What is the future of the Israeli Air Force?

Fighter jets, helicopters, tankers, drones, lasers and precision weapons: What will the tip of the IDF’s spear look like in 10-20 years?

THE ISRAEL AIR FORCE opened a new Special Forces Wing (Wing 7) in mid-July to increase the operational effectiveness of the IAF (photo credit: AMIT AGRONOV/ISRAEL AIR FORCE)
THE ISRAEL AIR FORCE opened a new Special Forces Wing (Wing 7) in mid-July to increase the operational effectiveness of the IAF
(photo credit: AMIT AGRONOV/ISRAEL AIR FORCE)
It’s sometimes hard to imagine the future, especially 10 or 20 years down the line. But for the Israeli Air Force (IAF), the future is something it is ready for.
Like the rest of the IDF, the IAF looks at future threats, both regional and global, and comes up with ideas and platforms to best face such challenges.
Under Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the IDF built its multi-year Momentum plan with new concepts and methods of warfare adapted to the challenges of a future urban battlefield saturated with enemy fire.
With more active and explosive fronts on Israel’s borders, with enemy arsenals turning terror groups like Hezbollah into terror armies, the IAF is active in both defensive and offensive operations both close to home and deep behind enemy lines.
The air force – long considered the tip of the IDF’s spear – plays a significant part in the operational and winning concept of the army and after years of discussions and in-depth work, it is now taking its designs and turning them into projects with concrete plans. Many of the decisions made have already impacted operations. Those changes are big and small – from new platforms and arms to new wings, squadrons and strategies. 
AN IAF pilot poses proudly next to an F-35. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem) AN IAF pilot poses proudly next to an F-35. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ONE OF the changes set to be decided soon will be the future makeup of the IAF, which is in dire need of updating their aging fighter jets and transport helicopters. According to sources, the IAF is pushing for a force mix of more F-35s as well as Boeing’s latest F-15IAs (IA is an acronym for “Israel Advanced”), which would allow the IAF to carry out a number of complex operations, including any possible confrontation with Iran.
“It’s not a competition between the F-35 and the F-15IA,” one source told the Magazine. “You can’t rely and build the air force’s squadrons on only one sort of plane. You need something that will complement the stealth of the F-35.”
Israel began flying the F-15 in the late 1970s. The aircraft remains the backbone of the IAF, which wants the new IA version for a range of missions. But the F-35s have one leg up on the F-15: their stealth capability, which allows them to minimize their radar signature, making it easier to operate in hostile airspace. Israel was the first to use the F-35 in combat in 2018, just months after it declared operational capability. Since then it’s been reported by foreign sources to be playing a central role in Israel’s war-between-wars campaign against Iran, from conducting strikes to engaging in intelligence gathering.
And while the United States has kept most of the advanced jets’ capabilities confidential, sources have told the Magazine that there are things Israel knows about the plane that even Washington doesn’t. But like the F-35, the latest Boeing jets will be more “Israeli” with more blue-and-white technology placed on the aircraft, giving it added value and synergy with existing capabilities on par with the Lockheed stealth fighter.
The F-15IA can also carry more munitions and, according to sources, will also be able to intercept cruise missiles that may be targeting Israel – something the F-35 can also reportedly do – and deal with drone swarms, an increasing threat to militaries around the world. While the first F-15 that landed in Israel was designed for air-to-air combat as well as air-to-ground combat, with the almost complete disappearance of dogfights, the jet is now primarily used for airstrikes against enemy targets – both near and far.
The new F-15IA model the IAF is leaning towards purchasing has considerable upgrades to the earlier models, including the ability to carry a payload of some 13,380 kilos, such as 12 air-to-air as well as 15 air-to-ground or air-to-maritime strike weapons equipped to engage multiple targets simultaneously. Multiple Israeli defense companies have also come together to build indigenous Israeli weapons systems for the IAF and the F-15IA in particular.
Gideon Weiss, vice president of marketing and business development for Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’s air and C4I systems, told the Magazine that "When you take all the systems together, the overall suite along with ELTA and ELBIT systems (the IAF can put them together as a suite for the other platforms), you can take a fourth-generation aircraft and bring it very close to being fifth-generation, pointing to Rafael's reconnaissance pods, advanced radio and net-centric capabilities as well as air-to-surface precision weapons and more.
 
With the two advanced platforms with cutting-edge indigenous technology and munitions acting as long-range fighters necessary for deterring and destroying threats, Israel can guarantee aerial superiority in the region for the coming decades.
