ST. LOUIS – With a need to keep ahead of increased threats in the Middle East, the Israel Air Force is soon to place orders on several new aircraft to upgrade its aging squadrons.
Most of Israel’s aircraft are decades old, and with its first F-35I Adir stealth squadron operational, the IAF and Defense Ministry are now considering one of the largest defense deals in Israel’s history with US aerospace giant Boeing.
The deal, which according to some reports is worth a combined $11 billion, would include a fleet of F-15IA (IA is an acronym for Israel Advanced) fighter jets, Chinook transport helicopters along with V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft as well as the KC-46 aerial refueling tankers.
“Israel is a critically important market for Boeing and is a key source for state-of-the-art technology,” said Gene Cunningham, vice president, Global Sales for Defense, Space and Security, at Boeing International.
According to Cunningham, Boeing spends over $220 million in Israel per year on defense purchases as well as investing in Israeli start-ups and education, and there have been many discussions with the Defense Ministry for future deals.
The money for air force deals is to come from a historic $38b. military aid package signed between the United States and Israel in 2016 and which came into force in February of this year.
Following the signing of the agreement, then-US national security adviser Susan Rice said: “This additional funding will allow Israel to update the lion’s share of its fighter aircraft fleet, including the acquisition of additional F-35s and F-15s.”
Israel is involved in a decades-long “war between wars,” and its air force has always striven to achieve air superiority and freedom of action over its regional foes. As such, the IAF has received 12 F-35I Adir stealth fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin and is expected to receive a total of 50 to make two full squadrons by 2024.
But in parallel to the fifth-generation aircraft, the IAF needs to retain its qualitative military edge and modernize one of the essential squadrons of its fighter fleet. Most of the IAF’s F-15s are over 30 years old, with the majority acquired in the second half of the 1970s, while a more advanced squadron of the F-15, the F-15I, arrived in Israel in the 1990s.
Built by Boeing, the F-15IA model that the IAF is leaning toward purchasing is one of the most advanced and cost-effective fighter planes ever to be built.
With various upgrades to the earlier models, such as more efficient engines and fly-by-wire avionics, which is considered the biggest change to the jet in 20 years, the F-15IA has a 25% decrease in operating cost per flight hour compared to the F-15I.
The fly-by-wire avionics also reduces maintenance costs, and with advanced sensors and displays with high reliability, fewer aircraft would be required to accomplish most missions.
“It is a more lethal jet but significantly cheaper to operate,” Greg Coffey, Boeing’s Advanced F-15 Program director told reporters in St. Louis.
Boeing has designed its wings to be able to use two additional outboard stations to carry a payload of some 13,380 kilos, such as 12 air-to-air as well as 15 air-to-ground or air-to-maritime strike weapons, which are able to engage multiple targets simultaneously.
The F-35I stealth fighters, by comparison, are limited in the weapons they can carry, as they must be stored in internal munition boxes in order to maintain a low radar signature.
Israel has also expressed interest in acquiring the F-35B, which has the capabilities for vertical takeoff and landings, an option that can allow the jet to land on much shorter runways if the IAF’s bases are attacked by Iranian jets or missiles from Hezbollah.
While the F-35I has advantages, such as intelligence gathering, the F-15IA’s assets closely match most missions carried out by the IAF, such as dealing with enemy missile launch sites or terrorist targets on its northern or southern borders.
Officials believe that a force mix of F-35I Adirs along with a squadron of F-15IA fighters would allow Israel to carry out a number of complex operations, including any possible confrontation with Iran on its borders.
According to Coffey, the F-15IA “is a different but complementary fighter jet to the stealth F-35I.”
“Anyone who tells you he would fly into a combat operation area alone is lying,” said Dan “Dragon” Draeger, Boeing’s chief test pilot for the F-15IA. “You need to be complemented by other platforms in order to get the job done.”
The F-15IA, which has a combat range 4,000 kilometers, also carries the AESA radar, which is considered the world’s most advanced radar system, and has an advanced cockpit system that provides complete situational awareness for the crew.
