TEL AVIV — Nearly a decade of planning preceded Monday's scheduled delivery of the first F-35Is to the Israel Air Force (IAF), but once they touch down at the stealth fighter's desert base at Nevatim, another process will just begin, with vast implications on how Israel wields airpower near and very far from home.
From the single network that will support the IAF's ability to use the fifth-generation Adir (Awesome/Magnificent) alongside fourth-generation fighters to hunt and fight in packs to the means by which it trains and maintains its combined force, the new F-35Is will be driving wholesale changes throughout the mightiest air force in the Middle East.
"The IAF needs to adapt itself to this fifth-generation plane, and not vice versa," a general officer on the IAF Air Staff told Defense News.
"We need to look at all our existing concepts and to re-evaluate them as a result of this capability. We'll ask questions we never asked before, because we've been used to training, operating and supporting according to fourth-generation concepts."
Israel's F-35 flies during tests on July 27, 2016.
Photo Credit: Liz Lutz/Lockheed Martin
From "Day 1" of the Adir's arrival, the general officer said the new fighters will be co-located with an F-16I "escorting squadron" to allow the service to determine all it needs for seamless integration of its frontline fighter force.
"We need this quality team from Day 1 to live together, train together and learn all they need to speak the same language," the officer said.
"We've defined the team's mission as escorting the Adir and leading the way to joining fourth- and fifth-generation elements of our force," he said.
"Of course, this F-16I squadron will have other missions. It's not a dedicated team in the purest sense, since we don't have the luxury of a stand-alone squadron. But their mission is clear: As smartly and as quickly as possible, we need to create a truly integrated force of fourth- and fifth-generation assets."
As an example of "refusing to be locked into old concepts," the officer cited the distances at which IAF fighters currently fly in operational formation; distances now determined by visual contact.
"We shouldn't be using this plane in visual range. So it's likely that we'll fly differently in the formation," he said.
Israel's F-35I flies during tests on July 25, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas.
Photo Credit: Liz Lutz/Lockheed Martin
Composition of force packages will also change, since the F-35I's stealth capabilities should lessen the need in many combat scenarios for beefed up support and special mission aircraft.
All that, he emphasizes, is predicated on Israel's ability to integrate its own communication system produced by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and electronic warfare capabilities by Elbit's Elisra in the new Adir force.
"At this point, it's still theoretical. The F-35s that arrive here are basic aircraft. We need to integrate all these capabilities so have self-sufficiency with communications and electronic warfare. This is crucial for us to allow the networked connection with our four-generation force.
"Otherwise, if the F-35 is detached from the rest of our force, it has no significance in terms of networked operations force-wide," he added.
In terms of maintenance, the officer noted that the new F-35I comes with its own simulator for technicians; something that the service may seek to replicate for fourth-generation fighters.
"Before, when we thought about simulators, we thought about pilot training. But now there is a simulator for technicians, and we may want this for our fourth-generation aircraft," he said.
And unlike other partner members of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, where depot-level maintenance will be performed at designed depots, Israel has been working with the US government and Lockheed Martin to ensure that no F-35I aircraft will ever leave the country.
"The intention is that the platform stays here. That's obvious, due to our clear and compelling need for self-sufficiency," the general officer said.
"Of course, some elements we may need to send to another place to fix. But in most cases, we should we able to replace them from what's on the shelf … The important thing is that we will not send aircraft out of the country."
He noted that because the aircraft are new, depot-level maintenance should not be relevant for years — perhaps more than a decade — to come, given the manufacturers advertised lifespan of some 50 years. But once it becomes relevant, Israel hopes to have put in place a process whereby depot-level work will be done in-country.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, other top US officials and a cadre of Lockheed Martin executives are expected to participate in Dec. 12 acceptance ceremonies at the F-35I Adir's home base at Nevatim.
In a Dec. 11 statement highlighting the "awesome/magnificent" meaning attached to F-35I's chosen name of Adir, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman praised his Carter for contribution to Israeli security.
"It's only symbolic that Carter's tenure as Secretary of Defense is concluding with the arrival of the Adir to Israel … because like the aircraft, Carter's contribution to the security of Israel was, indeed, awesome."
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.