(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is increasingly concerned that the United States will allow the sale of fifth-generation, stealth-enabled Joint Strike Fighter jets - aka the F-35 Lightning II - to Saudi Arabia, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
But while this could pose a major challenge for the IDF, defense officials told the Post on Sunday it also presented Israel with a unique opportunity to ask the Americans for new advanced technology that would not be sold to the Saudis, to enable Israel to retain its qualitative edge in the region.
Two weeks ago, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Military Bureau, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, met with Pentagon officials in Washington and reached understandings concerning certain arms purchases. A week earlier, Defense Ministry director-general Pinhas Buchris was at the Pentagon for similar talks.
Defense officials said Sunday that the two visits had been used to present the Americans with a "shopping list" that Israel hoped would be finalized in the coming months. Leading the American side of the talks was Beth McCormick, the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for technology security policy and national disclosure policy.
In June, Gilad met with McCormick to present Israel's objections to a proposed US sale of state-of-the-art weaponry, including Boeing's Joint Direct Attack Munition smart bombs, or JDAMs, to Saudi Arabia. Officials said on Sunday that those concerns had increased following reports that Saudi Arabia planned to ask the US to sell it the Joint Strike Fighter now under development by Lockheed Martin.
"The Saudis want the plane," one senior official said. "They always look for top-of-the-line technology, and the Americans will have difficulty saying no."
In light of this possibility, Israel has asked the Americans for a number of new military platforms that have yet to be sold outside the US.
One request centers on the F-22 Raptor - a stealth fighter currently operational in the US - which came up during Buchris's talks in Washington. Israel has asked to be allowed to acquire the jet - foreign sales are currently under congressional ban - in the face of alleged Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. The F-22 can avoid radar detection and is the world's most advanced fighter jet to date.
The defense officials also spoke with their US counterparts about receiving two new advanced models of the JDAM to preserve Israel's qualitative edge over the Saudis, who would receive the standard smart-bomb kit.
One of the models Israel is interested in has a laser-guided system, and the other is protected from electronic-warfare systems and jamming. Both are manufactured by Boeing Co. in the US.
Buchris also tried to interest the Americans in investing in the development and production of the Iron Dome, the anti-missile system Israel is developing against Kassam rockets. Officials said an American engineering team was scheduled to visit Israel in the coming weeks to continue talks on the issue.
Buchris also discussed with the Americans the possibility of integrating Israeli defense industries into the production of the Joint Strike Fighter, which the IDF has announced will be the IAF's next fighter jet. Buchris and Gilad also discussed with the Americans the possibility of moving up the delivery of the plane to Israel from 2014 to 2012, or at the latest, 2013.
Eight countries - including Britain, Turkey and Australia - are members of the Joint Strike Fighter project. Israel is a Security Cooperation Participant after paying $20 million in 2003 for access to information accumulated during the development of the jet, which will be priced at between $50m. and $60m.
Officials said Israel had convinced the Americans to allow the IAF to install its own technology in the aircraft - a major point of contention between the Defense Ministry and the Pentagon until now.
Defense officials said that the Americans had now agreed, in principle, to allow Israel to integrate its own technology into the plane, as it has done with other fighter jets it has bought in the past from the US, including the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
"We have closed up the JSF issue, including getting the info on the plane and integrating technology," an official said. "The Americans know that we will safeguard and protect their interests."