Over the long years of its development, the F-35 fighter jet has been pummeled from every angle. What haven’t we heard: It’s overweight and underpowered; it’s a single engine when it should be a twin; its engine may suffer from a serious design and structural problem; its wings are too short, its stealth capacity too tenuous, its cost too prohibitive.
But as Russia seeks to increase its influence in the region, shopping around its cutting edge air-defense weaponry — notably including the S-300 missile-defense system, which President Vladimir Putin has promised to deliver to Iran in the wake of the nuclear framework agreement reached earlier this month — the Israeli Air Force is flying to the F-35’s defense. In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, conducted prior to the Russian announcement, the IAF’s point man for the acquisition and integration of the F-35, who has been immersed in the project since 2005, robustly backed the purchase and put it into historical perspective, noting that every leap forward has faced a near wall of opposition at the onset.
In Israel, much of the criticism has revolved around the cost of the US-made jet and the erosion of indigenous know-how. Former defense minister Moshe Arens, an aeronautical engineer by training and one of the program’s most vocal castigators, told The Times of Israel in October that while the F-35 might be “nice to have,” he didn’t see any need for it considering the country’s budgetary constraints. He noted that the military was still operating Vietnam War-era armored personnel carriers — to fatal effect this past summer in Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood this past summer — and said Israel would do better upgrading its existing F-15 and F-16 planes and investing the surplus funds in the ground forces.
Moreover, Arens has argued in a series of op-eds in the Haaretz daily, Israel’s 1987 decision to abort the Lavi fighter plane project was a misjudgment of historic proportions that has led to the atrophy of what was once one of the best fighter aircraft design departments in the world. Israel’s tactical missiles, unmanned aircraft, tanks, radars, satellites and missile interceptors are among the world’s best, he wrote; its commitment to the F-35 was born of defeatism and should be re-examined.
It is, however, too late for that now. The central question today – and one that will loom large as Israel assembles a new government and authorizes the army’s five-year spending plan, which has been kicked down the road for two years running and hinders the IDF’s ability to plan into the future — is quantity.
Israel’s Defense Ministry in 2003 sent a Letter of Request to Congress asking for authorization to purchase “up to” 75 planes. In 2010, it signed a deal with the US-based Lockheed-Martin aeronautical company for 19 F-35As, with the first few aircraft set to arrive in late 2016. The total cost of that deal was $2.75 billion, a spokesman for Lockheed-Martin said, out of which $475 million was for non-recurrent costs for the integration of Israeli systems. The cost per aircraft was roughly $120 million.
The full plan, as drafted by the Israeli Air Force and approved by the Defense Ministry, was for two squadrons of 25 planes each, for roughly six billion dollars, all of which would be paid for by US aid to Israel, which amounts to three billion dollars a year and must be spent largely in the United States.
Nonetheless, in Israel, where the Defense Ministry budget is a constant bone of contention – at roughly $15 billion a year it receives more than any other ministry but a far smaller share of the GDP [6.5 percent] than in generations past – the question of necessity, after decades of Israeli air supremacy in the Middle East, has come to the fore.
In February, the Ministerial Committee on Defense Procurement nixed the Defense Ministry’s request for the full 50 airplanes. “The government doesn’t have to be a rubber stamp for the defense establishment,” Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said after the committee approved only 14 new planes, for $110 million each, bringing the total to 33.
The Israel Aerospace Industries reached a parallel deal with Lockheed-Martin to produce up to 800 pairs of wings for the F-35 fuselage, to be sold to LM at upwards of two billion dollars over the next decade, alongside a similar commitment for the Israeli company Elbit to manufacture the next generation of the F-35 pilot helmet. Notwithstanding this added benefit to Israel, Steinitz and others have maintained that the aircraft has “weaknesses” and “problems,” and that it might be better to invest in other sorts of firepower and “not put all of our eggs in the basket of the air force.”
Lt. Col. B, the IAF point man for the F-35, has heard all of this and more. In a box of an office, speaking over a rattling air conditioning system, he unwaveringly laid out his historical case for the F-35, asserting to The Times of Israel that Israel’s qualitative advantage in the air is on the wane and that prudence requires that the IAF know when the time is over for improvements and upgrades and the need for a technological leap forward, or “a new generation,” has come.
He started with the Meteor. It was made in Britain in the mid-forties. Unlike the IAF’s beloved Messerschmitts and Spitfires – both of which were flown during Israel’s War of Independence – the Meteor had bombed targets but not seen aerial combat in World War II. Its aerodynamics were problematic and its cannon and bomb-carrying capacity were equal but not superior to those of its predecessors. However, it was equipped with a jet engine, Lt. Col. B said, and that speed, representing the second generation of the IAF’s fighter planes, put it on par with its enemies’ far larger air forces. On September 1, 1955, Cpt. Aaron Yoeli downed a pair of Egyptian planes over the western Negev, marking the first jet kill in the Middle East.
In 1968, Israel bought the US-made Phantom, which was faster than the Mirage and could carry nearly six times its payload. “Our concept is that we will never win with quantity,” Lt. Col. B said. “We’ll win by being first.” The Phantom, he said, was “the first bomber that could escort itself deep into enemy territory.”
After the Yom Kippur War, he continued, the entire IAF was opposed to the F-15. It hadn’t flown anywhere; it was new; it was expensive. Moreover, the Phantom, the third generation of the IAF’s fighter planes, had performed well in combat. “The question,” he said, “is where to place the seam between the present and the future” – in other words, when does it no longer pay to continue to upgrade the existing platform.
