The Israeli Air Force on Thursday inaugurated its second squadron of F-35 fifth-generation stealth aircraft, known as the “Lions of the South,” reviving the historic 116th Squadron.
“The Air Force shoulders a great responsibility daily. From this moment, the 116th Squadron returns and becomes part of our strategic arm, part of our qualitative advantage over our enemies,” Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin said at the ceremony at the Nevatim air base in the Negev desert where they will be based.
“The challenges that stand before you are many and varied. Now we are stronger,” he said.
The 116th Squadron was founded in 1956, flying P-51 Mustangs and flew an assortment of aircraft that took part in all of Israel’s wars. From 2003 until it was disbanded 2015, it flew F-16s.
The IAF’s first two F-35 jets arrived in December 2016. Approximately a year later, the stealth fighter — known in Israel as the Adir — was declared operational, and several months after that, the head of the air force revealed that the aircraft had conducted bombing raids, making Israel the first country to acknowledge using the planes operationally.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin congratulated the IAF on the inauguration.
“We’re proud to support Israel and the IAF with the F-35, the world’s most advanced aircraft that provides unmatched capabilities to enable allies to secure peace around the world,” Lockheed said “We look forward to delivering the next 30 F-35s by 2024 that will continue to strengthen Israel’s national security for decades to come.”
Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tehran that Israel’s F-35 fighter jets can reach “anywhere in the Middle East,” following threats against Israel by senior Iranian officials.
“Lately, Iran has been threatening Israel with destruction,” Netanyahu said. “It should remember that these planes can reach every place in the Middle East, including Iran, and of course also Syria.”
The F-35 stealth jet is not believed to have an effective range to reach Iran unassisted, but it could conduct operations there with in-air refueling, a capability possessed by Israel’s air force.
Israel has agreed to purchase at least 50 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. They 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.
The fifth-generation F-35 has been lauded as a “game-changer” by the military, not only for its offensive and stealth capabilities, but for its ability to connect its systems with other aircraft and form an information-sharing network.
Detractors, however, balk at the development and production delays that have plagued the aircraft, as well as its high price tag: approximately $100 million apiece. (Lockheed Martin says the cost is expected to go down as more countries purchase the F-35.)
Judah Ari Gross contributed to the report