A senior Lockheed Martin official on Tuesday boasted that his company’s F-35 fighter jet allows the Israeli Air Force to carry out operations without detection by enemy air defenses, giving Israel an advantage in the region.
“The stealth that allows the pilots to go wherever they need to go, with the assurance that they know exactly where they can go and not be seen. The absolute situation that they have, which no other airplane can provide them at this level, is just phenomenal. It gives them such a confidence,” said Gary North, a retired US Air Force general and current vice president at Lockheed Martin, during a meeting with journalists in Israel.
Asked how the F-35 aircraft would fare against an adversary like Iran — if, for example, Israel were to try to conduct a military strike against its nuclear facilities — North said he could not comment specifically about such operational planning, but maintained that the stealth fighter can outmatch advanced air defense systems.
“I will say this: against a ‘double-digit’ high threat environment, the F-35 is absolutely the weapon of choice,” he said. North was referring to a NATO naming convention in which advanced surface-to-air missile systems are designated with double digits. For instance, Iran’s Russian-supplied S-300 is known as the SA-10, while the more outdated S-200 is referred to as the SA-5.
However, North stressed, stealth does not mean completely undetectable. “Nothing is invisible at an appropriate range, but the beauty of [the F-35’s stealth capability] is that you are stealthy for a very, very long time,” he said.
When the F-35 carries missiles externally, on its wings, the aircraft is no longer stealthy, North acknowledged, though it can again become less observable once it has dropped those bombs.
North visited Israel this week to meet with officials from the IAF and Defense Ministry regarding the country’s current fleet of 20 F-35 fighter jets, out of a total package of 50 planes that Israel has agreed to purchase, as well as ongoing negotiations with the Jewish state for a potential purchase of another squadron’s worth of stealth fighters.
Israel is currently deliberating purchasing either additional fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin or so-called fourth-and-a-half generation F-15X fighter jets from its competitor, Boeing. While the F-35 has far greater stealth capabilities and other technological advantages, the F-15X — an upgraded version of the decades-old F-15 — is capable of carrying far more munitions, making it a more attractive option for use as a bomber.
North, naturally, believes that Israel should opt for his firm’s stealthy and state-of-the-art F-35, which will cost less than $80 million per aircraft beginning next year as costs of production decrease.
The retired general, who served as an air force pilot, responded to comments made by former US defense secretary Ashton Carter in Tel Aviv earlier this month, who said he believed the F-35 would be the last manned fighter jet to be manufactured by the US. North said he instead foresaw a future where pilots would become optional, not replaced entirely by artificial intelligence and remote controls.
“Advanced technologies are going to allow significant options, to be what we call optionally manned,” North said.
“We are working right now in our Skunk Works [Lockheed Martin’s research and development wing] to be able to do manned, unmanned or what we call MUMT — manned/unmanned teaming — where you can have an F-35 controlling and working in concert with either totally autonomous or remotely piloted vehicles for an operation,” he said.
The Lockheed executive noted that one of the advantages of the F-35 was its “survivability,” thanks to a host of integrated technologies that make crashes less likely. These include Lockheed Martin’s Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, which takes control of the plane if it appears the pilot has lost consciousness or otherwise been incapacitated.
This system is installed on all Israeli F-35 fighter jets, according to North. It wasn’t installed on a Japanese F-35 aircraft that crashed into the Pacific Ocean this summer after the pilot suffered “spatial disorientation,” he said.
North also stressed that in addition to its stealth capabilities, the F-35 also comes with built-in electronic warfare systems, which he said far surpass those of other aircraft.
“In the open market, it is nine times more powerful than any other electronic jamming platform,” he said. “It is extremely powerful, which adds to the self-protection not only of itself but of the entire formation.”
North touted the aircraft’s sensitive array of radar and other sensors, which he said could allow the F-35 to shoot down incoming cruise missiles.
In recent months, the Israeli military has warned that Iran could seek to carry out an attack with cruise missiles, which unlike ballistic missiles can be remotely controlled, making them more difficult to be shot down by traditional air defense systems. Such munitions were used, along with drones, to carry out a massive attack on a Saudi petroleum facility earlier this year.
North said the aircraft’s radar array system could detect a small, low-flying cruise missile. “It is the most powerful airborne radar system in the world. It is very capable, very low observable, very low altitude, very fast speed platforms, either airplanes or cruise missiles,” he said.
“After all, a cruise missile isn’t any different from an airplane, it’s just smaller,” added the former general.
According to the Lockheed Martin vice president, negotiations between his company and the IAF regarding a third squadron are ongoing but have stalled somewhat due to Israel’s lack of a government, which prevents serious budget-related discussions.
“We have a request for information about a third squadron, and the company obviously takes that very seriously,” he said. “Clearly, there are some challenges as the government forms and what-have-you, but that’s an internal issue.”
Asked if the recent decision by the US government to refuse to sell the F-35 fighter jet to Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system could lead to Israel receiving its next 30 aircraft more quickly, North said that was a possibility but was up to the Israeli government to decide if that were something it wanted to do.
So far, Lockheed Martin has delivered over 475 F-35 fighter jets to nine countries around the world, eight of which have declared it operational. Another four countries are waiting to receive their first planes.
Nearly 1,000 pilots have been trained to fly the aircraft and thousands of people are certified to perform maintenance on the plane, North said.
Barring a dramatic change in the delivery schedule, Israel’s remaining 30 F-35 fighter jets will be delivered in batches of twos and threes until 2024. Israel is the second country after the United States to receive the F-35 from Lockheed Martin and one of the few to be allowed to modify the state-of-the-art aircraft — though the extent to which Israel will be able to add its own systems is still being debated with the US.
Detractors, however, balk at the development and production delays that have plagued the aircraft, as well as its high price tag of approximately $100 million apiece initially, though the price is going down as more planes are manufactured. Lockheed Martin also boasts that the F-35 requires less maintenance than other aircraft, making it more cost effective in the long term.