Lockheed Martin wins contract to operate F-35 training center

Company will oversee facility in southern Israel’s Nevatim Air Base over next 5-10 years, employ some 25 residents of the area

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

One of Israel's first two F-35 stealth fighter jets takes off for its maiden flight as part of the Israeli Air Force on December 13, 2016. (Israel Defense Forces)
One of Israel's first two F-35 stealth fighter jets takes off for its maiden flight as part of the Israeli Air Force on December 13, 2016. (Israel Defense Forces)

US defense contractor Lockheed Martin was chosen Tuesday to operate a training and maintenance center for the Israeli Air Force’s F-35 stealth fighter jets, the Defense Ministry said.

Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the F-35 fighter jet, will run and maintain the training facility on the air force’s Nevatim base in southern Israel over at least the next five years and possibly the next decade.

The American defense contractor will provide “expansive maintenance services to the State of Israel” at the facility, which houses an advanced F-35 simulator, the Defense Ministry said.

The initial contract is for five years of service and it may be extended for an additional five years, the Defense Ministry said.

The deal is potentially worth NIS 150 million ($42 million), if extended for a full 10 years, according to the Defense Ministry.

Once the facility is up and running, “the IAF will receive immediate service and support from a local Lockheed Martin Israel staff in maintaining the F-35 aircraft,” Joshua Shani, the CEO of Lockheed Martin in Israel, said in a statement.

Currently, some maintenance is done by sending planes back to Lockheed Martin facilities in the US. It was not immediately clear how long it would take until the new maintenance facility was operational.

The agreement was contingent upon Lockheed Martin agreeing to employ approximately 25 people from southern Israel at the training facility.

“This project is of great strategic importance, particularly for the independence of the Israel Air Force, both in routine and emergency scenarios, but also for the economic growth of Israel’s south,” said Zeev Landau, the head of procurement for the navy and air force at the Defense Ministry.

Illustrative: An Israeli Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet takes part in a graduation ceremony for IAF pilots at the Hatzerim base in Israel’s Negev desert on December 26, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The fifth-generation F-35 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.

Israel has agreed to purchase 50 F-35 fighters in total from the US, which are scheduled to be delivered in installments of twos and threes by 2024. It began receiving the fighters from the United States in December 2016, and currently has at least 14 in its fleet.

The aircraft were declared operational in 2017 and last year, the Israeli military announced that it had used the stealth fighter jet in combat twice, which it said made it the first air force in the world to do so. 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, 2018.

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