ISRAELI F-35 takes off from an airbase in southern Israel. (Credit: Amit Agronov/Israel Air Force)ISRAELI F-35 takes off from an airbase in southern Israel. (Credit: Amit Agronov/Israel Air Force)
LOCKHEED MARTIN and Boeing are also facing off in Israel’s procurement for its new heavy-lift helicopters. With the IAF’s CH-53 Yasur helicopters nearing the age of 50 – several of which had accidents in the past year – its replacement is a most pressing matter for the air force. First used by the IAF in 1969, the Yasur is the air force’s primary helicopter used to transport soldiers and equipment. They have also taken part in a wide variety of missions, including secret operations as well as search-and-rescue missions.
But no one expected the CH-53 to fly for so long.
In 2019, the State Comptroller’s Report recommended that the IAF replace the aging aircraft as soon as possible, as “prolonging the life of the Yasur is liable to endanger human life and may have significant operational implications and substantial maintenance costs.” The air force should “consider purchasing the Yasur replacement option early so that it will be as close as possible to the date on which the Memorandum of Understanding with the United States is implemented,” the report added.
Facing a severe shortage of spare parts, earlier this year the Defense Ministry procured five surplus US Navy CH-53s to cannibalize and be used as spare parts for Israel’s fleet of Yasurs. The IAF plans to buy some 20 new heavy-lift helicopters – in other words, one squadron – to replace the current Yasur squadron at the Tel Nof Base.
The two options in the running are Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion, a completely redesigned version of the Yasur, and Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook helicopter. IAF pilots and technician teams have flown both possible replacements and have prepared comprehensive reports of their capabilities, projected availability and life-cycle costs. According to sources, the air force and general staff are well aware of the need to choose a replacement for the Yasur and are expected to take their recommendation to the political echelon in the coming weeks or months.
The IAF is also looking to replace its Ram (Boeing 707) tanker aircraft (required for long-range missions and nearing the age of 60) with Boeing KC-46 tankers. Israel’s fleet of Ram planes, the number of which remains confidential, are former civilian aircraft adapted for military uses such as aerial refueling for fighter jets, as well as its fleet of transport aircraft. With a range of 11,830 km and the capacity to unload some 207,000 pounds of fuel, the KC-46 can refuel more than 64 different types of aircraft, including the F-35 and the F-15.
The deal for the future tankers, fighter jets and heavy-lift helicopters of the IAF will be funded with some $38 billion of US defense aid over the coming decade. But Israel has been hesitating for several years over how exactly to purchase the new platforms  – and the clock is ticking. Israel was without a functioning government for over a year, and while Jerusalem finally has a working government, it’s up in the air how long it will last. With former chief of staff Lt.-Gen (ret.) Benny Gantz serving as defense minister and former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amir Eshel serving as Director-General of the Defense Ministry, there is a window of opportunity to make the long-awaited decisions. 
The current Memorandum of Understanding is up in 2028 and sources have stressed the urgency to make the purchases “right now” before it’s too late. 
“You have $38 billion. Use it and buy as much as you can right now so the platforms will be in the pipeline,” said one source, adding that even though the United States and Israel are close allies, “nothing is ever 100%.”
WING 7 will incorporate various units including Shaldag, Unit 669, a front landing forces unit, a dedicated intelligence unit and a training school for troops. (Credit: Amit Agronov/Israel Air Force)WING 7 will incorporate various units including Shaldag, Unit 669, a front landing forces unit, a dedicated intelligence unit and a training school for troops. (Credit: Amit Agronov/Israel Air Force)
WITH A need to keep ahead of regional changes and increased threats in the Middle East, the Israel Air Force will need more than just new fighter jets and helicopters.
The IAF has already started the shift from pilots to drones, with a heavy majority of flight hours executed by unmanned aircraft – Israel’s eye-in-skies – which just several years ago were done by manned aircraft. Militaries are using drones more and more. But they continue to face moral issues and can’t replace human pilots in the cockpit. There are still too many uncertainties regarding artificial intelligence (AI) and unmanned aircraft to let them operate autonomously. It’s the man or woman on the ground who still makes final decisions on airstrikes. 
Across the pond, the US Air Force is pushing the boundaries of what the military can build and is currently in the midst of designing an unmanned, AI-driven fighter jet with the hopes to pit it against a manned fighter jet in air-to-air combat in July 2021. The Skyborg unmanned aircraft would work with AI alongside manned aircraft, which would issue commands to the drone to fly ahead for reconnaissance or to carry out airstrikes without endangering the pilots in the manned jets. The USAF hopes to have a prototype and become operational by 2023, with the goal of growing to 386 squadrons of such aircraft, Air Force Magazine reported in May.
