SHORTLY AFTER replacing Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister in late June, Avigdor Liberman, escorted by senior Israel Air Force officers and US Pentagon officials, visited an assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas, for the roll-off of the first F-35 fighter plane to be supplied to Israel.
A month later, the first fully operational F-35 with its newly installed avionics systems to be delivered to the IAF was tested by a Lockheed Martin pilot at the Fort Worth military airfield.
Liberman was accompanied on his trip by a group of Israeli security journalists and commentators who enjoyed the all-expenses-paid hospitality of Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed’s public relations department has invested, via its Israeli representatives, a lot of energy and resources to please its Israeli client and create a supportive atmosphere in the media, among former IAF personnel, and the public at large.
This is only natural for the company that for years has been under fire from the US Congress, the US administration, professional military experts, and even some of its test pilots who have raised doubts about the aircraft’s capabilities and performance.
The criticism directed at Lockheed Martin’s newest fighter jet covers several aspects. The F-35 ‒ which in Hebrew is known as “Adir,” translated as great, powerful, mighty, marvelous, wonderful, impressive ‒ is the most expensive weapons program in history, with a total cost of $1.5 trillion to the US taxpayer.
Since its inception in 2006, the F-35 program has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. The $1.5 trillion that will be spent on the program is considered, even by Pentagon standards, an enormous sum.
Due to its technical faults, it has been grounded twice. The last time was in June 2014, when during preparation for takeoff on a training flight at Eglin Air Force Base, the aircraft experienced a fire in the engine area. The pilot escaped unharmed, but the accident caused all training and flights to be halted for a few days. A year later, the USAF Air Education and Training Command (AETC) issued its official report on the incident, determining that it was the result of a failure of the third stage rotor of the engine’s fan module.
Because of its flaws, the program was strongly opposed by civic and military groups who labeled it “the most wasteful deal on Earth,” and called for it to be discontinued. But Lockheed Martin, with its strong lobby in Congress and the Pentagon, repelled all critics and survived the storm.
The aircraft, whose full name is F-35 Lightning II, belongs to the family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather, stealth, multirole fighters. As the most advanced combat aircraft around, it is designed to carry 16 tons of missiles, bombs and fuel to perform ground attacks and air defense missions while sneaking through ground-to-air systems and avoiding being detected on radar screens.
The various controversies surrounding the program reached Israel, where it also generated public debate, but on a much smaller scale.
In 2010, then-finance minister Yuval Steinitz contested the purchase. He contended that such an important decision, which has enormous defense and economic implications, should not be left to the defense minister, the Israel Defense Force chief of staff and the commander of the Air Force, but rather should be considered and approved by a senior group of ministers, including some with responsibility for economic issues A year later, in 2011, former defense minister Moshe Arens, an aeronautics engineer by profession and supporter of “Blue and White,” meaning Israeli-made weapons, was against the purchase. He said Israel does not need the F-35 to maintain its technological superiority over the Arab countries, and would be better off developing its own aircraft that did not have the design compromises of the F-35.
Some former IAF officers approached by The Jerusalem Report are also critical of the plane’s capabilities, and expressed their reservations as to whether it is really the ideal flying machine to meet the threats and challenges Israel is facing currently and for the foreseeable future.
Yet they refused to be cited on the record fearing a backlash from their peers.
Nine countries other than the US – Australia, UK, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, South Korea, Norway, Turkey and Israel ‒ are committed to purchasing the plane, and some, such as the UK, are already testing it.
AMONG THEM, Israel is an important customer – probably the most important – to the giant US defense contractor that is producing the F-35. Israel will be the first country in the Middle East to receive the aircraft, and Turkey, a NATO member, will be second.
The IAF and its pilots are well appreciated in the US and considered among the best in the world, so it’s no wonder the reputation of the prestigious IAF is very appealing to Lockheed Martin, which hopes the IAF will inadvertently serve as a promoter and marketer of the F-35.
IAF pilots are already stationed at Fort Worth to learn and master the aircraft, though the first two planes will be flown this December by US pilots to the Nevatim Air Force Base in the Negev desert southeast of Beersheba.
Israel so far has committed to purchasing 33 F-35s to be delivered every year until 2021, with about 7 to 8 planes per year, and it has the option to purchase an additional 42 jets. The first batch of 33 will be divided into two squadrons.
The deal is worth more than $2.7 billion, which means each plane costs $85 million. But with Israel’s special requirements to be installed, the cost per piece will climb to round $100m. The US will pick up the tab, but the money will be deducted from the annual $3.1b. – to be increased to $3.7b. beginning in 2018 – of US aid to the Israeli military.
Clearly, the decision to purchase the plane is at the expense of other weapons systems ‒ air, land and sea ‒ needed by the IDF. For the price of one F-35, the IAF could, for example, have been armed with three or four of the most advanced F-16 fighter jets.
Israel was among the first nations to approach the US government to be supplied with the F-35 as early as 2003, when it signed a formal letter of agreement to join the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) effort for the F-35 as a “security cooperation participant” (SCP). The aircraft was then in its initial research and planning.
At least five reasons motivated Israel to be part of the program.
First, Israel, the IDF and IAF have always, as part of their strategy, aspired to be at the global scientific and technological fronts in order to preserve their qualitative edge and maintain aerial superiority over its Arab enemies and Iran.
Second, by participating in the program, Israel further enhances its security ties and cooperation with the US. Third, as part of the deal in an offset arrangement, Israeli defense contractors are manufacturing components for Martin Lockheed.
For example, Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) builds the F-35 wings. Fourth, the IDF-IAF perception was that having F-35s will increase Israeli deterrence and enable it to make preemptive attacks on hostile countries before a war is officially declared.
The fifth reason was, and still is, Iran.
It was estimated in Israel that by the time the first F-35 jet would arrive, Iran would be able to produce its first nuclear warhead. Thus, the F-35 would give the IAF better capabilities to strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Since then, however, Iran has signed with the US and other major world powers the deal to slow down and reduce its nuclear program for at least 10 years. In addition, the “Arab Spring” of 2010 – which actually has turned into a bloody, brutal and harsh winter – wrote off three major Arab armies – Syria, Iraq and Libya – that were perceived as a threat to Israel.
These changes, which have led to the decline of nation states and their regular armies and the emergence of terrorist groups, above all ISIS, raise the question of whether the F-35 is the type of weapon Israel really needs to handle its future challenges.
That, however, is already a moot point.
The IAF will, by the end of 2016, be in possession of one of the most advanced and expensive war toys in the world. ■Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman