TEL AVIV, Israel — The Israeli Air Force on Wednesday declared its initial squadron of nine F-35 stealth fighters ready for operational use, less than a year after the first two fifth-generation fighters were delivered to the country by the U.S. Air Force.
In a Dec. 6 announcement, the Israel Defense Forces noted that Israel is the only country besides the U.S. to declare operational capability for the F-35 — a weapon system that “enhances strategic and operational capabilities” and improves readiness “in a wide range of scenarios and threats in all arenas.”
While an early December initial operational capability had been long-planned by the Israeli Air Force and F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin, the announcement comes after multiple strikes in Syria attributed to the Israeli Air Force earlier in the week. In at least two attacks over a 72-hour period earlier in the week, the Syrian regime announced that it had launched surface-to-air missiles against Israeli aircraft.
Israel has not confirmed or denied its role in the recent Syrian attacks. Yet, it has publicly insisted it would act to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent presence in the war-torn country north of its border. At a Jerusalem Post conference on Dec. 6, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s most immediate challenge “is not to allow Iran to take over Syria.”
“We mean what we say and we act on our words,” he added.
In a letter to men and women of the Israeli Air Force, Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin highlighted the service’s high-tempo operations on multiple fronts in what he termed a “dynamic Middle East.”
The announcement of initial operational capability for the F-35, he said, “comes at a time in which the IAF is operating on a large scale on a number of fronts in a dynamic Middle East. The constantly evolving and complex challenges are met with a high-quality and professional aerial response. The operationalization of the [F-35] adds another level to the [Israel Air and Space Force]’s capabilities at this time,” Norkin wrote.
In a recent interview, retired Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, the former Israeli Air Force commander who signed off on the decision to procure the F-35, told this reporter that the fifth-generation fighter offers “unique strategic advantage here in this neighborhood, both in terms of deterrence and also operational capabilities.”
According to Nehushtan, the service is working methodically and capably to integrate “unique Israeli capabilities” into the new F-35 force and to integrate the new fighters into a network that encompasses the rest of Israel’s combat air power.
“We certainly will see the benefits of having the unique virtues of these F-35 capabilities in the Middle East,” he said. “This know-how is developing, and I’m sure the IAF will know how best to utilize the F-35 and integrate it into the greater IAF and to apply these holistic capabilities to the challenges Israel faces.”
When asked whether the F-35 would play a lead role in a possible strike on Iran, the former Air Force commander replied: “If or when the state of Israel determines the need to exercise its sovereign right to self-defense, the F-35 absolutely will be a key player.”
He noted, however, that given Iran’s apparent compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Tehran, he doesn’t foresee near-term use of military force. “The agreement actually put Iran at some distance away [from a nuclear bomb] in the short term. But in the long term, it certainly has holes. Nevertheless, we’re now living in an international context of the agreement. So I don’t see, in that context, any attack coming soon.”
Israel has contracted for 50 F-35s, and long-term plans envision another 25 aircraft later in the coming decade.
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.