F-35
Israel now plans a big purchase of F-35 fighter jets (pictured) now that the Pentagon has approved use of Elbit's electronic-warfare technology. Photo by Reuters
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Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave the go-ahead yesterday for the purchase of 20 F-35 fighter jets in a deal valued at around $2.75 billion. The first planes are expected to arrive in 2015.

The Israel Air Force, however, will have to make do with considerably fewer planes than the 75 originally sought. The entire deal will be funded by American military aid and still needs the cabinet's approval.

"The F-35 is the fighter plane of the future that will allow Israel to maintain its aerial superiority and its technological advantage in the region," Barak said. "The F-35 will give the IAF better capabilities, both near and far, to help strengthen Israel's national security."

Negotiations dragged on for more than two years amid several disagreements; many revolved around the IAF's demands that Israeli-made systems be installed for specialties such as electronic warfare and communications. Israel also wanted to expand the plane's capacity to allow it to carry Israeli-made missiles.

The Americans declined, however, insisting that the deal was a "closed package" and none of the components could be altered.

In any case, the F-35 will give the IAF outstanding radar-dodging capabilities that allow preemptive strikes against enemy states with advanced air defense technologies.

In a bid to maintain Israel's technological gap ahead of Arab states, the F-35 deal was pushed through instead of upgrading the air force's F-15s and F-16s. This approach sticks to the principle that Israel is the first country in the Middle East to receive the newest fighter aircraft.

The IAF was sufficiently committed to this principle to override protests from the leaders of Israeli defense contractors, who claimed that the deal was damaging them.

The package also got by opposition from a number of members of the General Staff who criticized the high price of the deal, which does not allow for investment into weapons for the land forces and navy.

Two weeks ago, Barak and Defense Ministry Director-General Udi Shani visited the United States and met with senior officials in the Pentagon, as well as representatives of Lockheed Martin, to discuss the purchase.

They agreed that Israel would begin by buying a first squadron of 20 F-35 jets from the first production series. It would only install a few Israel-made systems. The Americans, meanwhile, have agreed that if Israel buys more F-35 squadrons from later production series, the installation of more Israeli-made systems will be allowed.

To sweeten the deal, Lockheed Martin said it would buy parts and systems for the F-35 from Israeli companies at a cost of $4 billion.

The total price tag confirmed by Barak indicates that each plane costs about $96 million, with further expenses on training, simulators, spare parts and the building of maintenance infrastructure.

Shani said that apart from the jet's operational capacity, a significant factor in closing the deal included previous agreements on integrating Israeli defense contractors in producing the jet for other clients.