TEL AVIV – Israel's scheduled Dec. 12 receipt of its first pair of F-35I Adir (Awesome) fighters caps nearly a decade of planning, and that's all before a single Israel Air Force pilot has actually taken to the skies in its new stealth weapon.
Israeli pilots have been training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for more than a year, but unlike F-35 compatriots from the US, Norway, Australia and other nations who are actually flying the fifth-generation fighter, Israel has elected to limit pilot training to course work and the high-fidelity simulator built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.
"We haven't yet flown on the plane. That was our choice," a general officer on the Israel Air Force (IAF) headquarters staff told Defense News.
"Decades ago, when we prepared for our first F-15s and F-16s, we needed to fly in the aircraft. But today, the situation is different for two key reasons: Firstly, the simulators are so reliable and secondly, it's a single-seater. So it doesn't matter if we fly here or there, because there's no instructor up there with you in the cockpit," the senior officer said.
He added, "We've gone through extensive simulator training and we've received all the information we needed through wonderful cooperation. … From our point of view, once they land here on 12 December, we're ready to fly."
Israel will take delivery of its first Adir fighters once two US Air Force pilots touch down at the Israel Air Force (IAF) Nevatim Base in the Negev desert in Dec. 12 ceremonies. One of the American F-35 acceptance pilots, Maj. Elijah "Animal" Supper, billed next week's event as "historic."
In a video released Thursday by the Israeli military, Supper congratulated the state of Israel for its imminent receipt of the fifth-generation fighter. "It's a historic moment for you, the world, and specifically the region receiving this jet," he said.
Col. Asaf, the deputy commander of the F-35I's designated home base at Nevatim, told reporters here that work to stand up the new Adir Squadron started about 18 months ago. The officer, whose surname was withheld for security reasons, said the sprawling base – one of three built after the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt – would house five operational squadrons, including the new 140th Squadron of new F-35Is.
In addition to simulator-based pilot and aircrew training at Luke, ground crews have been training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and elsewhere in the US on maintaining and supporting the service's newest acquisition, he said. At home, he noted that the IAF has completed construction of new facilities and underground hangars to accommodate the new fleet.
"This base is the biggest and most rapidly growing base in Israel," the officer said. "To prepare for receipt of this new capability, we now have a lot of new buildings for ground and operational support. Some structures have been upgraded and others were built from scratch to host the airplane, its systems, its engines, avionics."
The F-35 simulator will feature prominently in the expanded Nevatim base, officers here said.
By the end of next year, with nine F-35Is delivered into Israeli hands, the service expects to be in a position to declare Initial Operational Capability (IOC), officers here said.
Israel is under contract for 33 F-35A-model aircraft and is expected to conclude by spring a follow-on order with the US government for another 17 A-model fighters.
Future plans include acquisition of another 25 F-35Is – possibly F-35B-model short-takeoff and landing versions – which would up Israel's stealth force to a full 75 aircraft.
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.