Another senior defense source with knowledge of drone systems told the Magazine that it wouldn’t be until at least 2040 before drones would have enough AI to act as fully autonomous aircraft – like what Boeing’s Australian division is working on, referring to the Loyal Wingman – which can carry more weapons and act as bait for enemy aircraft or missiles.
“I can say with certainty that these types of aircraft won’t be operationally fielded within the next decade,” he said, adding that it was also unlikely that unmanned vehicles would be the only platforms coming off the assembly line in the next decade or two.
So while the IAF is advancing toward the future, it is not yet trying to move pilots out of the cockpit. 
“Some people say the F-35 will be the last manned plane, but who knows,” another senior defense source said, adding that unmanned vehicles won’t only replace pilots in the cockpit but will change the whole concept of aerial warfare in ways “never thought about before.”
 
While Israel may not yet be quite there, the whole world of visual and signal intelligence (VISINT/SIGNINT) and a range of other intelligence-gathering techniques have already been taken over by drones. And unlike planes that have a limited number of hours where they can remain airborne, unmanned aerial vehicles can remain active for hours on end with no concern about pilot safety. The drones flown by the IAF can be deployed on a wide range of missions, from surveillance of targets in enemy countries to tracking weapons smuggling to – according to foreign sources – destroying enemy targets posing an imminent threat to the homefront.
There are dozens of drones in IAF hangars across the country, from commercial DJI drones to the Skylarks (which are notorious for crashing in Gaza or in the North) to the larger Shoval, known across the world as Heron. The Shoval can fly for 45 hours at a time at up to 35,000 ft. With an operational range limited only by fuel availability, the remotely piloted aircraft has an operational range of over 1,000 km, flying reconnaissance as well as combat support missions.
Equipped with satellite data links and electro-optical infrared sensors, the Heron 1 is able to provide various kinds of reconnaissance services to ground forces. It can track down explosives from the air as well. 
According to foreign reports, the Shoval is also capable of destroying enemy targets with its weapons systems. Its large and more advanced sensors also provide the Shoval with a game-changing standoff capability, allowing Israel to gather intelligence on a specific target from dozens of kilometers away.
The IDF and IAF have internalized the limitless potential and the growing trend of using unmanned aircraft. The smaller Israeli-made drones and quadcopters gather high-precision intelligence around the clock, flying thousands of hours. The use of smaller drones and quadcopters will likely increase in the coming years for reconnaissance and combat missions.
“It’s a global trend,” the source noted.
Touching on the subject of drone swarms, he explained that the ability to communicate with a swarm “just shows the maturity of the technology, which allows for communication and interoperability.” And while there have been civilian uses of drone swarms and drills by both the Iranian and US navies, nothing has come to fruition on the military side. 
Referring to the concept of drone swarms, another senior source said that such attacks by “cheaper and smaller aerial vehicles can cause as much damage, or even more damage, than an F-35” or other fighter jets that operate in various formations for missions.
But the IAF understands the threats posed by drones and drone swarms, operating under the belief that an attack such as the one perpetrated against Aramco in Saudi Arabia in September is relevant to Israel as well. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have already used drones against IDF targets and Israel has developed defensive concepts and platforms to identify and take them out before they can carry out attacks against troops or civilians.
With drones playing an increasingly central role, IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin said recently that he wouldn’t be surprised if one day the air force would be headed by a general who rose through the ranks through the drone units. 
“These are changes that take time,” he added.
According to one defense source, it’s “not impossible that the future IAF chief can come from a drone unit. You don’t really recognize who flies what. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are – a drone operator, combat pilot or navigator. If you understand the big picture and can build the power needed for the IAF, then that road is paved for you.”
ONE OF the many drones in the IAF’s arsenal. (Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)ONE OF the many drones in the IAF’s arsenal. (Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)
THE ADVANCE of the air force and long-range missiles have made wars very different, a senior defense source told the Magazine, adding that the ranges of the platforms and weaponry provide the IAF with the capability to get to places and targets that weren’t possible before. And not only can they reach destinations far from Israel’s borders, they can also continue with their mission when the enemy tries to prevent IAF jets from striking their targets.
With spectrum dominance provided by the Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Spice smart bomb family, the IAF can carry out precision strikes in a completely jammed environment from a stand-off range using AI-based munitions based on passive electro-optic capabilities. According to Weiss, Israel has had the ability to carry out strikes with low collateral damage for years, and munitions like the Spike and Spice “have the ability to provide for low collateral damage with the type of warhead used and its accuracy.”
