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Israel’s Mighty F-35I

Viewpoints, December 2016
Avi Hoffmann

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In 2000, I was one of a group of Israeli journalists gazing in wonder as Boeing unveiled its version of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) at its plant in California. The flight demonstrator was a prototype of America’s next generation warplane and was mooted to become the most advanced warplane in the West at a unit price of some $50 million.

On December 12, two JSFs, which has metamorphosed into the Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35, are due to land at the Israel Air Force Nevatim base in the Negev, no doubt to  impressive fanfare, in the presence of US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

These planes, named “Adir” (Hebrew for “mighty”) in the IAF, carry on their formidable frames a price tag of some $100 million each (twice the 2000 price). A total of 33 F-35I’s (I for Israel) are currently on order for the IAF and a unit has been established at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona to train pilots and maintenance crews.

In late November, the Security Cabinet approved the purchase of 17 additional F-35Is, bringing the total to 50, the number needed to equip two squadrons at a total cost of around $5 billion (vastly more costly than the controversial purchase of three submarines for the Israel Navy, at a mere $1.5 billion, as Ami Ayalon points out elsewhere in this Newsletter). The planes are being purchased as part of the $38 billion, 10-year Memorandum of Understanding signed with the US in September.

Israel is expected to have its two squadrons of F-35Is by the middle of the next decade, receiving the warplanes at a rate of six to seven each year.

The Israel Air Force Adir will rule the skies; Credit: Liz Lutz / Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

The Israel Air Force Adir will rule the skies; Credit: Liz Lutz / Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

Apart from the US, Israel will be the first country to have an operational squadron of F-35s, despite not having been part of the international consortium that helped finance the development of the plane. Consequently, the Israel Air Force will be the first in the region to equip itself with the advanced jet, thus strongly boosting its deterrent capability.

“The Israel Air Force will be the first in the region to equip itself with the advanced jet”

The stealthy Adir’s main mission would be to silence an enemy’s electronic countermeasures, paving the way for attacks by the IAF’s stable of veteran warplanes, the F-15s and F-16s. The F-35I is also capable of operating far from Israeli airspace and is equipped with sensors capable of receiving large amounts of data from an extensive range of territory. Its stealth capability significantly enhances survivability

The F-35 has also provided a boost to the Israeli aerospace industry. According to Defense Ministry figures, industrial cooperation between Lockheed Martin and Israeli defense companies in the wake of the F-35 acquisition agreement amounts to $993 million. Elbit Systems is involved in this project through the “smart” pilot helmets it is supplying to Lockheed Martin. Israel Aerospace Industries won a major coup when it was selected by Lockheed to manufacture more than 800 pairs of wings for the F-35.

Early in the millennium, Boeing lost out to Lockheed Martin in the competition to build the JSF project, which was the result of the merger of the US Department of Defense’s Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter and Joint Advanced Strike Technology projects. The Affordable lost out to the Advanced and some estimates put the controversial (mostly because of enormous cost overruns) program’s total cost at many hundreds of billions of dollars. However, even despite concerns about the efficacy of the plane itself, the project became too gigantic to be stopped and the F-35 is now the pride of the US armed forces – and the IAF.

The writer is editor of the Israel Public Diplomacy Forum Newsletter.