At 8:16 p.m. Monday, Israel’s newest and most advanced weapon – two F-35 stealth fighter jets – known by its Hebrew name Adir, or mighty) – touched down at Nevatim Air Base near Beersheba, after its departure late afternoon from Italy was delayed six hours due to fog.
According to the IDF, security officials in both countries deemed it safer to wait until weather conditions improved before sending the fighter jets to Israel, on the last leg of their voyage to Israel.
A welcoming ceremony which was set to start at 2 p.m. began instead at 7:30, with thousands of grateful attendees, including 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, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and US Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
Rivlin addressed the crowd first, saying that the “over 22 tons of flying steel will change the Middle East, and will redefine Israel’s deterrence capabilities and operational space.”
Israel, he said, knows “with confidence” that this plane will play an integral part in the air force, because “in our region, you cannot be the first among equals – you must establish a strategic advantage over enemy countries.”
He thanked the pilots and also Lt.-Col. Yotam, the squadron commander and the first Israeli set to fly the new jet on Tuesday.
Rivlin said that the “stealth fighters and pilots will be able to operate in every arena, near and far. The aircraft will change the rules of the game. Our enemies already know that it’s not worthwhile to harm Israel.”
Following Rivlin, Netanyahu thanked US President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people because, he said, Israel “was just made stronger today. I want to be clear: Anyone who thinks of attacking us will be attacked. History has taught us that only strength brings deterrence, only strength brings peace and respect,” Netanyahu told the crowd.
Addressing Carter, Netanyahu said that his presence at the ceremony “is a sign of both your personal commitment and the commitment of the United States” to Israel, who is “your best friend in the Middle East, and personally I think, beyond the Middle East.”
Israel’s goal, Netanyahu said, “is to obtain supremacy in every theater: in the air, in the sea, on the ground and in the cyber world. Israel is taking off to new heights, and when our pilots in the Adir jets will fly high, we will watch them with pride.”
Secretary of Defense Carter, visiting Israel on a two-week global tour, said that “there’s no better symbol of that relationship than the F-35,” adding that the “many threats that face Israel everyday from many directions” are part of the reason why the US and Israel have such close ties.
“The United States will continue to provide Israel with the most advanced capabilities, including more F-35s to sharpen Israel’s military qualitative edge. With the turmoil in the region, we are more dedicated than ever before to Israel’s security, and America’s pledge to defend Israel’s security remains unwavering.
“As of today, Israel is our only friend in the region flying the F-35 – the F-35s will help the US and Israel air forces operate more jointly and more effectively. And together, we will dominate the skies.”
As Israel awaited the arrival of the planes, US President-elect Donald Trump said that he would completely reevaluate the costly aircraft program once he takes office on January 20.
Trump tweeted that the cost of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program is 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,” Trump said on Twitter. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20.”
Responding to criticism from Trump, a company executive in Israel said Lockheed Martin had spent 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.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post while waiting for the F-35s, Jack Crisler, vice president of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 business development and strategic integration, said that the stealth technology “is our ability to deny our enemy the capability to detect, track and engage us. So we can go anywhere we want, at our choosing and prosecute a mission.”
Israel is the first country to receive the F-35 outside the United States.