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.
But between now and late 2017, with expected declaration of initial operational capability (IOC), work is progressing on parallel tracks, one within the overall multinational program and the other at the bilateral level, where Israel is counting on continued US government support for integrating weaponry and other program elements. needed to meet unique operational requirements.
"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.
In interviews here and in the United States, program officials say said prime contractor Lockheed Martin, at Washington’s behest, is working with state-owned Rafael to adapt locally built air-to-ground weaponry for the belly of the plane.
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."
Israeli defense and industry sources said that ultimately they hope to develop F-35 conformal fuel tanks that are stealthy. , an admittedly nontrivial feat. Nevertheless, they say it is well worth the effort given that it will more than double the range it would provide with very low risk of detection.
"It’s short-sighted to expect that all the smart people working here on conformal fuel tanks will not manage to make them stealthy," . The technology allows this," the IAF officer said. of early development work on extending F-35 range.
As for supporting the new assets, Israel has already secured an exemption from F-35 program protocol to perform sustainment and all but very major maintenance work in country, rather than at Lockheed Martin-established logistics centers.
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.
"The ingenious, automated ALIS system that Lockheed Martin has built will be very efficient and cost-effective, but the only downfall is that it was built for countries that don’t have missiles falling on them," said the IAF program official.
"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."
Lockheed executives noted that in addition to all but major depot-level maintenance, Israel also would be able to add specific capabilities or upgrade support functions as long as it did not affect the overall design or the software programmed into the aircraft. They pointed out that Norway, for example, is adding a drag chute to its fleet due to concerns of icy runways.
"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.
Meanwhile, the IAF is gearing up to send its first cadre of pilots to train in Arizona at the US Air Force Luke Air Force Base by the middle of next year. In parallel, the IAF plans to send dozens of maintenance professionals to train at US Air Force logistics bases at Eglin, Florida, and other places in the United States. , depending on specialty areas of expertise
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.
At some later point — in the farther future -- or perhaps nearer term, depending on the level of additional security assistance forthcoming from Washington — Israel may opt for 25 F-35Bs. Short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities designed for the F-35B version, sources here said, may be more compelling if Israel determines that its runways are vulnerable to enemy missile threats.
"There’s no dilemma on the first 50; those will be F-35As," said the IAF program official. "After that, if we go to a full 75 airplanes, the STOVL version is something to be considered. There are advantages and disadvantages in this option. But it’s always nice to retain the option," he said.
Mike Rein, Lockheed Martin director of F-35 communications, said the firm is making steady progress in working with Israeli partners and the US government to meet delivery schedules and Israel-unique requirements.
"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.