Just as Israel’s current fleet of F-15s was integrated with Israeli weapon systems and countermeasures, Israel is also able to do so with the new F-15IAs. Another advantage of the F-15IA, Boeing officials said, is that pilots currently flying the F-15s will not need long to master the advanced jet.
According to Boeing, it would take an estimated three years from the signing of the contract between the US government and Israel to its delivery to the IAF. If the deal goes through, it would mark the first Boeing fighter jet acquired by the Israel Air Force in nearly two decades.
ANOTHER DEAL that Boeing is hoping to secure is replacing Israel’s Ram (Boeing 707) tanker aircraft, which are required for long-range missions and nearing the age of 60.
Israel’s Ram planes, the number of which remains confidential, are former civilian aircraft that have been adapted for military uses, such as aerial refueling for fighter jets.
While the IAF is said to be considering buying used Boeing 767 commercial aircraft and converting them for airborne refueling of combat planes, Boeing is offering it another KC-46 tanker, which is also based on the commercial 767.
“This is a state-of-the-art combat tanker,” Sean Martin, chief aerial refueling operator of Boeing’s KC-46 Tanker Program, told reporters at the KC-46 production plant in Seattle.
Like other tankers, the KC-46 has a three-man crew, two pilots and a boomer. But unlike the current planes flown by Israel and many other nations, the boomer sits right behind the cockpit and has digital displays to aid him in maneuvering the boom to the receiving plane. The offload, rate and boom limits are also automatically set.
With a range of 11,830 km. with the capacity to unload some 207,000 pounds of fuel, the KC-46 can refuel over 64 types of aircraft. Officials in charge of the program told reporters that while it has not yet completed testing to refuel the F-35 stealth fighter jet, it is expected to be able to do so.
According to Martin, the KC-46 can refuel jets with 1,200 gallons of fuel per minute by its fly-by-wire 17-meter refueling boom. It also can have wing air refueling pods, allowing three jets to be refueled at once.
“It would take between three to four minutes. That is revolutionary,” Martin said, explaining that an F-15I can take some 15,000 pounds of fuel in total.
All fuel tanks in the KC-46, which is purposely built for combat close to the battlefield, are fully inerted and are configured with ballistic armor. The plane also has IR countermeasures, RF warnings, threat avoidance systems and NVIS lighting (Night Vision Imaging System), allowing the plane to land in complete darkness, giving the massive plane full covert capabilities.
Israel is also able to add indigenous electronic warfare countermeasure systems.
While its main purpose is to act as a refueler, the KC-46 can be configured in two hours to act as an airborne field hospital, as a transport plane (with a capacity to carry some 6,500 pounds of cargo), or to carry some 200 passengers.
“It’s when you are doing multiple tasks that it is a game changer,” Martin said. “For an example, you can load 58 passengers on the aircraft and load cargo, take off and air-refuel another aircraft while you are going to another location. So you are performing the role of an airlifter with passengers and cargo while performing air refueling.”
The US Air Force is expected to receive nearly 200 of these purpose-built multi-role combat tankers over the next few years to replace the KC-135, and Japan is expected to obtain four of them by 2022.
“We are very eager to partner with the IAF,” said Jamie Burgess, the vice president and deputy program manager of the KC-46 Tanker program. “We believe they need to replace their aircraft.”
According to Burgess, if the contract is signed with Israel, it will take an estimated 36 months for the plane to be delivered.
ISRAEL IS also modernizing its heavy-lift helicopter fleet and is considering Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook helicopter to replace its aging Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion Yas’ur helicopters by 2025, when they will be over 50 years old.
First used by the IAF in 1969, the Yas’ur is the air force’s primary transport aircraft, and while it has been upgraded with new electronic and missile defense systems as well as other improvements to extend service life, it will need to be replaced in the coming years.
With over 950 Chinooks flown by 20 defense forces around the world, it is an advanced and versatile multi-role and multi-mission helicopter with a cruising speed of 291 km/h (maximum speed of 302 km/hour) and a standard mission range of 370.4 km. (400 nautical miles) and almost double the range for the extended configuration.
The new, more advanced Chinook currently built by Boeing features a full digital management system in the glass cockpit and has increased survivability capabilities such as radar and missile warning systems. The cockpit and cabin are also fitted with ballistic protection.
