Israel plans to keep its aerial domination of the Middle East intact, and that includes buying Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, accelerating its first deliveries, and deciding whose advanced equipment will be packed into the stealthy strike aircraft.
A senior Israeli air force (IAF) official says those major areas of concern appear to be on the right track because of an "understanding" with the U.S. officials. Washington's representatives are more ambiguous, saying that there has been no official change to Israel's F-35 program.
"The plan is that we will get the F-35 as soon as it's possible," the senior IAF official says. He says the service will end up with more than 100 F-35s, but he would not confirm the size of the purchase or that Israel is asking that the initial delivery date be accelerated by two years to 2012. The IAF wants the JSF "the minute it is available."
"Israel has a unique requirement, it doesn't operate in a coalition, [and it has a] different kind of strategic relationship" with the U.S. than the other F-35 partners," says Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin's vice president and general manager for the F-35. However, he says the overseas release of the first export aircraft will be no sooner than 2014.
The purchase, which could include an initial batch of 25 aircraft, is still being negotiated. Brig. Gen. Johanan Locker, head of the IAF's air division, was in Fort Worth as recently as late November.
Israel's ambitions to integrate indigenous weaponry also pose some problems for the program. The weapons road map for the Blocks 1-3 F-35 standards has already been drawn up with no Israeli weaponry on the list. Partner nations are currently working on a list for Block 4, but there's pressure to cut weapons from the process rather than add them. Israel undoubtedly will want its F‑35s to carry the Rafael Python 5 air-to-air missile and possibly its successor, as well as the Rafael Spice family of precision-guided weapons.
Moreover, an influential retired IAF general says total sales will be limited by the JSF's disadvantages. He points to its overdependence on stealth, a single crewman and what could be proprietary U.S. avionics.
"Eventually somebody will come up with a way to detect it," he says. "A stealthy configuration also means you can't carry additional weaponry on the exterior. The weapons system is more important than stealth. Israel will have F-35s, but not as many as we once thought."
Smaller numbers won't detract from the aircraft's deterrence value, he concedes. Even a small fleet will ensure a first-day-of-war, surprise-strike capability. But once daily combat operations escalate, nonstealthy aircraft aided by standoff weapons, escort jammers and information operations will sustain air operations.
Nonetheless, he worries that the JSF will start showing its limitations within five years. Among the drawbacks will be its one-person crew. As a result, "we can't operate the F-35 by itself," the retired general says. "We really need two-seaters, with one person concentrating on flying and someone else focused on the strike mission. One man can't take advantage of all the options," particularly since JSF capabilities will include jamming, information warfare and network attack.
Inevitably, the avionics will present an area of contention. For example, Israeli aerospace officials say they can offer a tailored, active, electronically scanned array radar for less money than an AESA bought from the U.S. However, many of the electronic warfare and attack techniques are routed through the radar to produce jamming, false-target and other effects at ranges of 125 mi. or more. As a result, integration could be difficult and expensive.
Elta, the electronics division of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), has a version of the AESA, according to the retired general. "We need our own radar that we don't share with others. We also need our own advanced radar warning and active jamming." The Israeli AESA was flown last year; but for now it remains a generic system, not tailored to any specific aircraft?although it's sized for an F-16, an Elta official says. Flight trials are continuing.
For more on Israel's request for the JSF from our friends at Aviation Week, please visit the full story on Military.com.