IAF officials say Pentagon deal jets may include push to end congressional sales ban.
By YAAKOV KATZ
The Israel Air Force is hopeful that a new Pentagon plan to buy 60 F-22 stealth fighter jets will include a push to end a congressional ban on exporting the stealth aircraft, senior defense officials have told The Jerusalem Post.
"If the F-22 is made available, we will bring it here as soon as possible, no matter what the price is," a top IAF officer said last week. "To have strong deterrence and to win a conflict, we need to have the best aircraft in existence."
A single-seater, double-engine aircraft, the F-22 achieves stealth though a combination of its shape, composite materials, color and other integrated systems, and can fly in enemy airspace without being detected.
Israel has had its sights on the F-22 since its development began in the early 1990s. Today, it is the only 5th generation fighter jet fully operational with stealth capabilities. It is called the "Raptor" by the US Air Force, which operates squadrons out of Virginia, Florida and New Mexico.
Last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said the US Air Force planned to buy 60 more F-22s, bringing the total number ordered to 243. One reason the USAF wanted additional F-22s, Mullen said, was out of concern that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - which is currently under development by Lockheed Martin and which Israel plans to purchase - would run into delays.
"It's very important we have capability to bridge to that [F-35] system with respect to the broad range of capabilities for the country," Mullen was quoted as saying.
Each F-22 costs about $150 million, and the jet's rising cost is one reason the USAF has scaled back from initial procurement plans of more than 700 to 243.
The American media has speculated that the new USAF order will include a push to end the congressional ban on the export of the F-22. In addition to Israel, Japan and Australia have expressed interest in purchasing the aircraft.
Winslow Wheeler, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, told the Post that the USAF was interested in removing the congressional ban to raise production volume and thus lower the price of each plane. However, he said the F-22 would still be overpriced and would be disappointing in its performance.
While the IAF is currently determined to purchase the JSF F-35, defense officials said Sunday that an official order would only be made toward the second quarter of 2009, once the final price of the plane was determined.
In the meantime, the IAF is exploring purchasing additional F-16s and F-15s to replace older model aircraft that will be phased out in the coming years, as well as to fill the gap that will be created if the JSF is delayed as Mullen predicts. Lockheed Martin has said that Israel would begin receiving the JSF in 2014 if it placed an order in the coming months.
"If the JSF is significantly delayed, we will once again consider purchasing additional F-15Is," a military source said.
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