TEL AVIV — With an eye on Iran and other complex, heavily defended theaters, Israel is building up the infrastructure and indigenous capabilities needed to begin operating its first F-35 Adir (Awesome) stealth strike fighters by the end of 2017.
Its first pair of Adirs isn't scheduled to arrive here until December 2016, when they join the Israel Air Force's Golden Eagle squadron at Nevatim Air Base in the Negev desert.
"The stealth and other advanced capabilities provided by this fifth-generation fighter are self-evident," an IAF officer told Defense News when asked how the F-35 would maintain superiority over advanced anti-air systems, like the Russian S300 slated for delivery to Iran.
"Your options for attacking the enemy are much more numerous and practical," said Maj. E., an Adir project manager and one of the initial cadre of pilots tapped to fly the F-35.
"The things that we could do before will entail much less risk, and the things we might not have been able to do before will be rendered doable," said the officer, whose full name was withheld from publication for security reasons.
"It changes the psychology of the arena by allowing you to hit the enemy without him being able to stop you. ... It really is a game-changer and the enemy knows that," he added.
Similarly, the contractor is assessing Israeli concepts for external wing tanks to augment the 18,000 pounds of fuel carried internally by the F-35.
"We're studying proof of concept trade studies on carrying extra fuel," a Lockheed Martin program official told Defense News. "After you own the air space, you won't have to worry about stealth. So then you can add external tanks because you won't be worried about being detected."
Program officials here said work is progressing steadily to stand up an Adir logistics center at squadron headquarters at Nevatim Air Base. From there, the IAF will have full access to Lockheed Martin's Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), a worldwide sustainment network that gives operators the ability to plan, maintain and support the aircraft through their projected 55-year lifespan.
"When those missiles start falling, it means less flights coming into Israel and less ships docking at our ports. That's why Israel will maintain a unique option to do our own logistics and maintenance in wartime," he added.
Steve Over, Lockheed Martin director for F-35 International Business Development, said Israel will have "plenty of capability to do light maintenance in-country" precisely due to concerns of wartime disruptions. But heavy maintenance of the airframes and engines will be done at Joint Program Office-managed, company-established facilities "just like we do with all our other partners," Over said.
In a recent interview, Over explained that heavy maintenance must be performed under strict security, with program-mandated oversight measures. "When you tear an airplane down, you expose its magic. So that type of work must be performed in designated places."
In any case, such heavy depot-level maintenance work won't be needed for many years down the road, noted Mike Hao, Lockheed Martin F-35 Director for Israel. "New airplanes are not going to see that kind of maintenance for years to come, after 8,000-some hours."
"The Israelis have an ability to do some unique things. But anything wholesale that would impact the design or capabilities driving all the airplanes for all the countries would have to be done by consensual agreement," Over said.
Of the 75 F-35s approved by Washington for export to Israel, Tel Aviv has contracted for 33 aircraft, a first batch of 19 signed in 2010 and another 14 finalized in February of this year.
Defense sources here said Israel hopes to be in a position to sign on for another 17 planes during the course of its newest multiyear plan, which extends through 2020. All planes on order, as well as the additional purchases needed to reach a 50-aircraft fleet, are for the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing version.
"We're implementing the program of record that the Israelis signed with the US government and we're on track for the Israel Air Force to be in a position – with all the airplanes, pilot training, logistics, etc -- to declare IOC in 2017," said Rein.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.