FORT WORTH, Texas - When you add up F-4 (Phantom), F-16 and F-15, you get F-35. The next fighter plane of the Israel Air Force is taking shape on Lockheed Martin's production line and flight lanes here, in Dallas' sister city. The industrial and technological prowess of the largest military corporation in the world, with annual revenues exceeding $40 billion, cannot fail to impress visitors from Israel. The thorn in the rose is a financial one: The F-35 will be right on the money, but only if paid in full.
The tizzy over possible war with Iran that gripped Israel last week is connected to the F-35 only by its absence: It would be best if the war were to wait for it. The first, and so far only, squadron that the Israel Defense Forces will buy - the deal should be signed in two months - will not be flying in Israel at full throttle, with the full complement of 19 aircraft, before 2018. (Israel is to take delivery of five planes in 2016 and seven in each of the succeeding two years. ) The delays in the F-35's development were very damaging to the Americans, since they do not have the available funds for aviation acquisitions that they did three or four years ago. For Israel, it's a mixed bag: The plane will be more expensive, but were it already part of the IAF's order of forces and delivering a stunning performance, the government would be that much more tempted to push the button.
The fundamental disagreement in Israel should be over national objectives. It is the operation outlines that are supposed to dictate the IDF's force structure, including the internal balance of power. As a matter of course this is replaced by a distorted argument over weaponry, including the F-15. Qualitatively, but not quantitatively, this argument has been decided. The first deal has been agreed, but not signed: Israel and Lockheed have two months to seal the deal over the proprietary and unique development costs for the air force, the electronics and communications surprises that will give it an advantage.
The numbers are guarded like a trade secret, but while the official price is between $65 million and $80 million per plane - about the same as the F-16 being produced this year - in fact it is not far from what you get when you divide the total price of the deal, $2.75 billion, by the number of aircraft; in other words, $110 million to $120 million per unit (plus added cost that will not recur for successive deals ). That is the leverage Lockheed has over Israel - buy more and get a quantity discount - but it also works in reverse. If Israel tightens its belt and postpones for five years the next acquisition, of 12 to 30 planes, the manufacturer's profits will be sharply reduced. It is in this arena that the bargaining is taking place, with the active participation of the Pentagon and the lure of fat contracts for Israel's military industries, from wingtip to the helmets that will be worn by the pilots from all eight partner nations, including Turkey.
Almost 4,000 F-35s will be manufactured over the next few decades, 2,400 of them for the U.S. army, navy and marines. Even if Israel fully exercises its purchase rights, buying 75 planes, they are a drop in the bucket by comparison. The Americans, who boast of having one of the best air forces in the world, are likely to be among the first to test the F-35 in the laboratory of truth that is the battlefield.
In the future, when most combat fleets in NATO (apart from France and perhaps Germany) and allied countries (Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Canada) are based on the F-35, Israel cannot afford to be excluded from the club. The F-35 squadron will be a flying Sayeret Matkal (the general staff's elite special-operations force). It will be capable of sneaking in, penetrating defenses and pulling additional forces after it. The armed, in-flight refueling, flying computer will be the aircraft of the next war. And that is another reason to postpone the date.
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