The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at its 2006 rolling-out ceremony in Texas.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at its 2006 rolling-out ceremony in Texas. Photo by AP
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Israeli air crews will get their first opportunity to train on the next generation of Israel Air Force fighter jets in early 2016, on bases in the United States. In December of that year, the IAF is scheduled to take delivery in Israel of two F-35 aircrafts. About a year after that the IAF will activate its first operational squadron with the new aircraft, according to the schedule that has been agreed among the Israeli defense establishment, the Pentagon and the U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corporation.

The details were squared away last week during a visit to Israel by senior Lockheed officials that included meetings with top Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry officials. In an interview with Haaretz, Larry Lawson, head of the delegation and executive vice president of aeronautics for Lockheed, said his company is actually ahead of schedule for 2012 on what is the biggest aircraft manufacturing program of its kind in the world. "People's confidence level in the program continues to rise," Lawson said.

One spot on Lawson's tour was the Nevatim IAF base in the Negev, where Israel's first F-35 squadron will be established. While the U.S. manufacturing schedule may be beating its goals, the Israeli side has its eye on the overall lag in the program when compared to its original schedule, amounting to several months.

"Aircraft development is complicated," a senior IDF official said. "This is the first time we are buying a new aircraft while it's still in development, rather than off-the-shelf. A good partnership has been created with Lockheed and the Pentagon, and it looks to be an excellent airplane. The initial difficulties of the program cannot be ignored. About two years ago there was intervention from a Congressional subcommittee that dictated a major reorganization. Today, after big shocks, the program in our opinion is back on track," the IDF official said.

Israel is set to purchase 19 of the aircrafts at a combined cost of $2.75 billion. The current, lengthy delivery schedule could bring the IAF down close to its "red line" for a few years in terms of the number of available fighter aircrafts. That hard fact has significant strategic ramifications for Israel's military capabilities, such that any deviation from schedule requires special approval from the country's political leaders.

During his visit here Lawson sounded very bullish about his company's F-35 program, noting that 37 airplanes have already been delivered, mainly to the U.S. Air Force, and 94 are in production.

The high cost of the program and of individual aircraft led to stiff resistance to the F-35 in Washington and in Jerusalem, but he said, "If you talk to the service chiefs, they would tell you these folks are seriously committed to the program. The fleet is getting older. The average age of an air force fighter is 24 years. You're talking about a fleet that it's time to replace. You have to think about an aircraft that will have to last for the next 30 years. The need isn't going to go away. The truth is that the adversaries are getting tougher. Air defenses are becoming more capable. Regardless of politics, it doesn't change the essential need."

Lawson dismisses the notion that unmanned aircraft will end the necessity for manned fighter planes in the future. "Last airplane? We talk about it all the time. Given the dynamic interaction of the battle ... You're talking about decisions that have to occur in split seconds and involve human lives, especially when you're working in contested airspace. These are life and death decisions and very costly decisions. So today, I think that manned fighters are going to be around for a while. Does that mean that 20 years from now there won't be a transition? There will be. UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] will have an evolving role in the future," Lawson said.