s decision to recognize Israel earlier this year in a U.S.-brokered deal.

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Tuesday statement. 

But human rights organizations and progressive groups object to the sale and its timing, which comes during a lame-duck session of Congress and the 11th hour of President Donald Trump’s term in the White House. The UAE arms package — particularly the $10 billion bombs-and-missiles package — would likely get more scrutiny by President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, arms control experts say.

While the Trump administration approved the sales, contracts for the weapons have not been finalized. UAE could sign contracts as soon as soon as Dec. 10, when the clock runs out on the congressional review process. It’s rare for Congress to outright block an arms deal, but it can slow them.

EA-18G Growler electronic attack jets were reportedly also part of the arms package being offered to UAE, but the warplanes were not included in Tuesday's announcement.

UAE provides bases for American warplanes used throughout the region. Its military has helped the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS. At the same time, the Emeriti military has contributed to the tens of thousands of civilians killed in Yemen’s civil war, according to human rights organizations.

“The UAE's role in the brutal war in Yemen, its violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, and its transfers of U.S.-supplied weapons to extremist groups in Yemen should disqualify it from receiving U.S. arms at this time,” Hartung said. “Doing so is just an endorsement of its unacceptable conduct that will enable it to do more damage in the region.”

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