WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department is moving forward with the sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and MQ-9 drones to the United Arab Emirates, a decision which will now face a legal challenge from a nonprofit seeking to halt the weapons agreement.
At stake is an arms package approved in the waning days of the Trump administration, which includes 50 F-35s,18 MQ–9B Reapers, as well as thousands of munitions and hundreds of missiles. The total sale comes with an estimated $23 billion price tag.
In December, the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, or NYCFPA, filled a legal claim that the Trump administration failed to provide a reasonable explanation for its decision to sell F-35 fighter jets and other weapons to the UAE, which would place it in breach of the Administrative Procedure Act.
In January, the Biden administration announced a blanket review of all recent arms sales cleared by the Trump administration. While it notably froze a pair of weapons deals for Saudi Arabia, the administration had never put in place a hard freeze on the UAE equipment.
A State Department spokesman said in a statement that “the Administration intends to move forward with these proposed defense sales to the UAE, even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials to ensure we have developed mutual understandings with respect to Emirati obligations before, during, and after delivery.”
In a Tuesday statement, the NYCFPA said that as a result of the Biden administration deciding not to halt the sales, it will file an amended complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
While the decision not to immediately cut off the UAE from arms sales may be a disappointment to advocacy groups concerned about the country’s use of air power in the Yemen conflict, it does not mean the Biden administration has made a final, locked-in determination on the UAE’s purchase.
At any point between now and delivery of the weapons systems — which, for the F-35s, may take until 2025 or 2026 — the administration can slam on the brakes, as it can with all weapons deals.
“Projected delivery dates on these sales, if eventually implemented, will be several years in the future. Thus, we anticipate a robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE to any defense transfers [in order to] meet our mutual strategic objectives to build a stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partnership,” the State Department spokesman said. “We will also continue to reinforce with the UAE and all recipients of U.S. defense articles and services that U.S.-origin defense equipment must be adequately secured and used in a manner that respects human rights and fully complies with the laws of armed conflict.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.