Weiss explained that Rafael provides advanced weapons to IAF jets that can carry out precision strikes “when the entire arena is jammed” and there aren’t any GPS signals.
 
“We have plenty of tools in the box for the IAF to take out targets,” he said.
But it’s not only about taking out enemy targets. The IAF is also in charge of defending Israel’s skies from rocket and missile attacks. Israel has a comprehensive protective umbrella able to counter the growing missile threats from its enemies, and continuously improves the technology behind the country’s anti-missile systems.
The Iron Dome is designed to shoot down short-range rockets, the Arrow (Arrow-2 and Arrow-3) system intercepts ballistic missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, and the newly operational David’s Sling missile defense system is designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets, as well as cruise missiles fired at ranges from 40 to 300 km. 
Israel also has three Patriot system batteries as well as the naval Barak-8ER long-range surface-to-air missile (LRSAM) designed to defend ships against a myriad of short-to-long-range airborne threats like incoming missiles, planes and drones at both low or high altitudes. It has also had its range extended to intercept cruise missiles.
But that’s not all. 
The IAF wants even more systems to take down enemy missiles and this year, the Defense Ministry announced that it has been working for the past decade on the development of lasers to intercept a variety of aerial threats, including against rockets and anti-tank guided missiles. 
While most developments over the years – both in Israel and abroad – have been ineffective, significant achievements have been made over the past year and a half as a result of a collaboration between the ministry and defense companies like Rafael and Elbit Systems, as well as academic institutions. 
A senior defense source told the Magazine that such weapons are “much cheaper” and “less wasteful” than other missiles used by the air force.
“Today’s weapons are kinetic. When we want to destroy a target we send a missile and we think that such weapons are wasteful. Energy weapons, like lasers which can still destroy targets, are much cheaper,” he said. Though it is unclear when such a system will be operative, the source believes that the technology Israel is working with right now will make it possible to use the system in just a few years.
“Elbit is a world-leader on laser systems,” Elad Aharonson, general manager of Elbit’s ISTAR Division, said, adding that the company is “now working to make an airborne high-powered laser in order to down aerial enemy targets.” And while it will take several years, “we believe that laser weapons are very efficient and effective.”
Nevertheless, Aharonson said, “there is one issue at the moment: it can’t pass through clouds and therefore we think we have to place it above the clouds,” on planes to give it increased range and, eventually, on satellites.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s on a drone or a plane, these systems will be able to hit targets,” he said.
ISRAELI F-16 takes to the skies. (Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)ISRAELI F-16 takes to the skies. (Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)
WITH THE IDF moving toward a more multidimensional military with a focus on the interoperability of forces, Rafael and other Israeli defense companies are at the forefront of providing the IDF and IAF with cutting-edge technology.
With time-sensitive targets embedded deep into urban areas, the IAF understands that multidimensional maneuvering comes with airpower that will take out enemy targets before the soldiers on the ground arrive.
The multidimensional force that Kochavi envisions is not something so far off. The Defense Ministry has already acquired Rafael’s Fire Weaver system, which connects sensors and personnel, making for a “digitized battlespace” that reduces engagement times with targets and increases operational performance. Fire Weaver maps locations, points of interest, friendly personnel and enemy targets. All troops, from the soldier on the ground to the pilot in the air, are connected, looking at the exact same targets, and are helped by AI, which can analyze all information in real-time to prioritize fire allocation.
Providing these “netcentric capabilities to the warfighter is a solution that can be placed on all platforms and connect thousands of users on one network,” Weiss said. “This a flexible application that connects everyone and allows for everyone to know where everyone else is and share data like never before. It’s a revolution.”
Not only is it a revolution, it’s efficient and lethal – exactly what the Chief of Staff wants for his military.
WHILE Israel’s military can be considered one of the strongest in the Middle East, the IDF knows that the gap between it and its enemies is closing quickly. Though Israel is facing a deep economic crisis following the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the IDF and its spear, the IAF, know it needs to take advantage of this strategic opportunity to stay a step ahead of the enemy. 
With the shutting down of a squadron at the Ramat David airbase and aging helicopters and tankers being grounded, the IAF knows it needs to get enough new and advanced platforms to get the job done. 
The IAF has a significant part to play in the defense of the Jewish state. It must cause enough damage to the enemy to keep deterrence in place and defend the country’s skies from dangerous threats that only keep increasing in scope.