WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin has officially begun assembly of Israel's first F-35 "Adir" fighter jet at the company's facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

The aircraft, designated AS-1, last week began its "mate" process, where the major components are joined to form the full structure, according to a Jan. 10 Lockheed statement. Lockheed plans to deliver AS-1 to the Israeli Air Force (IAF) later this year.

"These 5th Generation aircraft will greatly enhance the IAF’s ability to defend the State of Israel from the serious threats we face," said Aharon Marmarosh, director of the Israel Ministry of Defense Mission in New York, said in the statement.

Israel has plans to buy a total of 33 of the Air Force F-35A conventional takeoff and landing aircraft to replace its aging F-15s and F-16s. Israel is also a key contributor to development of the plane; its Elbit Systems Ltd is partnered with Rockwell Collins on the Generation III helmet, which provides pilots a 360-degree view of the battlefield.

"Today marks a new beginning for tactical aviation for Israel," said Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin F-35 program manager, according to the statement. "Lockheed Martin is proud of our long and storied relationship with Israel's armed forces. The F-35A Adir strengthens our solid relationship with the IAF and ensures that the Israeli aerospace industry will remain strong for decades to come."

Lockheed successfully delivered 45 F-35s to international partners and the US services in 2015, meeting the production goal for the year. But this is only the beginning of a global ramp-up: By the end of 2019, the Joint Program Office will have 493 operational jets around the globe, compared with just 126 today.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

More In Air Warfare