The message that Israel’s government had opted to purchase 17 additional F-35 fighter jets from the US on Sunday night came in just as a senior Israeli Air Force officer was in the midst of explaining to reporters what this new stealth aircraft could do and what it would mean for Israel’s defense.
Coincidence? Probably, but not much of one.
For at least the next few weeks, if not the next few years, the Israeli military and Defense Ministry will undoubtedly be trumpeting the virtues of the technological wonder that is the F-35 Lightning II, known in Hebrew as the “Adir,” meaning mighty or great.
“Today Israel is surrounded by unprecedented military threats,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said during an unveiling ceremony for the plane in June.
“It is clear and obvious to us, and to the entire region, that the new F-35 — the Adir — will create real deterrence and enhance our capabilities for a long time,” Liberman said.
On December 12, the first two of these aircraft will touch down on Israeli asphalt, at which point they will stop being the possession of the US government and officially become rechush tzahal — IDF property.
It will be the most expensive aircraft in the Israeli military’s possession, with a price tag equal to that of approximately 2.5 F-16 fighter jets or a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Military qualitative edge
The now 50 fifth generation stealth aircraft Israel has agreed to purchase are meant to retain the Jewish state’s military qualitative edge, or MQE, at time of both intense conflict, a growing local arms race and the introduction of numerous foreign actors into the region, the senior officer said, speaking about the Middle East in general and Syria in particular.
“Sitting in Tel Aviv, you really feel you’re in the eye of the storm,” the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.
Pointing to a map, the air force official noted the anti-aircraft systems and fighter jets purchased or in the process of being purchased in nearby countries:
Syria possesses the Russian-made SA-17 and SA-22 missile defense batteries and is working to improve its radar systems; Iran this year received the Russian S-300 missile defense system and is looking to purchase Moscow’s Su-30 fighter jet; Saudi Arabia maintains a fleet of Eurofighter jets and an advanced, stealthy variant of the F-15; and Egypt possesses the S-300 system, along with a number of American, French and Russian fighter jets.
(Oddly missing from this rundown was Hezbollah, which is rumored to have acquired some advanced anti-aircraft capabilities, like the SA-17.)
“These guys are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into limiting Western air power — that’s where the F-35 comes in,” the officer said.
With its advanced stealth capabilities, the plane “lets you operate in these kinds of environments,” he said.
Israel will be the first country after the United States to receive the fighter jet. The first two F-35 will arrive next month and the remaining 48 planes will make their way to Israel in the months that follow, he said.
The official wouldn’t say when exactly the entire fleet is meant to arrive, but noted that it took approximately three years for the full shipment of F-15s to reach Israel.
Though Israeli pilots, who have yet to actually fly the aircraft, will begin training on the F-35 “the day after it arrives,” it will be “quite a while before it’s operational,” the senior officer said.
‘We have a detailed plan for what we need to do before they are operational’
The official would not give an estimate on when the F-35 would actually go on missions, but another air force officer told The Times of Israel earlier this year that it would likely take “about a year, maybe a little less.”
The exact time before the F-35 is deployed will depend on how quickly the air force can put it through its paces. “We have a detailed plan for what we need to do before they are operational,” the senior officer said in the Sunday briefing.
Though with previous aircraft, that status has been reached ahead of schedule.
“If I gave you a date, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually before then,” the officer said.
The multi-role fighter
One of the main selling points of the F-35 for the Israeli Air Force is its use as “general purpose” platform, an aircraft capable of carrying out a large assortment of missions: dogfights, bombing runs, etc.
Another is its longevity. The F-35 is expected to remain in service for “decades,” with some estimates saying it will be flown until 2070, according to Lockheed-Martin, which produces the aircraft.
The officer, however, put that expiration date even further, saying he expects Israel to use the plane “until the end of the century.”
In time, he said, the aircraft will become the defining characteristic of the IAF.
“We shouldn’t be integrating the F-35 into the air force, the air force should integrate around the F-35,” he said.
‘We’re not in a place where we can use a specific airplane for a specific mission’
Unlike the US, which has separate aircraft for different types of operations — B-2s for bombing, A-10 Warthogs for close-air support, F-16s for air-to-air combat — Israel relies on a comparatively small number of airplanes to carry out all its missions.
For combat aircraft, that means F-15s, F-16s and Apache helicopters. So as one of a small number of aircraft types, though one of its main advantages is its state-of-the-art stealth capabilities, the aircraft will also be used on missions that do not actually require that level of technological advancement — in Gaza, for instance.
“We’re not in a place where we can use a specific airplane for a specific mission,” the officer said.
However, if needed to carry out attacks in locations that do need sophisticated stealth capabilities against advanced anti-aircraft systems like the S-300 — “think of a place,” the officer said, presumably referring to Syria and Iran — the Israeli Air Force believes the F-35 will be able to stand up to the challenge.
“I’m not saying the S-300 will look for the F-35 and see nothing, but we will have a strong and effective tool in our hands,” the officer said.
As the F-35 has yet to see extensive combat, that assessment is based on general understandings of the capabilities of the two systems, rather than real-world experience, he noted.
According to the official, as the S-400, which is currently deployed by the Russian military in Syria, is just a more advanced version of the S-300 system, the F-35 should be able to evade it as well.
“We believe that the same advantage it brings to the S-300, it will bring to other systems,” he said, in reference to a question specifically about the S-400.
However, the F-35 has been far from free of controversy. The plane’s initial development setbacks, its exorbitant price tag — between NIS 377 million ($98 million) and NIS 447 million ($116 million) depending on the exact model, according to Lockheed-Martin — as well as its very nature as a multi-purpose fighter — some have called it a “mutt” — have drawn the ire from critics at home and abroad.
“We always know of the problems. That’s okay, it’s part of the process,” he said.
“There will be criticism of it in the Israeli Air Force as well, but I think we will find our way,” the officer said.
Though the officer recognized the high cost of the aircraft, he said the money saved by preventing potential destruction in Israel made it worthwhile, echoing arguments made about the high cost of Iron Dome missiles, which are used to shoot down inexpensive enemy rockets.
He also acknowledged that in some areas the F-35 does not exceed the capabilities of existing aircraft, like the F-16’s maneuverability, but said its more advanced stealth technology and ability to process information, allows it to strike enemy aircraft and ground defenses “before they see it coming.”
How much of this is the boasting of a military about to receive a new toy and how much is faithful analysis of a new piece of equipment will only be seen when the plane becomes fully operational and goes up against actual enemy defenses.