Two F-35 fighter jets landed in Israel Sunday, the army said, bringing the number of fifth-generation stealth aircraft that the military says it has in its arsenal up to 16.
The Israel Defense Forces’ 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.
“The capabilities of the Adir Squadron add another tier to the operational and strategic capabilities of the air force, which ensures the air force’s superiority in all its missions, namely the protection and safety of the State of Israel’s skies,” the IDF said in a statement.
The two F-35 fighter jets traveled from the United States to the Israeli Air Force’s Nevatim base in southern Israel, which is home to two F-35 squadrons.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tehran that Israel’s F-35 fighter jets can reach “anywhere in the Middle East,” following threats against Israel in recent weeks 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 the US defense contractor 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 ongoing procurement of the Adir is another expression of the long-term military cooperation between Israel and the US, which continues to produce exceptional results in the process of strengthening and streamlining [the F-35],” the army said in its statement.
The Israeli Air Force is currently wavering between purchasing more F-35s or an upgraded version of the F-15 fighter jet.
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.)
Last month, F-35 fighter jets from Israel, the United States and United Kingdom conducted training flights over the Mediterranean Sea in the Israeli aircraft’s first-ever international exercise, the military said at the time.
The joint drill was dubbed “Tri-Lightning,” a reference to the aircraft’s official designation, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
The Israeli Air Force said it planned to hold additional international exercises with the stealth fighter jets in the future in order to “advance its capabilities.”
Also last month, the air force held a large multi-day exercise simulating combat action on multiple fronts, the army said, with F-35s taking part for the first time.
That drill included night and day missions by fighter jets, helicopters, cargo planes, drones, air defense units and ground support forces. It simulated simultaneous fighting in the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon, and included scenarios involving an enemy armed with advanced technology, such as the Russian S-300 and S-400 missile defense systems; a home front under massive missile attacks; and challenges such as damaged runways and disabled IAF communications centers.