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Ministers sign off on pricey purchase of F-35s, refuelers and bombs

But approval for new transport helicopters to replace aging fleet and additional fighter jets put off until later

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

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

The ministerial committee for military acquisitions signed off on the purchase of another squadron’s worth of F-35 fighter jets, as well as four Boeing KC-46 refueling planes and advanced missiles and bombs on Tuesday, following government approval last week for a contentious funding scheme to pay for the equipment involving massive loans from the United States, the government said.

The approval for the purchases came after some three years of requests from the military for the equipment, which was held up due to political squabbles and fights over the budget.

The committee still needs to approve the purchase of new heavy transport aircraft to replace the Israeli Air Force’s aging fleet of Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters and what type of fighter jet will be purchased for a second new squadron.

The Defense Ministry had been wavering between the Boeing CH-47 Chinook and Sikorsky CH-53K Sea Stallion heavy transport helicopters to replace its 50-year-old Yassur helicopters, but when Defense Minister Benny Gantz came into his position last year, he ordered the military to reconsider purchasing the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, which can function as both an airplane and a helicopter, giving the military — particularly special forces — greater flexibility.

This sent the ministry back to the drawing board and significantly extended the selection process.

In addition, the military must decide if it wants to purchase yet another squadron’s worth of F-35 stealth fighters or if it will instead opt for an upgraded model of the F-15, the F-15EX, which is capable of carrying more and heavier munitions.

A US army Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion and two US V-22 Ospreys take part in a training exercise during the joint Israeli-US military Juniper Cobra air defense drill at the Tzeelim urban warfare training center in southern Israel on March 12, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

These decisions have been put off for now. A new date for the committee to meet was not immediately announced.

The approvals were issued after the government signed off on the controversial funding mechanism, which was heavily opposed by the Finance Ministry and whose legality was questioned by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office.

The funding will come from the $3.8 billion of military aid that the United States gives to Israel each year, but as the payment will have to come up front, the deal will require major loans from American banks, which will cost the Israeli government hundreds of millions of shekels in interest in the future.

The approval of this plan was a significant victory for Defense Minister Gantz, whose ministry backed this option, as opposed to other proposals that involved only purchasing equipment that the government could afford without loans.

The Finance Ministry in particular had opposed this financing plan, citing budgetary concerns, but was overruled. In light of this opposition, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit also objected to the IDF taking a loan from abroad, as such moves legally require the approval of the Finance Ministry’s accountant general, but he did not veto the cabinet’s decision.

According to Channel 12 News, Washington had set a deadline for Israel to approve the deal in the next two weeks or lose its priority in American assembly lines, which could have delayed the deal by some two years.

The Defense Ministry maintains that the interest payments could be paid for from future American military aid, assuming Washington continues to provide it.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, welcomes Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel into the position of director-general of the Defense Ministry at its Tel Aviv headquarters on May 31, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“The bottom line is that it’s either paying about NIS 8 billion right here and now or paying additional interest… in another decade, which the Defense Ministry will pay for with dollars from the aid budget,” Defense Ministry Director General Amir Eshel told reporters in November.

“It doesn’t add up to me that the State of Israel right now — at the peak of a budgetary deficit — would take NIS 8 billion and put it in America. There are other techniques to solve this,” Eshel said.

Eshel also noted that such arrangements have been used in the past by Israel to purchase costly military equipment, including the IDF’s current fleet of F-35 fighter jets and roughly 100 of its F-15s.

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