Israel’s F-35 stealth fighters declared operational, a year after their arrival

Israeli Air Force chief says state-of-the-art jets give military previously unknown capabilities in a challenging Middle East

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Israeli Air Force declared its fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets operational on Wednesday, just less than a year after receiving the first aircraft.

Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said the F-35 jets, known in Israel as the “Adir,” or mighty one, will give Israel new capabilities that are necessary in confronting the “constantly evolving and complex challenges” in the Middle East.

“The announcement of the operationalization of the ‘Adir’ aircraft comes at a time in which the IAF is operating on a large scale on a number of fronts in a dynamic Middle East,” Norkin said in a statement.

F-35 fighter jets fly over Israel in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel received its first two F-35 fighter jets in late December 2016. In the interim 11 and a half months, the air force has been putting the machines through their paces, training pilots to fly them and preparing ground crews to maintain and fix them.

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, balk 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.)

Last month, Israel received two additional F-35 jets, bringing the size of its fleet up to nine aircraft.

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

Lockheed Martin unveils Israel’s first F-35 fighter jet in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 22, 2016. (Lockheed Martin)

Israel has agreed to purchase 50 F-35 fighters in total from the United States. The remaining 41 planes will be delivered in installments of twos and threes over the coming years.

Israel was the first country besides the US to receive the F-35, and it has championed the advanced aircraft in the face of criticism over its slow production process, high price tag and numerous setbacks over the years.

The initial order of 33 F-35 jets is expected to be completely delivered by 2021. A second batch of 17 airplanes that was ordered later is set to arrive by December 2024, the Defense Ministry said.

Israel receives over $3 billion a year from the US in military aid, and last year, the two countries agreed on a new aid package that will see Israel receive $3.8 billion annually through 2028, the vast majority of which must be used on purchases from American defense companies.

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