Security and Defense: The next generation of the IAF
Israel has not placed an order for new fighters or helicopters in nearly a decade, and the IAF fears it’s beginning to fall behind in the regional arms race. But that’s about to change.
By YAAKOV KATZ
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Massachusetts – As the aircraft takes off, the immediate feeling is that we are on a helicopter.The blades are spinning violently on both sides and the aircraft jerks a bit like any regular military transport helicopter. But then as we take to the air the blades suddenly begin turning down from their vertical position, align themselves with the body of the aircraft and turn what had been a helicopter into a plane reaching speeds close to 300 knots, almost double the speed of a helicopter.This is the V-22 Osprey, the only aircraft in the world today that can take off and hover like a helicopter, then fly at speeds and altitudes like an airplane. Earlier this month, The Jerusalem Post was the guest of the US Marine Corps and received the rare opportunity to fly on this once extremely controversial aircraft.Called a “tilt-rotor aircraft” by Boeing, its manufacturer, the V-22 had a rough beginning and the program was nearly cancelled after a number of deadly accidents during its development. In 2007 it was declared operational and began flying operations in Afghanistan. Recently, one crashed there killing four soldiers.Nevertheless, the aircraft is impressive and has captured Israeli attention, and is under consideration by the IAF, which is looking to renew its aging fleet of Yasur – Sikorsky CH53 – helicopters over the next decade. In the past 18 months, a number of top IDF officers – including Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz and head of the IAF’s Helicopter Directorate – have taken demonstration flights.Finding itself surrounded by a growing anti-aircraft threat in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iran, the IAF is evaluating the V-22 for search-and-rescue operations, as well as missions that involve transporting special forces behind enemy lines. Its ability to vertically land enables it to drop them in an exact location or to pick up a downed fighter pilot, and its ability to fly fast means it can get to safety quicker than a helicopter.Costing an estimated $70 million, the V-22 can transport 24 troops, or more than 9,000 kilograms of internal or external cargo, and has a range of more than 4,000 kilometers with a single aerial refueling.Advertisement“It is an agile large aircraft that can fly at top speeds and stands a much better chance at evading air defense missiles than a regular transport helicopter,” one Israeli defense official said.WE TOOK off on the V-22 from Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts and got a remarkable view of Boston and the Charles River from the cargo bay door, which remained open through the flight. Like any helicopter ride, the V-22 is loud until the transformation from vertical to jet mode which, while noticeable, was pretty smooth considering that the pilot moves the rotors in midair.The V-22 is not the only aircraft or piece of technology made by Boeing that the IAF is interested in. While air force is officially in negotiations to purchase the F-35 fifth-generation stealth Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), it has held talks with Boeing about the possibility of purchasing a new squadron of F-15s.There are two options: One possibility is to purchase an upgraded version of the F-15I, which it received in the 1990s. The other option is to purchase the F-15 Silent Eagle, a version of the F-15 that has a reduced radar signature because of outward-canted tail fins and conformal fuel tanks that can be converted into internal weapons bays.The growing interest in these planes is the result of uncertainty surrounding the development of the F-35. While Israel received approval from the Pentagon more than 18 months ago, it has yet to officially order the plane.One reason has to do with development problems in the US – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently fired the program’s director and withheld funds from manufacturer Lockheed Martin – spurring predictions that Israel won’t receive the aircraft until 2016, more than two years after it had originally hoped to begin taking delivery. The other sticking point has to do with US reluctance to allow the integration of Israeli technology into the plane, particularly electronic-warfare systems.While no one in the IDF questions the F-35’s superiority, some officers have raised concerns that Israel is falling behind in the regional arms race. The Egyptians recently signed a deal to purchase 25 new F-16s and are also reportedly in talks with the Pakistanis regarding possible joint production of the JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft. The Saudis are also in talks with the US over the possible sale of more than 70 F-15s.Israel, on the other hand, has not placed an order for new fighter jets in close to a decade, and while OC Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan is probably correct in arguing that the arrival of the JSF will boost deterrence, its delay will also have the opposite effect. As a result, there are some officers who are pushing the IAF to conduct a review of the F-15 Silent Eagle and to consider purchasing new F-15s as a “gap filler” until the JSF is ready.Boeing officials have held talks with Nehushtan and his staff. Prices have been bounced around, as has the potential configuration of the plane, and Boeing has told the IAF that while it officially says that it takes anywhere from 36 to 42 months, it would make every effort to start delivery even earlier. That means planes, possibly of the Silent Eagle version, could potentially begin arriving as early as 2014.Another aircraft which Boeing believes the air force might beinterested in is the airborne laser or ABL, a Boeing 747 equipped witha large megawatt chemical laser mounted on its nose.The ABL iscurrently undergoing tests at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Incontrast to the more conventional systems for intercepting ballisticmissiles like the Arrow, THAAD and Patriot, the ABL can interceptincoming missiles with the laser while they are still in boost phase,so they will then land inside enemy territory. In contrast, the Arrowintercepts missiles as they are already in their terminal phase,meaning that the debris has a greater chance of landing inside Israel.Whilethe ABL still has several more years of development, its concept isrevolutionary. In February, it succeeded in intercepting two missiles,one of which mimicked a Scud.