Israel's unique experimental F-35i lands at Tel Nof

The plane will act as a testbed for the country's planned modifications

The F-35I stealth fighter jet.  (photo credit: AMIT AGRONOV/ISRAEL AIR FORCE)
The F-35I stealth fighter jet.
The Israel Air Force’s took delivery of a unique, experimental F-35i stealth jet on Wednesday that will act as a testbed for the country’s planned modifications for the plane, when it arrived at Tel Nof air base near Gedera after flying in from the US.
This F-35i “is the only one in the world and unique for the IAF,” a source in the Air Force recently told The Jerusalem Post, adding that Israel wanted this plane so that it could integrate and certify unique Israeli technology into it.
The F-35i test variant will be based at the IAF’s Flight Testing Center (FTC) squadron, marking the first time in 14 years that a jet with advanced experimental capabilities will be flown by two operational F-35i pilots who joined the squadron and are currently training to become test pilots.
The FTC will be responsible for putting the aircraft through all its trials, such as weapons, avionics integration, air frame and other modifications.
“The ‘Adir’ division is set to play a central role in the IAF’s future operational activity”, said the commander of the FTC Squadron, Lt. Col. Y., “Therefore, we understand the need to test it and adapt its weapons systems to the operational reality in the field.
The experimental F-35i will act as the main building block for acquiring new flight capabilities, and allow for independent installation of munitions.”
The F-35i named by the IAF as the “Adir,” is heavily tailor-made to Israel’s specifications and is embedded with Israeli-made electronic warfare pods as well as Israeli weaponry that are all installed after the planes have been delivered in Israel.
According to the IAF, this experimental F-35i model is the “first of its kind in the world.” Not only does it examine specific systems and limited operational abilities, it has advanced aero-mechanical testing capabilities and full operational capabilities so that, if necessary, it can also be used as an operational aircraft, if needed.
The IAF currently has 24 F-35i aircraft and will operate three squadrons of the advanced jet once a total of 50 planes have arrived by 2024. The IAF is also now considering whether to purchase an additional 25 planes.
The IAF was the first to use the F-35 in combat in 2018, months after it was declared operational, and since then it’s been reported to be playing a central role in the “war-between-wars” campaign.
“The arriving Adir F-35i, designated for flight experiments, will greatly enrich the IAF’s independence in improving its [squadrons] of fifth-generation aircraft,” the IAF said.
And while the United States has kept most of the advanced jet’s capabilities secret, sources have told the Post that there are things that Israel knows about the plane that even Washington doesn’t know.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration formally notified Congress that it plans to sell 50 F-35s to the United Arab Emirates as part of a $23b. arms deal after it signed a normalization deal with Israel, despite concern from Jerusalem.
Although Washington has for years been selling arms worth many billions of dollars to Abu Dhabi, it has been bound to preserve Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the Middle East before selling any advanced weaponry to other regional states.
Two weeks ago, Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed a joint declaration with then-US Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, confirming Washington’s strategic commitment to maintaining Israel’s QME in the Middle East.
Gantz has doubled down on his accusation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew about the sale of the F-35s to the United Arab Emirates during negotiations but kept it hidden from the defense establishment. Nevertheless, after signing the declaration with Esper, the two released a joint statement stating that Israel will not oppose US sales of “specific weapons systems,” a reference to the stealth fighter.
The ability to modify the jet with the help of the experimental F-35i that landed at Tel Nof might be one way to maintain Israel’s QME.