In December 1976 five of the first 20 F-15s in the world arrived in Israel. Four years later, in July 1980, some of the first F-16s were escorted to the country. Those purchases, and the West’s outright victory in the Cold War, bought a generation of unblemished aerial superiority for Israel.
In practice, that has not waned. Israel has reportedly sent planes to attack the plutogenic nuclear reactor in eastern Syria in September 2007 and, among many other cross-border operations, has hit targets over 1,000 miles away in North Sudan. Not once did enemy planes rise up to challenge the invading Israeli aircraft. The planes may not have been so much as seen on enemy radar. But now, after six upgrades to the F-15, Lt. Col. B said, the ability to do “what we want” across the Middle East is “in the process of erosion.”
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have top-notch, Western-supplied air forces, he said. The former has a peace treaty with Israel. The latter has interests that have aligned – against Iran and radical Sunni Islam – with the Jewish state. And yet, when buying a new fleet of aircraft – Israel’s doctrine calls for roughly 100 new fighter planes every decade – the country has to look far into the future, into the unknown. Both those countries could fall into Islamist hands. Moreover, Iran and Syria, enemy states, have received advanced Russian air-defense systems and will likely get offensive ones too, perhaps including the Sukhoi Su-50ES fighter plane, which, if military import sanctions are removed, is slated for Iran in 2022.
In other words the need to “leap forward” to a fifth-generation fighter plane is demonstrable, Lt. Col. B said.
Others dispute the unequivocal nature of that statement.
“Take the army we had in 1985 – the F-15 and F-16 A and B; the Merkava Mark I and II, and all the rest – and ask yourself whether the IDF,” using those weapons, “could defend Israel today against its enemies,” Yiftah Shapir, the head of the INSS think tank’s Middle East Military Balance project, said.
His answer is an unhesitating yes. Not every technological leap is one Israel is forced to take, he said.
Calling the F-35 “insanely expensive,” Shapir, a former IAF officer himself, said that “if we didn’t have a very rich uncle in the United States” – the three billion dollars of annual aid – “we wouldn’t be buying it.”
Aerodynamically, he argued, the F-35, on account of its weight-to-thrust ratio and other factors, is already outperformed by the F-16I, Israel’s current most advanced operational fighter plane. The French Rafale, based on its specs and its performance against the F-22, also would fare well against the fifth-generation fighter, he said.
Asked whether a stealth fighter with a highly advanced radar, which will see its targets before it is seen, obviates some of the tools necessary for a dogfight, he said it is an ongoing argument in the field of strategic air studies but noted that if a pilot misses with his first missile and the planes draw within visual range “then it’s the same sort of aerial battle as in WWII.”
Lt. Col. B, though, said the F-35 was equal, not less, than the F-16I in the air and argued that the first model of the F-35 should be compared to the F-16’s first model and not the plane that has been steadily improved for the past 35 years.
He rejected all talk of waiting out this round of development and then buying the first unmanned fighter jet aircraft, saying it would require the same speed, same carrying capacity, and same survivability, and therefore simply cost more, while stripping the air force of its flesh-and-blood component at the tip.
Instead, while noting that Israeli test pilots have found “no major concerns” while flying the F-35, he focused on optimization. In an ideal world, he said, one plane is tasked with taking out one target. But the target, if worth anything, is guarded. This requires additional systems: satellites and spy planes to get good visuals of the target, radars to pick up other aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, signals and visuals to acquire and “incriminate” the target, and a sophisticated command-and-control apparatus to distribute the targets. In the F-35, he said, “that entire system is in the hands of the pilot.”
This is pivotal, he said, because when operating on enemy soil people often “think the problem is fuel. But it isn’t.” The challenge, “when operating in depth, away from the anchor, is a lack of intelligence.”
Russia’s recent pledge to provide Iran with one of the models of the S-300 air-defense system fleshes out some of the purported advantages of the new aircraft. Aside from the potency and maneuverability of the S-300’s missiles, and the precision of the radar and ability of the system to track and target multiple aircraft, it is also mobile. Within minutes it can change location and re-deploy. The F-16 of today, Lt. Col. B said, would need to be armed with intelligence about the location of the system in order to avoid it, flying along the stitch in radar coverage. Otherwise, it would be alerted only once the radar had locked in on it — perhaps too late — or rely on Israel’s formidable electronic warfare capacities, jamming the radar, or its intelligence planes, which could locate the systems’ radars. In the F-35, he said, all of this information is spread out before the pilot, “and the hunter becomes the hunted.”
Calling the pilot’s situational awareness “improved to the point of being absolute,” he said “I see the world. I see where he is and how he is deployed,” including surface-to-air missiles. “All of it is now with me. I can attack. I can destroy you on the way to the target.”
This is not to say that today’s IAF planes lack the ability to unlock the S-300. Quite likely, the IAF has trained against the system in Greece and has created a combat doctrine capable of defeating it. The F-35 though, he said, “is similar to the iPhone,” in that the planners were able to take the capacity once housed on separate aircraft – stealth, intelligence gathering, advanced radars, planning, control, and electronic warfare – and “pack it all into a single fighter plane.”
Shapir conceded that the aircraft has “fantastic” capabilities and even said it might yet prove a useful tool against the S-300, but asserted that the only reason it is a truly necessary tool for Israel – which fights most of its battles near home but needs to maintain the capability of projecting its air power to places as distant as Tehran — is because Israel’s planes are aging and the United States “made the F-35 the only game in town.”
“There’s no other way,” he said, “because there’s nothing else out there.”