(photo credit: Courtesy)
Imagine this: Ten fighter jets take off from a base in northern Israel, fly over Jordan, Iraq and into Iran to bomb air-defense missile systems, radar stations and nuclear facilities. They then leave Iranian airspace safely without sustaining any enemy fire.
Sounds implausible? If the IAF has its way, the possibility will become realistic in the near future.
The key is the F-22 single-seater, double-engine aircraft, manufactured by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. Through a combination of its shape, composite materials, color and other integrated systems, it can fly in enemy airspace without being detected.
Israel has had its sights set on the F-22 since its development began in the early 1990s. Today it is the only 5th generation fighter jet fully operational with stealth capabilities. Branded the "Raptor" by the US Air Force, it operates out of Langley, Virginia, Florida and New Mexico.
To date, the US government has clamped an embargo on the sale of the aircraft to foreign countries. But on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly raised the issue with President George Bush in Washington. Other talks have taken place in recent months at the Defense Ministry-Pentagon level.
According to defense sources, the Pentagon might be inclined to change its mind and allow a sale to Israel, particularly in light of the looming nuclear threat from Iran.
"The prospect of a squadron of stealth-enabled F-22s flying undetected into Iran, opening the internal compartments that carry their missiles and dropping them into the nuclear sites - that is one piece of deterrence!" said a source close to the IAF.
The F-22 would be used in an air strike to first blow out enemy air defense systems and radar stations and to create "clear skies" for the rest of the IAF's fleet of F-15 and F-16 bombers.
Maj.-Gen. Elazar Shkedy, who stepped down as IAF commander last month, admitted on several occasions that given the opportunity, Israel would buy the F-22, no matter the $150 million per-unit price tag. Shkedy's principle was that Israel always needs to have the most-advanced and most-superior military platforms.
The congressional ban on any such sale was imposed out of fear that the plane's unique stealth technology could fall into hostile hands.
The F-22 assembly line in Fort Worth is inside the same hanger where Lockheed Martin builds the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), but is closed in by a fence which is covered by a blue canvas sheet.
Last year, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz was one of the first foreigners to see the assembly line close up when he visited the plant together with a delegation of Israeli lawmakers.
One could make an argument that Israel is a close ally of the US and therefore could be trusted. But the Pentagon has been suspicious of Israel since 2003, when relations soured over Israel's upgrade of Chinese drones.
But Israel is not the only country asking for the plane. Japan has expressed interest. And during a visit to Australia in February, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was presented with a request to buy the plane and said he would look into the possibility of lifting the ban.
If Congress decided to allow foreign sales, the US would not be able to sell the plane just to Israel. It would likely have to sell to additional allies and could face a complex dilemma if and when Saudi Arabia asked to buy the plane.
If the ban is lifted in the coming months, Israel could potentially receive the plane within the next two years, according to Yiftah Shapir, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies and author of its annual Middle East Military Balance Report. By contrast, Israel is set to receive the stealth JSF in 2014, or 2013 at the earliest.
"The F-22 would provide Israel with a new level of air dominance," Shapir said. "It is questionable whether Israel really needs it, but it would certainly contribute to IAF capabilities in face of the Iranian threat."
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