Israel’s Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman views the cockpit of the first Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-35A Lightning II.
(photo credit: LOCKHEED MARTIN PHOTO BY BETH STEEL)
Once they touch down at Nevatim Air Base this December, the Israel Air Force will begin a race against the clock to make the stealth aircraft a key part of daily operations within one year.
According to Brig.-Gen. Tal Kelman, IAF chief of staff, the planes will receive by December 2017 the status of initial operational capability, meaning that little time will pass between when Israel receives the jets and when they begin flying missions.
As soon as they become active within the IAF, the planes will begin taking over jobs currently carried out by F-15s and F-16s – flights that are critical to maintaining Israeli security – and F-35s will begin performing them at a level previously unseen in the Middle East.
Top priority missions will include intelligence-gathering flights to glean data on Israel’s enemies. Intelligence flights will deploy the plane’s array of sensors, and call on its ability to share large quantities of data on a military Intranet in real time.
Such data can be used to learn about vital security developments, or be stored for later use if needed.
The advantage the F-35 brings here also lies in one plane’s ability to defend itself against threats that previously required a formation of older aircraft to deal with.
A single F-35 can fly far from Israel’s borders, monitor enemy activity, and deal with advanced surface-to-air missile systems if needed. No single fourth-generational fighter jet can do all of those tasks on that level.
Due to its stealthy radar-evasive profile, and specialty in long-range, precision strikes, the F-35 should be able to take the lead in a covert strike program.
According to international media reports, this program targets transnational Iranian weapons trafficking networks, and budding Iranian-sponsored terrorism cells.
Iran’s smuggling efforts reach out across the Middle East, feeding Hezbollah with a growing arsenal of arms. Tehran is also seeking to reestablish its influence in the Gaza Strip, and probably has not given up on the idea of forming terrorist cells in southern Syria to target Israel.
Wednesday’s official roll-out of the first Israeli F-35s at Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Fort Worth, Texas, signifies a dramatic step forward for Israel in gaining these capabilities, not only to wage large-scale conflicts, but also to manage the covert, frequent operations that often occur quietly, away from the public and media glare.