On December 10, 1976, Israel became the first country outside the United States to receive the F-15. It was the first time the fourth-generation combat aircraft had arrived in the Middle East, providing Israel with a dramatic boost in face of the advanced Russian aircraft – such as the MiG-21s – that were being exported at the time to Egypt.
Forty years and two days later, the Israel Air Force will once again make an impressive leap in its capabilities on Monday
, when Israel’s first two F-35 fighter jets land at the Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev.
Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 is designed to be one of the most advanced multi-role combat fighter aircraft in the world, and will provide Israel with unprecedented stealth capability. This theoretically means that the plane will be able to fly undetected into enemy airspace to gather intelligence and destroy high-value targets.
For the IAF, the arrival of the first two planes is nothing less than a revolution. The plane’s software is designed to enable unprecedented situational awareness for pilots, providing the ability to engage multiple targets simultaneously and to work seamlessly with other planes.
While it will probably be a year before the planes are ready for combat, the defense establishment believes that simply their arrival will boost the country’s deterrence in face of its numerous adversaries.
F-35 fighter jets en route to Israel (Credit: IDF)
In celebratory interviews carried out over the past few weeks, the IAF pilots who will operate the plane volunteered to journalists that the F-35 will be able to fly in places where Israel has not operated in the past. “Including Iran,” the pilots said, on cue for the role they are playing in a wider production called the Middle East.
This is not meant to be sarcastic.
The F-35 is truly designed to be a superior fifth-generation aircraft, with a stealth capability that will enable Israel to fly places where today it is too dangerous. The S-300 and S-400 surface- to-air missiles that are deployed in Syria, for example, rely on radar systems to detect, track and engage aircraft. If they can’t see the F-35s they won’t be able to shoot at them.
The same would apply to an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
While the nuclear deal – assuming it is upheld – postpones that from happening for at least the coming decade, the F-35 would likely play a key role if such an operation is ever needed.
While this is definitely a celebratory week for the IAF, it is important to keep in mind that Israel is taking a bit of a gamble by receiving the planes now. The F-35 is still under development and will reportedly, for example, not have a functioning cannon until 2019. That means if it does need to engage in combat, its forward cannon – needed for dogfights – will not be usable.
In addition, up until a few months ago, the plane reportedly had numerous glitches. In March, for example, The Guardian reported that the F-35 radar stops working mid-flight and only goes back on if the pilot turns it off and then on again. There have been weight issues, software bugs, cyber vulnerabilities, as well as other challenges.
Canadian officials recently announced they are thinking of buying F-18 Super Hornets from Boeing as they wait to see what happens with the F-35. Canada had originally said it would buy some 65 F-35s.
This doesn’t mean Israel made a mistake in being the first country outside of the US to receive the jet. This was the same situation in 1976 when the F-15 arrived. That plane then had also just entered the US Air Force.
The pros to getting the plane now are straightforward: Israel gets to train its pilots on a real aircraft; it gets to study the plane; it may be able to make changes to it; and last but not least – it can boost its deterrence – a valuable commodity in a complicated region like the Middle East.
The cons, though, should not be ignored: The plane is not yet combat- tested; it is still under development; and it costs more than initially expected. There are also indications that President-elect Donald Trump might decide to reevaluate the program once he takes office in January.
Either way, when the two F-35s fly over Nevatim on Monday, an entire region will be watching. They should be, since Israel’s vaunted air force is about to become a bit more powerful.