Gallant blasts Smotrich for mid-war holdup of fighter jet procurement

Finance minister doubles down, saying he seeks to convene committee tasked with looking at defense budget before approving purchase of F-15s, F-35s

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

File: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Galant hold a joint press conference in Jerusalem, on December 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90 )
File: Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Galant hold a joint press conference in Jerusalem, on December 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90 )

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant slammed Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Friday for continuing to hold up approving the purchase of two fighter jet squadrons for the Israeli Air Force amid the war.

In April, Ynet news reported that Smotrich decided to veto the approval of the procurement of new F-15 and F-35 jets until a Knesset committee tasked with looking at the defense budget was convened.

Smotrich said at the time that he wouldn’t approve “strategic and long-term future force build-up” until after the committee publishes recommendations on the defense budget, claiming that “doing the same thing over and over again without learning from past mistakes will bring us a disaster.”

The two fighter jet squadrons, 25 F35i stealth fighter jets and 25 F-15IA fighter jets — the Israeli variant of the advanced F-15EX  — were to be financed by US military aid to Israel, and not state funds.

“The Israeli perception that it is possible to provide increased security with less money, in the face of threats that are only increasing along with additional combat arenas, is a wrong perception that needs to change,” said Gallant to reporters on Friday

Gallant said Israel’s defense budget needed to be doubled, citing the recent Iranian missile and drone attack on the country.

Israeli F-35i and American F-15 jets hold an exercise over Israel, November 29, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The exchange of fire with Iran, and the international security situation, will lead to a global arms race, which forces us to accelerate the pace of military force build-up and procurement,” he said.

“If we do not complete the process of purchasing the squadrons from the US within a month, the planes will be delayed for three years, and will increase the price for the State of Israel by an additional billion NIS,” Gallant said, referring to the fact that another customer will take Israel’s place if it does not complete the deal soon.

“The delay in procurement is a blow to Israel’s security, and at a time when we are fighting a multi-front war, the implications are clear,” he added.

There was no immediate timeline for the delivery of the fighter jets, and previous such deals have taken several years for the first aircraft to be shipped. Israel is expected to push for faster delivery.

Gallant’s statement was issued to reporters under an embargo.

During that time, Smotrich’s office got wind of the criticism and issued a statement of its own, saying the finance minister had requested that the cabinet secretary bring a resolution to the upcoming cabinet meeting to establish a committee that would examine Israel’s defense budget.

The statement said the committee will be established per the agreement of the prime minister and national security advisor.

“Israel’s security is not a game. The delay in the establishment of the committee results in a delay in procurement important to the force build-up of the IDF and the rest of the defense establishment,” Smotrich’s office said.

Israel had previously agreed to purchase 50 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. They are being delivered in batches of twos and threes until 2024.

The military is also looking to both add to and upgrade its existing fleet of F-15s, which can carry the kind of heavy weapons Israel would need to penetrate Iran’s nuclear sites, most of which are buried deep underground.

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