US Defense Secretary James Mattis has ordered a review of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a high-profile defense program that has been criticized by US President Donald Trump and which may have ramifications for Israel.
According to a statement by US Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, Mattis ordered the review in order to “inform programmatic and budgetary decisions, recognizing the critical importance of each of these acquisition programs.
This action is also consistent with the president’s guidance to provide the strongest and most efficient military possible for our nation’s defense.”
In a memorandum signed and effective immediately, Mattis said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work will “oversee a review that compares the F-35C and F/A-18E/F operational capabilities and assess the extent that the F/A-18E/F [Super Hornet] improvements can be made in order to provide a competitive, cost effective fighter aircraft alternative,” the statement continued.
While Trump has been highly critical of the entire F-35 program, the review will only apply to the C variant, which Israel has not purchased.
But, if following Mattis’s review Trump decides to cut the number of aircraft the US Navy purchases, it would mean an increase in the cost per aircraft for Israel as the more planes are ordered, the less it would cost to build each jet. It would also put into question Israel’s decision to align its air force’s future with the F-35.
The cost of an F-35A is almost double the cost of an F/A- 18E/F Super Hornet (priced at $52 million each), at $100m.
per aircraft. On December 22 Trump tweeted that “based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” The F/A-18 Super Hornet is an update of the original F-18, which entered service in the early 1980s. And while the US Navy’s F-35C is designed to be used for aircraft carrier landings, something Israel does not need and the F/A-18 Super Hornet can already do, the F/A-18 does not have the stealth profile that the F-35 has and which will give Israel regional air superiority for the next several decades.
Senior IDF officers have touted the plane, saying it would provide complete air superiority in the region for the next 40 years. Israel remains concerned that Iran will violate the international accord signed with world powers aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons. And with an extremely low radar signature, it is able to operate undetected deep inside enemy territory, evading advanced surfaceto- air missile defense systems such as the Russian-made S-300s and S-400s deployed in Syria and Iran.
Yiftah Shapir, a senior research fellow and head of the Middle East Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that despite the review and possible increase in price, “it does not seem plausible that Israel would back down” from the project as it “is quite committed to the F-35.”
“Israel will not buy the F-18 because it is a plane which belongs to an older generation,” Shapir said, adding that “if Israel had to consider older planes, Israel would most probably consider purchasing newer versions or upgraded F-15 or F-16s.”
And while the price of the program might affect other partner nations, Israel “doesn’t pay for the F-35 out of our own pocket; it comes as part of the military defense deal,” Shapir said, referring to the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Washington and Jerusalem in September that will see Israel receive $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade. According to Shapir, at least $7b. of the money has been earmarked for purchasing the F-35s.
Israel was the first country outside the United States to receive the F-35 (nicknamed “Adir” or “Mighty”) in early December and is expecting to receive a total of 50, two full squadrons by 2022. It is set to receive six to seven per year, until the first batch of 33 jets is delivered. According to an IDF spokesman, the F-35C is still under consideration for future purchase.
On the day Israel received its first F-35, Trump tweeted that “The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20.”
In November, Canada announced that it was canceling its orders for the F-35s, choosing instead to purchase 18 F/A-18 Super Hornets as interim fixes until a suitable fighter is found to replace its aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets.
In a statement Marillyn Hewson, chairwoman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, said that the company would support the review and are “fully committed to working with Secretary Mattis and his team to deliver the most capable fighter ever developed at the lowest cost possible.”
According to the statement, Hewson met with Trump to discuss the F-35 program and presented plans to “significantly reduce program cost without compromising capability and performance,” such as “a smart buying strategy with a multiyear agreement” that would significantly reduce costs.
Nine partner countries – Israel, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, UK, Japan and South Korea – are involved in the program, but the F-35 is a controversial plane with a long series of failures and delays. With an expected price tag of close to $400b. in development and procurement costs and an estimated $1.5 trillion in lifetime sustainment costs it is the Pentagon’s single most expensive acquisition.