As Israel awaited the arrival of its first two F-35 fighter jets, US President-elect Donald Trump said on Monday that he would completely reevaluate the costly aircraft program once he takes office on January 20.
In a tweet, Trump said that the cost of Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet program was too high and that he would shave billions from the project once he takes office.
"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," Trump said on Twitter.
Responding to criticism from Trump, a company executive in Israel said Lockheed Martin has invested large sums of money to reduce the price of the F-35 stealth fighter program.
"Since the beginning, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the price of the airplane by about 70 percent since its original costing, and we project it to be about 85 million dollars in the 2019 or 2020 time frame," said Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin's F-35 program leader.
If Trump decides to cut the number of aircraft the US Air Force purchases, it would mean an increase in the cost per aircraft for Israel. It would also put into question Israel's decision to align its air force's future with the F-35.
Meanwhile, the first two F-35s departed on Monday afternoon from Italy on the last leg of their voyage to Israel after a short delay due to inclement weather conditions in the European country, the IDF said.
A welcoming ceremony for the first of a new batch of the stealth aircraft was set to take place at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Nevatim Airbase near Beersheba.
According to the IDF, security forces in both countries deemed it safer to wait until weather conditions improved before sending the fighter jets to Israel as planned.
Expected at the ceremony to welcome the jets to Israel were President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel and US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Carter was expected to deliver remarks and will meet with Liberman, with whom he will later hold a joint press conference.
“The arrival of the aircraft highlights the close defense cooperation between the US and Israel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Liberman also issued a statement, saying: “Carter is a true friend of Israel. And during his tenure this was proven beyond all doubt in his excellent cooperation, and of the US Defense Department with the State of Israel and the Defense Ministry. It’s symbolic that Carter’s tenure ends with the arrival of the Adir to Israel, because just like the plane, Carter’s contribution to the security of Israel was tremendous.”
Built by Lockheed Martin and nicknamed “Adir” or “Mighty,” the plane is being flown from the US to Israel by American pilots with a stopover in Italy. On Tuesday, two of the six Israeli pilots who trained on the F-35 in the US will take command of the aircraft.
But the two planes expected on Monday are only the beginning, with plans to receive a total of 50 – two full squadrons – by 2022. After the first two F-35s arrive, the air force will receive six to seven per year.
“Israel never had a stealth fighter before the F-35, it is a huge jump and will be a huge challenge” Brig.-Gen. (res.) Abraham Assael told The Jerusalem Post
in a recent interview, adding that “it is a very interesting time for our air force,” as the F-35 “is more like a system than a plane, and it will take time to fully understand the system.”
The fighter jet “is an enigma,” he said, and the system will have to be learned from scratch by pilots, mechanics and even IAF commander Eshel, who, according to IAF Magazine, is learning to fly the craft “switch by switch, system by system.”
After years of developing the most expensive plane in history, the advanced jet will, according to senior Israeli officials, provide complete air superiority in the region for the next 40 years. According to Lt.-Col. Yotam, the Adir Squadron commander, it was purchased “in order to attack places that we are not always able to attack.”
The fifth-generation jet “is a quantum leap in relation to the combat aircraft we have today,” he said, designed to fly longer and faster than most other fighters.
It has an extremely low radar signature, allowing it to operate undetected deep inside enemy territory, evading advanced surface-to-air missile defense systems such as the Russian-made S-300s and S-400s deployed in Syria and Iran.
Israel remains concerned that Iran will violate the international accord signed with world powers aimed at preventing it from developing nuclear weapons.
Israel is the first country outside the United States to receive the F-35, and once the jets arrive in Israel, they will not leave except for combat missions.
According to senior IAF officers, all maintenance of the jets will be done in Israel, with maintenance and support facilities built at Nevatim specifically for the F-35. Other countries that purchased the aircraft will have their maintenance done at regional centers, often outside their borders.
Despite the excitement, the F-35 is a controversial plane with an expensive price tag of close to $100 million each, delays and a long series of failures.
In one such failure, a pilot weighing less than 62 kilos (136 pounds) was at risk of being killed by its ejection system.
Another was a flaw in the plane’s cooling system that led to the US Air Force grounding the jet two months after it declared it combat-ready. Eight of the planes grounded by the USAF belong to Israel.Jpost.com Staff contributed to this report.