While it is not a fly-by-wire system, the digital flight control system allows the pilots to program the aircraft to fly autonomously and maneuver the aircraft at the touch of a button, meter by meter, in whichever direction is needed. The company also plans to further improve the helicopter with new sensors to improve flight in degraded visual environments and more advanced engines.
While the twin-engine, tandem rotor heavy-lift helicopter is used mainly for troop transport (able to carry between 35-75 soldiers), artillery placement and battlefield resupply, it can be configured in 20 different ways, such as to act as a medivac able to carry 24 litters for patient transfer, or for humanitarian purposes, fire fighting, disaster relief, special operations, assault operations, search and rescue and logistics.
The Chinook can also carry two vehicles in addition to troops, if required. It also has three cargo hooks to carry and unload cargo in separate locations under the cabin of the helicopter. With a center hook, the crew is also able to remove the transported military vehicles during the flight at a low altitude.
While it is a global workhorse, Boeing’s Chinook is up against Lockheed Martin Sikorsky’s CH-53K King Stallion, the same maker of the Yas’ur.
One main issue bothering the IAF with the CH-53K, meanwhile, is the high cost, with an average unit purchase price of $87m. which can even increase across the helicopter’s life cycle, including nonrecurring costs.
The current price tag of the Chinook sold to the American Marines, for comparison, is roughly $40m. each.
The IAF plans to buy some 20 new heavy-lift helicopters – in other words, one squadron – to replace the current CH-53 Sea Stallion squadron at the Tel Nof Air Base, and with the lower cost of the Chinook can also afford to purchase several V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft built by Bell-Boeing.
THE V-22 Osprey, which can take off and land like helicopters but fly like fixed-wing planes, is designed for sensitive, extensive missions.
“Israel truly understands what the V-22 can do,” said Col. Matthew Kelly, V-22 joint program manager.
“From the US perspective the V-22 has been a game changer across the spectrum of combat operations, with its unmatched range, speed and survivability, which are especially important for special operations missions,” he said. “We think Israel may benefit from those unique V-22 capabilities in much the same way the US services have.”
Israel first expressed interest in Boeing’s V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft in 2012, and two years later the US Department of Defense notified Congress about its intention to sell six of them to Israel in a deal worth $1.13b.
But the contract came at the wrong time, as Israel’s coalition at the time fell through, and by the time another coalition was formed, the defense budget was needed for more urgent requirements, such as technology used to detect and destroy Hamas cross-border attack tunnels.
With that, the enthusiasm for the V-22 dissipated.
But four years later, Israel is once again considering purchasing the V-22, which is “the most in demand platform for the Department of Defense” due to its “speed, range and versatility,” Kelly said.
Primarily used by the United States Marine Corps and the Air Force Special Operations Command since entering service in 2007, it has seen extensive action in Afghanistan and Iraq supporting long-range rapid reaction and crisis response missions.
Officials from Israel’s defense establishment were given a fresh opportunity to assess the capabilities of the aircraft in early March during a joint exercise conducted with the US Marine Corps in southern Israel.
According to Kelly, Israeli air attaché to the United States Brig.-Gen. Amir Keren also flew on the V-22 in mid-October and “was very impressed” with it.
With a maximum cruising speed of 522 kilometers per hour and an extended range capability of 2,103 kilometers with no refueling, the V-22 would allow Israel to reach neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq or even Iran and Sudan.
According to Steve Barlage, the senior manager for global sales, vertical lift division, with Israel’s requirements to replace the squadron the cost of the Chinook would allow for a force mix of both the heavy-lift helicopter and the tilt-rotor aircraft for maximum capabilities.
“You can go twice as far, twice as fast,” he said.
The multi-role combat aircraft uses tiltrotor technology, combining the vertical performance of helicopters (such as takeoff and landings) with the speed, altitude and range of fixed-wing planes, making them the ideal aircraft for special operation missions, as they don’t need runways.
If purchased, Israel would be the second country outside the United States to deploy them after Japan, which bought four V-22 Ospreys in July of 2016. The writer was a guest of Boeing in the United States.
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