“The F-35 development program has been plagued by frequent delays and mounting cost overruns. The design compromises that have to be made to accommodate its goal of serving as a joint strike fighter that will be acquired by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and the Marines have limited its performance capabilities. In the meantime, anti-stealth technology is being developed and may yet neutralize what is being advertised as the aircraft's major advantage before delivery or within its operational lifetime. Russia and Indian are developing a more advanced aircraft, the Sukhoi T-50 (Su-57), which is certain to be sold to Arab air forces and to face the IAF's aircraft in the future.”
- Moshe Arens, formerly three time Israeli Defence Minister, Foreign Minister, ambassador to the United States and aeronautical engineer.
As part of Israel’s longstanding defence partnership with the United States, under which the country has relied almost exclusively on U.S. made combat aircraft for it aerial warfare capabilities for over fifty years, Tel Aviv was alongside Singapore allowed to become the only non NATO and non Western participant in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. The two states were the F-35’s only Security Cooperative Participants - though Singapore has yet to place an order for or make a definite decision to purchase the fighters. The F-35A, the most widely exported variant of the JSF designed for the U.S. Air Force, was a fifth generation light multirole fighter intended to replace the ageing F-16 and was the first U.S. stealth fighter ever to be made available for export. With the F-16 being by far the most numerous platform operated by the Israeli Air Force, the fighter’s very first export customer in the late 1970s, Israel is set to acquire the F-35A in large numbers. The Israeli Air Force declared its first F-35 fighters operational in December 2017.
While the F-35A does provide Israel’s Air Force with its first ever stealth platform and a considerable capability upgrade relative to the F-16, an analysis of Israeli defence needs and the growing threats facing the embattled Middle Eastern state indicate that the induction of the JSF is hardly adequate to ensure the country’s continued security. Israel’s Air Force has long relied on elite U.S. heavy fighters such as the third generation F-4 Phantom during the Yom Kippur War and the fourth generation F-15 Eagle since the late 1970s to guarantee air superiority against near peer adversaries. This was a role light and unspecialised platforms such as the F-5 and F-16 were never capable of fulfilling reliably, and had the Israeli Air Force lacked the most advanced U.S. made heavy air superiority platforms its history would have been very different. With Israel’s potential adversaries, namely Syria and Iran, taking steps to modernise and enhance their aerial warfare capabilities and acquire some of the most advanced Russian made hardware available, Israel more than ever needs a more modern air superiority fighter to replace the ageing F-15.
While the U.S. fifth generation analogue to the F-16 light fighter is the F-35A, its analogue to the F-15 is the elite F-22 Raptor, a fighter which Israel showed profound interest in acquiring. With the U.S. Congress banning the Raptor from export however, and with the platform's production having since been terminated, Israel alongside a number of other longstanding U.S. military clients were left in a far weaker position. The F-35 was never designed for air superiority, and should Iran or Syria acquire a modern next generation air superiority platform such as the Su-35 or Su-57 the outdated Israeli F-15 fleet would be wholly inadequate to counter it. With state of the art Russian surface to air missile systems and fighter aircraft proliferating throughout the Middle East and East Africa, Israeli is set to lose its treasured and longstanding advantage in its aerial warfare capabilities.
While the U.S. military designed the F-35 to rely heavily on its stealth capabilities for survivability, Israel’s military has indicated that it places little faith in these systems in the face of ever advancing anti aircraft technologies fielded against it. Israel as a result insisted that its Air Force be allowed to modify its F-35A fighters with indigenous electronic warfare systems to enhance its survivability and complement its stealth capabilities, and though this request was initially refused the U.S. eventually acquiesced to the request of its ally. While Israel was not confident in the F-35’s performance, the country based its own variant, the F-35I, on the original F-35A and added its own sensors, countermeasures, and other electronic warfare systems alongside a ‘plug-and-play’ feature to allow additional Israeli electronics to be installed later on. The Israeli Air Force is set to add external jamming pods, and new Israeli made short range air to air missiles and guided bombs to further customise the fighter. Israel is the only state which has developed a domestic variant of the F-35 in this way.
Israel’s customisation of the F-35 comes as part of a long history of the country indigenously modernising U.S. made fighter aircraft, the F-16 and F-15 included, to enhance their combat capabilities and particularly to increase their survivability. While Israeli F-16 fighters would normally find themselves extremely vulnerable if operating over Syrian airspace and take extremely heavy losses considering the frequency of Israeli Air Force operations over the country, because Israel managed to modernise its fleet with state of the art electronic warfare systems it can fly the F-16I, its own variant of the platform, into heavily defended Syrian airspace and incur minimal losses. Had it operated the standard F-16C used by the U.S. and its allies for such operations, losses would have been considerably higher.
A senior IAF official’s statement indicated that similarly to the F-16 before it, the F-35 was set to become vulnerable to anti aircraft weapons systems such as surface to air missiles within ten years, possibly in less than five years, as more advanced anti stealth weapons systems were developed and deployed. The S-400 surface to air missile system currently proliferating across the Middle East, with unrivalled anti stealth capabilities, remains but one example of this. This analysis is particularly accurate when taking into account that the F-35’s stealth profile is hardly the smallest or most survivable in the world, to the extent that it has been derided as ‘pseudo stealthy’ by Western analysts when compared to the F-22 or B-2. The official concluded: “We think the stealth protection will be good for 5-10 years, but the aircraft will be in service for 30-40 years, so we need electronic warfare capabilities (for the F-35) that can be rapidly improved. The basic F-35 design is OK. We can make do with adding integrated software.”