Security and Defense: Sky high

Lockheed Martin F-22s could give the IAF an edge, but the price - and a US embargo - may get in the way.

lockheed f-22 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lockheed f-22 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fort Worth is a city that really lets you know you're in Texas. Described by its residents as "more old-fashioned and laid-back" than its larger neighbor, Dallas, it is home to bars filled with men and women in cowboy boots and hats, listening to country music. Named after General William Jenkins Worth, it was founded in 1849 as a military camp. It now boasts one of the world's largest indoor manufacturing plants - more than two miles long and half-a-mile wide - which houses the production line for Lockheed Martin fighter jets, among them the F-16 and the stealth F-22 and F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). In the plant, workers ride golf carts from one point of production to another, and finally to the area where wings and engines are fitted into the planes' fuselages. ISRAEL HAS its sights on two such planes - the F-35 and the F-22 (branded the "Raptor" by the US Air Force), the only fifth-generation fully operational fighter jet with stealth capabilities. At the moment, there is a US government-imposed embargo on Lockheed Martin, forbidding the massive military industry from exporting its aircraft to countries like Israel. But defense industry sources say the Pentagon might be inclined to change its policy and allow a sale to Israel, due to the looming nuclear threat emanating from Iran. "Imagine a squadron of 25 stealth-enabled Israeli Air Force F-22 Raptors flying undetected into Iran, opening their internal compartments that carry their missiles and dropping them onto the scattered nuclear sites," one source close to the IAF and Lockheed Martin said. "That is one [mighty] piece of deterrence." Though the F-22 has not yet been sold to any US allies, in March, Congress lifted a nine-year ban on its sale, basically clearing the path for an Israeli purchase of what is considered the most advanced fighter jet in the world today. (The single-seater, double-engine aircraft achieves stealth though a combination of its shape, composite materials, color and other integrated systems.) Export policy regarding the F-22 aside, its high price - $150 million per jet - could present a problem where Israeli procurement is concerned. In the first place, the JSF, which the IAF plans to begin buying in 2014, costs a much lower $45 million per aircraft. Secondly, the idea that the F-22 - which is capable of flying undetected over the center of Teheran - would serve as a deterrent against Iranian aggression only carries weight if the Islamic Republic's leadership, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were convinced that Israel intended to take action. "The F-22s are only worth something if we use them," a defense official said this week. "They're no good sitting in a display case." Though Israel may not yet have resolved to make a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear sites, a recent escalation in the rhetoric of government officials indicates that it could be on the way to doing just that. Last week, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh prompted Iran to submit a complaint against Israel to the United Nations Security Council, telling The Jerusalem Post that Israel must be ready to stop Iran's nuclear race "at all costs." Last month, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Iran would have "a price to pay" for continuing its nuclear program. But according to Yiftah Shapir, a former IAF officer and expert on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Israel's procurement of F-22s would not automatically enhance the state's level of deterrence. "Deterrence is a game of perceptions," said Shapir, an associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and the head of the Middle East Military Balance Project. "There is no real way to judge deterrence, and you can only know your deterrence failed if you tried to deter an enemy and he still attacked you." Still, according to Shapir, a delivery of an F-22 squadron would certainly enhance the IAF's operational capabilities. "This plane is built to create air dominance [because it] can carry out long-range missions," he said. "It is a more modern and threatening plane than some of the older models currently in the fleet." THERE IS an additional reason the IAF may ask the Pentagon for permission to purchase the Raptor. Currently in the process of receiving the last batch of 102 F-16s it bought from Lockheed in 1999 for $4.5 billion (the remaining 36 aircraft will arrive by the end of 2007), the IAF could find itself in a situation in which it is not receiving any new planes until 2014, when delivery of the F-35 is scheduled to begin. This is significant. Traditionally, the IAF receives new fighter jets on an almost five-year basis. More important, a large number of 30-year-old F-15s are under consideration to be decommissioned from active duty over the course of the next year. If new jets are not received between 2007 and 2014, the IAF's fleet will decrease, which could have a negative impact on Israel's military deterrence in general. "The IAF will need to replace the older F-15s, so it has to decide whether it the F-22 is required, or whether it's OK to wait for the F-35," Shapir said. This dilemma has sparked competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin over the fighter jet the IAF decides to purchase in the interim while waiting for the JSF: either Boeing's F-15I (Israel already has 25), additional F-16Is (Israel will have acquired 102 by then) or F-22 Raptors. In March, deputy IAF commander Brig.-Gen. Amir Eshel visited Boeing headquarters in St. Louis to discuss the possible procurement of a new squadron of F-15Is with enhanced long-range capabilities. At the moment, Boeing is expected to get back to the IAF with proposals of how the manufacturer can turn the F-15 into a longer-range aircraft.