Israel the first in the world to conduct strikes with F-35 jet, army says

Showing picture of the aircraft over Beirut, air force chief reveals the stealth fighter was used in at least two operations, but not in May 10 attacks in Syria

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli Air Force commander Amikam Norkin revealed on Tuesday that the F-35 fighter jet conducted airstrikes on at least two occasions, which he said made Israel the first country to use the American-made stealth aircraft operationally.

“I think that we are the first to attack with an F-35 in the Middle East — I’m not sure about other areas,” Norkin told a conference of air force chiefs visiting Israel from around the world.

The Israeli military later went further, saying that this was the first operational use of the fighter jet in the world, not only in the Middle East.

“The Israeli Air Force has twice carried out strikes with the F-35, on two different fronts,” Norkin said.

The air force chief did not specify when those two attacks took place, but said the F-35 did not carry out strikes during Israel’s massive bombardment of Iranian targets in Syria on May 10.

Incoming Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin salutes during a ceremony at the Tel Nof Air Base on August 14, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Norkin revealed the F-35’s operational uses while showing the visiting air force officers a photograph of the stealth fighter jet flying over the Lebanese capital of Beirut, in what could be seen as a tacit threat to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group. (The army refused to release the picture to media outlets.)

“You know that we just won the Eurovision with the song ‘Toy.’ Well, the F-35 is not a toy,” Norkin said, referring to the lyrics of Netta Barzilai’s winning song.

The air force chief made his remarks to dozens of commanders or deputy commanders of air forces from around the world visiting Israel as part of a three-day conference in honor of the IAF’s 70th anniversary.

During his speech, Norkin also revealed that earlier this month Iranian forces in Syria had fired more rockets at Israeli military bases on the Golan Heights than the army had previously acknowledged.

An Iron Dome missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is deployed in northern Israel on May 7, 2018. (Jalaa Mary/AFP)

“The Iranians fired 32 rockets, we intercepted four. The rest landed outside Israeli territory,” he said.

The Israel Defense Forces previously claimed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force had fired 20 rockets at Israeli bases just after midnight on May 10.

Norkin said that Israel’s multi-tiered air defense network — made up of the short-range Iron Dome, medium-range David’s Sling and long-range Arrow systems — had a collective 85 percent success rate.

In response to the pre-dawn IRGC attack, the army struck dozens of Iranian targets across Syria, the army said.

During the reprisal raids, Syrian air defenses fired over 100 surface-to-air missiles at the Israeli fighter jets. None of the aircraft were shot down. In response, the IAF destroyed at least four varieties of Syrian anti-aircraft systems, the army said at the time.

A moment before an Israeli missile destroys a Syrian SA-22 air defense system on May 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel and Iran have been waging a quiet war in Syria for several years, with Jerusalem maintaining that it will take military action against Tehran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria.

This has stepped up considerably in recent months, beginning in February when an Iranian drone carrying explosives was flown from the T-4 air base in central Syria into Israeli airspace and was shot down by an IAF helicopter.

Then too Israel conducted a series of reprisal raids, first against the air base and then against Syrian air defenses, which had fired on the Israeli jets and shot down one F-16.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

“We’re watching what the Iranians are doing around us. The al-Quds Force has set up on the T-4 air base, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) from Israel,” Norkin told the visiting air commanders.

“From this base, they tried to attack [us] with a drone that infiltrated into Israel a few months ago. After that, we noticed they were continuing to store weapons on that base, including the air defenses that we attacked a month ago,” he said, referring to an April 9 air raid on the T-4 base, in which at least seven IRGC members were killed, including the senior officer in charge of its drone program.

“In recent weeks, we understood that Iran is sending to Syria long-range missiles and rockets, including the Uragan missile launchers that we attacked north of Damascus,” Norkin said.

It was not clear to which strike specifically the air force chief was referring. The Israeli army said it targeted Russian-made Uragan missile launchers in the area of el-Kisweh, which is located south of the Syrian capital, on May 10.

In addition to his comments on Iran and Syria, Norkin also touched on the Israeli Air Force’s activities over the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army destroys a tunnel in the Gaza Strip that was meters away from entering Israeli territory on May 12, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

He noted that earlier this month, Israeli jets targeted a Hamas attack tunnel that was meters away from entering Israeli territory.

“From the air, we destroyed a Hamas tunnel that was dug at a depth of 20 meters (66 feet),” Norkin said.

Israel began receiving the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter from the United States in December 2016. The aircraft were declared operational approximately a year later.

The fifth-generation fighter jet has been lauded as a “game-changer” by the Israeli 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, balked at the high price tag for the aircraft: approximately $100 million apiece. (The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, says the cost is expected to go down as more countries purchase the F-35.)

The F-35 stealth fighters are operated by the air force’s Golden Eagle Squadron, based in the Nevatim Air Base in central Israel.

Two F-35 fighter jets land in Israel on November 8, 2017 (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel has agreed to purchase 50 F-35 fighters in total from the United States, which are scheduled to be delivered in installments of twos and threes by 2024.

The IAF’s first use of the F-35 on attack missions marks at least the third time that Israel has been the first country to use a new type of aircraft operationally.

In 1979, an Israeli fighter pilot, Moshe Marom-Melnik, was the first to use an F-15 jet to shoot down an enemy plane, a Syrian MiG-21.

Two years later, an Israeli pilot was the first to use the F-16 fighter jet to shoot down an enemy aircraft, a Syrian Mi-8 attack helicopter.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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