Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond.
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THE TOPLINE: The Trump administration is moving ahead with a planned F-35 fighter jet sale to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a move that could potentially tip the scales of military power in the Middle East.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) on Thursday confirmed that the administration had informally notified Congress of the sale, which would allow the UAE to buy the fifth-generation fighter jet, currently owned only by Israel in the region.
A warning: Engel, who warned that rushing the sale “is not in anyone’s interest,” urged his colleagues to consider the stakes in selling the advanced aircraft to the UAE.
“This technology would significantly change the military balance in the Gulf and affect Israel’s military edge. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a game-changing stealth platform boasting advanced strike capability and unique sensor technology. The export of this aircraft requires very careful consideration and Congress must analyze all of the ramifications,” he said in a statement.
The background: The Trump administration had sought to advance the F-35 sale after the UAE and Israel agreed to normalize their relations, including a signing ceremony at the White House last month.
The deal at first threatened to disrupt the thaw, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials initially opposed the UAE buying the F-35.
Abu Dhabi, which has long wanted to buy the F-35 from Washington, has in the past been thwarted over concerns that acquiring the U.S. military’s most advanced aircraft would violate the American commitment to maintaining Israel’s military advantage in the region.
The U.S. commitment to Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge is enshrined in a 2008 law.
But Israel signaled last week that it would not oppose the F-35 sale, with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz saying in a joint statement that Israel would not stand in the way of “certain weapons systems” deals after Washington agreed to unspecified upgrades for Israel’s military.
The concerns: U.S. lawmakers in both parties, however, are wary of selling the UAE the aircraft over concerns it would run afoul of the U.S. commitment.
“As Congress reviews this sale, it must be clear that changes to the status quo will not put Israel’s military advantage at risk,” Engel wrote.
He adds that F-35 technology also must be safeguarded from adversaries including Russia and China, two countries active in the region.
“The American people will require unimpeachable assurances that our most advanced military capabilities will be protected,” he said.
Engel also worries about potential demand from others in the region to acquire U.S. weapons, increasing the quantity of powerful armaments in the hands of other countries.
“Will the price for normalization with Israel be an infusion of advanced weapons? Is this wise?” he asked.
Other voices: Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) also issued a statement on Thursday, accusing the administration of “seeking to rush through an increase of complex weapons systems into a volatile region seemingly without serious consideration of U.S. interests or the legal parameters of Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.”
He added that the claims that the sale won’t partly overshadow Israel’s military might “simply does not add up.”
“Recklessly accelerating the timeline around a reportedly artificial deadline precludes sufficient consideration of these issues by the national security professionals in the Departments of State and Defense,” he said.
VMI VOTES TO REMOVE STONEWALL JACKSON STATUE: Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) Board of Visitors voted Thursday to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) launched an investigation into allegations of racism by current and former Black cadets.
The board did not clarify where the statue of the Confederate general who previously taught at the school would go, The Washington Post reported. But the board’s chairman, Bill Boland, said it may be taken to the New Market, a Civil War battlefield where VMI cadets fought during the war.
“I would rather move the statue once rather than twice,” Boland said, according to the Post, adding that the administration should make a suggestion for where it moves.
About the controversy: The statue of Jackson has stood in front of student barracks for years, and up until a few years ago, students were mandated to salute the statue when passing. Black alumni advocated for the statue to be removed this year through a petition, which the administration at first rejected.
VMI’s superintendent Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III dismissed the calls to remove Confederate monuments and rename buildings that are currently named after Confederate leaders over the summer.
“We want to erase any hint of racism at VMI, in our communities, and in our country,” he said, but added that VMI’s past was “intertwined with the history of Virginia and the Civil War.
Peay specifically defended Jackson as “a staunch Christian” and “a military genius” in his July statement.
Context: The statue’s removal at the Lexington, Va., school comes after The Washington Post reported earlier this month on allegations of racism at the school from cadets.
The allegations sparked Northam, who graduated from the institute in 1981, to launch an investigation into the “structural racism” at the school. Amid the controversy, Peay resigned this week.
TRUMP HAS “NO PLAN’ TO LEAVE AFGHANISTAN BY XMAS, PANEL CHAIRMAN SAYS: The top lawmaker on the House’s defense committee said Thursday the Trump administration had “no plan” to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, despite President Trump‘s assertion that forces will be home by Christmas.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he didn’t know of any plan to quickly pull out the roughly 4,500 troops still in Afghanistan. He said that he instead expects the military to continue a gradual withdrawal.
Confusion with timeline: Trump earlier this month caused confusion about the U.S. plan in Afghanistan when he tweeted that “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.”
Smith said bringing troop numbers down “makes a lot of sense,” but he criticized Trump’s assertion that it would happen in such a short timeline.
“Now, there’s been sort of a plan to do that and there’s been sort of a tweet [that] we should get out by Christmas. Well, there’s no plan to get out by Christmas, there’s not. The White House hasn’t submitted one and the Pentagon doesn’t have one.”
Trump’s suggestion, which came just hours after his own national security adviser said the U.S. would draw down to about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan by early next year, came in the final weeks of a particularly contentious presidential race.
Top Pentagon officials have said they have not yet been ordered to pull troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
Promises: Trump in 2016 promised to bring all U.S. forces home from “endless wars” as he sought to cast himself against policies of Democrats and Republicans on Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Trump was met by fierce opposition within his administration and among lawmakers in both parties when he tried to withdraw troops from war zones.
Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, has also said he would withdraw most troops, but leave a small contingent of special forces there to continue conducting counterterrorism operations.
Smith’s view: Smith said that “continuing on an aggressive drawdown plan is probably in our best interest,” as it’s not prudent to wait until there’s peace in Afghanistan to leave.
“We’ve been there almost 20 years now. I think it’s pretty clear that our military is not going to solve that problem,” Smith said.
He added that the use of partner forces and intelligence could help deter terrorist threats from the country.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies will hold a webinar on “Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime,” with co-author, retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, former commander of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, at 2 p.m.
The Air Force Association will hold a virtual discussion on “Airmen in the Fight: AFA Roll Call” with Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson, Air Force vice chief of staff, at 5:30 p.m.