But don’t expect immediate changes to manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s bottom line or for other F-35 users to rush the plane into warzones, experts told Defense News.
Israel Air Force head Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin announced on Tuesday during an IAF conference that the aircraft had already participated in two airstrikes over the Middle East, making Israel the first country to operate an F-35 in combat.
“The Adir planes are already operational and flying in operational missions. We are the first in the world to use the F-35 in operational activity,” he said, according to a tweet by the Israel Defense Forces’ official Twitter account. Adir is the IAF’s designation for its F-35s and means “Mighty One.”
Norkin also showed a photo of the aircraft flying over Beirut, Lebanon, reported the news outlet Haaretz.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, called the IAF’s use of the F-35 in combat “the best endorsement the F-35 can get” and said it would be particularly useful going forward in Syria.
“The Syria conflict calls for careful targeting and maximum survivability, the F-35’s two strongest attributes. It has its limits, but in this contingency it should excel,” he said. “It certainly provides other users and potential customers with a high level of confidence that the aircraft and its systems work in real world conditions.”
Israel has a long history of sending its aircraft into combat soon after it becomes operational. Legendary IAF pilot Moshe Marom-Melnik became the first person to shoot down an enemy aircraft with the F-15 in 1979, FlightGlobal reported. Meanwhile, it took until Operation Desert Storm in 1991 for the U.S. Air Force to do the same.
When Israel has a new platform, it uses it as rapidly as possible so pilots can increase their skills, said Abraham Assael, a retired IAF brigadier general and CEO of the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.
“It’s a great platform with a lot of capabilities. So we try to get the maximum of it. And I feel they are doing the upmost to do it well and professionally, because it’s a process to learn the machine and induct it within the air force. It’s not an easy task,” he said.
Aboulafia said the F-35’s real-world experience could have an impact for Lockheed Martin in markets like Canada, Japan or the United Kingdom, which are publicly or reportedly considering alternatives to the F-35.
However, Assael said he didn’t know whether the milestone would have much of an affect on F-35 sales to Israel. The country is still deciding whether to expand its F-35 order beyond the 50 jets under contract or to buy more F-15s.
“There is a discussion nowadays within the air force and within the IDF [on] where is the best investment,” he said. “And I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
What the event means for U.S. use of the jet in the Middle East is also hard to say. One Marine Corps’ F-35B squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 arrives at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, has found a permanent home at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan. The Air Force has temporarily deployed its F-35As to England and Japan.
However, service leaders have not detailed immediate plans to send the F-35 to the Middle East. Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, a former head of Air Combat Command, said in 2017 that he believed such an event could take place in the “not too distant future,” but current Air Force leadership have not raised the issue publicly.
Just because the IAF have now proven that the joint strike fighter can be used successfully in the region doesn’t mean the U.S. military will be rushing to deploy the F-35 to Central Command, said David Deptula, a former Air Force lieutenant general and currently the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
“Each of the countries that possess operational F-35s will use them to further their individual national security needs — those most likely will be different and will not necessarily affect one another,” he told Defense News. “That said, the first combat use of the F-35 confirms its operational utility and insights will be gained as a result.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.