By Yaakov Lappin/JNS
After they were deemed combat capable earlier this month, the F-35 “Adir” stealth fighter jets promise to create system-wide change in the Israeli Air Force (IAF).
Israel is the first nation outside the U.S. to declare the initial operational capability of the American-produced F-35s.
Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ephraim Segoli, a former commander of two combat helicopter squadrons who today heads the Airpower Research Center at the Israel-based Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, said the F-35 “is not just a plane, but a system in its own right.”
“It serves the entire air force, through its range of sensors and ability to communicate what it collects,” he told JNS. “This is not a platform that should be measured like other planes, in terms of how far it can fly, or how many bombs it can carry. It has a bigger contribution to make, through its many sensors, and ability to cooperate with the rest of the air force and distribute and produce [intelligence] data.”
The IAF plans to build two squadrons of F-35 jets, comprising a total of 50 aircraft. The jets are based at the Nevatim Air Force Base in Israel’s Negev desert. Nine of the planes have arrived so far, and five more are expected to join the IAF in 2018.
Segoli, who commanded the Palmachim helicopter and drone base south of Tel Aviv, said the IAF sometimes begins using air platforms before officially announcing that they are operational.
“In my experience, we began using tools as soon as they arrived, while exercising the required caution,” he said.
Commenting on reports regarding glitches in the F-35’s software, he explained, “This is a very sophisticate plane. Every new system has mistakes. Some are linked to the platform and some are linked to the very advanced computerization.”
Ultimately, Segoli said, the IAF will need to answer the question of how to use such an advanced aircraft in its day-to-day task of engaging Israel’s asymmetric threats, notably the Hamas and Hezbollah terror groups.
“What is the big challenge for Israel? Hamas/Hezbollah, or Iran? The defense minister says Iran, but the [IDF] chief of staff says Hezbollah. Some say this plane is designed for big, distant things,” he said, alluding to options for long-range strikes against Iranian targets.
“I think this plane will also have to be used in the day-to-day challenges that we deal with in Lebanon and Gaza,” Segoli said.
The F-35 would be particularly useful in dealing with advanced surface-to-air missiles that are proliferating across the Middle East and falling into enemy hands, he added.
“The IAF should not keep this plane for just the day that the order comes [to hit Iran], which may or may not come. Without trivializing the Iranian threat, we have immediate threats to deal with,” said Segoli.
At the same time, according to Segoli, the F-35’s stealth features are not foolproof.
“We can’t rest on our laurels and assume the planes can infiltrate any system,” he said. “We are in a very sensitive area, which has turned into a playground for the powers. The Russians are here with sophisticated radars. The Iranians are getting closer to us. This plane will be challenged with all sorts of attempts to cancel out its stealth. It is clear to me that the IAF is aware of this.”
A new era
The air force described the plane’s entry into service as the start of a “new era.” The IAF’s 140th Squadron, dubbed Golden Vulture, will fly the F-35s.
Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, commander of the IAF, said Dec. 6 that the F-35’s milestone “comes at a time in which the IAF is operating on a large scale on a number of fronts in a dynamic Middle East.”
Tal Inbar, who heads the Fisher Institute’s space research center, noted the significance of Israel being the first and only state in the Middle East to possess a warplane as advanced as the F-35.
“The technological jump of the plane compared to all other planes in the area is enormous, but the jump in operational capabilities is no less important. The freedom of maneuver that the air force gets has been significantly strengthened,” Inbar told JNS.
He said the weapons systems and “advanced electronic systems” on board the jet take Israel from having air superiority to “controlling the air space in a very wide area.”
Is the fighter jet era fading away?
Yiftah Shapir, a weapons expert and former researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that despite the F-35’s highly advanced features, the relatively small number of the warplanes in Israel’s possession prevents the stealth jet from having a huge immediate impact.
“Even if we buy 50, the IAF will still have to conduct most of its sorties with the [older] existing jets,” he said.
Though he acknowledged the F-35’s advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities, Shapir argued that the jet will still rely on intelligence gathered from other sources “in the types of operations we need.”
“We also need communications intelligence, and human intelligence, for the surgical operations we conduct,” he said.
Shapir compared the arrival of the new aircraft with the introduction of “the best cavalry force ever seen” by the American officer George S. Patton in 1913, just before the eruption of World War I.
“In my eyes, the F-35 is like the best cavalry sword,” said Shapir. “It’s the best-ever fighter jet, in an era when the role of fighter jets is slowly disappearing.”