The Israeli cabinet authorized on Sunday the immediate purchase of 14 F-35A Lightning II fighter jets with the option of ordering 17 more in 2017.
The deal, which will cost upwards of $3 billion, was agreed by the US and Israel defense chiefs in late October, but required the ministers’ approval.
Sunday’s decision approves the purchase of 14 additional aircraft, with an option for 17, and will see a total of up to 50 F-35 warplanes procured by the IDF in the coming years.
Israel already ordered a first squadron of 19 F-35s in 2010 with a price-tag of $2.7 billion, funded by American military aid rebates.
The first planes are expected to arrive in Israel in December 2016.
Of the 14 aircraft whose purchase was approved Sunday, 13 are slated to become operational and one will be utilized for experimental purposes.
A decision to purchase the final 17 planes will require further rounds of cabinet debate.
Sunday’s decision overcame stiff opposition from Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, who claimed that the money could be put to better use and questioned the reliability of the F-35 weapons program, which has been bogged down by manufacturing glitches and other setbacks.
“Billions of shekels are being spent on this plane. It will impede and prevent us from strengthening our [overall defense capabilities] in the coming years,” Steinitz told the website Israel Defense on Sunday.
“It will leave little room for us to purchase [other military equipment] such as APCs and more” he said, alluding to widespread criticism after seven Golani soldiers were killed when their outmoded APC was hit by an anti-tank missile in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in July.
Steinitz was not alone in casting doubt on the deal, which would consume nearly all of Israel’s $3 billion annual US aid package. Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, a former junior general in the air force, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid also reportedly spoke out against deal.
Lapid has called in the past for belt-tightening in the military as part of larger national austerity measures.
Among the arguments against the deal is that a multitude of enemy rockets that could target Israel’s airfields means the country shouldn’t rely too heavily on its combat aircraft.
Although the deal was lauded by Israel’s Air Force, officials in the Defense Ministry argued that 33 F-35 aircraft alone will not suffice to enable Israel to maintain air superiority across the Middle East and face the growing challenges entailed in a nuclear Iran, Yedioth Ahronoth reported.
Defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israeli Air Force Commander Amir Eshel both pushed for a contract to purchase the full set of 50 aircraft, enabling the IAF to field two operational F-35 squadrons of 24 planes apiece.
A senior officer in the IDF ground forces told Channel 2 in 2013 that with the money slated for the F-35s, the Defense Ministry could have bought 600 new tanks or hundreds of Iron Dome and Arrow interceptors, or generally used the funds to upgrade the entire ground force.
Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.