MoD downplays reports of rift with US over fighter jet

While restrictions have been placed on Israel's participation in the development of a futuristic American stealth fighter jet, the Defense Ministry is currently rebuilding a "relationship of trust" with the US and planning to learn more about the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a senior ministry official said Thursday. Two weeks ago, media reports surfaced indicating that Israel was threatening to cancel plans to buy the advanced Lockheed Martin-developed F-35 due to a dispute over demands by the Ministry of Defense to integrate Israeli-manufactured technology into the aircraft. Israel, officials said at the time, was insisting it be allowed to upgrade the planes with its own technological warfare systems, as it has done with past fighter jets it bought from the US. But on Thursday, Shalom Ben-Natan, deputy director of procurement at the Defense Ministry, told reporters that the media had exaggerated the so-called "controversy." He added that while there were some restrictions in place, Israel planned to go ahead with its initial intention of learning about the aircraft, studying its capabilities and then deciding whether to purchase it. In 2003, Israel paid $20 million to join the JSF project with observer status, a move that granted it access to information accumulated during the development of the jet whose cost will be in the $40-50 million range. "We are continuing with the JSF project," Ben-Natan told reporters. "There are still discussions on how the jet will look in its final form [for Israel] and there is an ongoing process that we are in the midst of together with the project headquarters in Washington, DC." In 2005, Israel's observer status in the JSF project was revoked after the US accused Israel of upgrading Chinese drones. Then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz reached an agreement with the US later in the year which allowed Israel to return to the project but placed restrictions on local defense industries in selling weaponry to China. Ben-Natan said that since last year he has held two meetings with JSF officials which he hoped would return Israel to the original status it had been granted when it joined the project in 2003. "Despite the restrictions that have been placed on us we are continuing with the dialogue and there is a readiness on both sides to find solutions," he said. Tom Burbage, executive vice president at Lockheed Martin and general manager of the JSF program, said his company was currently conducting "trade studies" to evaluate Israel's needs and requirements in anticipation that it will decide to procure the aircraft. Burbage, in Israel for talks with Defense Ministry and IAF officials, said that the issue of allowing Israel to integrate its own technology in the jet was being discussed on a "government-to-government" level and was not a matter dealt with by Lockheed Martin.