HERZLIYA, Israel — Defense Minister Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon told visiting Lockheed Martin executives and test pilots Tuesday that Israel’s planned F-35I force would allow it to preserve the nation’s qualitative military edge (QME) against regional adversaries.
Following a briefing at Air Force House in Herzliya, Israel, by Jack Crisler, F-35 vice president for business development and strategic integration, and Chief Test Pilot Alan Norman, Ya’alon said he heard “all the comments” and criticisms of the big-ticket program, yet is confident the fifth generation fighter — with Israeli-unique add-ons — would serve Israel well for generations to come.
“This plane is already operational in the US, and has flown not a few flight hours — more than 50,000 during the test program,” Ya’alon said. “We obviously will add our own capabilities, our knowledge and our experience to each plane. … I’m very happy that we’ll know how to preserve the qualitative military edge of the Israel Defense Forces and of the Israel Air Force through acquisition of this important plane.”
Ya’alon said he intends to attend the rollout of the first F-35I in Fort Worth, Texas, this summer and that plans are on track to receive the first two aircraft by the end of the year.
In a conference on Sunday, Brig. Gen. Tal Kalman, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) chief of staff, said the service expects to declare an initial operational capability (IOC) — the first of any nation other than the US — at the end of 2017, less than a year after taking receipt of the first aircraft.
“We’re happy to be one of the first countries, one of the first air forces in the world, to operate this aircraft. We will render it operational not long after it is received here, and we will continue to receive more and more aircraft over the years,” Ya’alon said.
Israel has signed on for 33 aircraft thus far: a first batch of 19 in 2010, and another tranche of 14 in February 2015. A follow-on order for an additional 17 planes — expected later this year, provided the US and Israel conclude a new 10-year aid package — would bring Israel’s committed number of F-35Is to 50.
Washington has preapproved 75 aircraft to Israel.
But procurement beyond the three-squadron, 50-aircraft force will depend on the top line amount of grant aid that the US is willing to offer Israel once the current security assistance package expires in 2018, Ya’alon said.
When asked Tuesday whether Israel intended to procure additional F-35s or another squadron of F-15Is, Ya’alon referred to ongoing negotiations with Washington over the new 10-year aid package. “There’s a very important question as to what will be the amount of American security assistance from October 2018 and beyond. This subject is still open,” he said.
Under the current agreement signed in 2007, Israel will receive $30 billion over a ten-year period. In the follow-on agreement, which will extend through 2028, Israel wants to augment that amount well beyond $40 billion.
“Once the amount is determined, we’ll know what we’ll be able to budget for in terms of the capabilities the US is willing to release to us,” Ya’alon said.
“The US is ready to release to us additional F-35 squadrons and also an additional squadron of advanced F-15s, as well as additional capabilities. The question is whether the sum of security assistance will enable us to fund not only these capabilities, but many others as well.”