A White Elephant With Wings

Despite the Iron Dome festival of the past few days, the Defense Ministry forced the IDF and the IAF to accept the system to which they had no intention of devoting resources. The time has come for civilians to intervene once more.

The celebrations last week over the Iron Dome anti-rocket system almost silenced the chorus of denouncers, who have tried the past three years to promote other technological solutions to the rocket threats. The argument over the system's necessity was replaced by a question - why are more batteries not being bought, and soon?

Meanwhile, another plan for acquisitions is causing the defense establishment an even greater headache. The Defense Ministry has admitted something the Pentagon has known for months, that the plan to equip the Israel Air Force with the warplane of the future, the F-35, is in trouble. Hitches, delays in development and budget changes of tens of billions of dollars mean the 20 stealth planes that Israel ordered at a preliminary cost of $2.75 billion are expected to be held up for at least two years. The planes, when they arrive, will likely be from the early production series and lack the advanced technological capabilities that were among the main reasons for acquiring them.

The expected delay is forcing the IAF to answer the urgent need for replacing veteran fighter planes in their fourth decade of operation. The alternatives are another costly upgrading of the planes or the acquisition (as a gift ) of planes no longer in use in the American air force - everything except the obvious possibility of relinquishing the plane for the moment, a plane that many in the U.S. defense establishment are not convinced is necessary.

The F-35 constrains the defense budget for the coming decades. The IAF is talking about the need for at least 75 planes, costing another $6 billion or more, and the purchase price is merely the beginning. Reports prepared in the Pentagon indicate that the maintenance costs of the F-35 could be 50 percent more than those of the F-16. Add in the tremendous costs of development and procurement of the special weapons systems for the plane because of its "stealth" configuration, which does not make it possible to carry most of the weapons systems the air force uses today.

The inescapable conclusion is that the F-35 is likely to become a white elephant with wings that will swallow up ever-greater chunks of the defense budget. What is not clear is whether its unique capabilities will be relevant at the end of the decade when the IAF will eventually have an operational squadron. The IAF and the military industries have always known how to adapt and upgrade weapons systems for changing operational needs. With the F-35 this capability will be extremely limited because of American insistence on treating the plane as "a closed package" while the codes for its software remain in their hands.

IAF commanders insist that the F-35 is the only plane of the fifth generation that is being planned now in the West, and that Israel must have it to maintain its deterrent power and technological edge over the Arab countries. But why is the decision about building the Israel Defense Forces' future strength being left in the hands of the elite fighter pilots? There are more advanced fighter planes flying today in Israel than in countries like Canada, Britain, Germany and France. The issue of being equipped with fighter planes is a matter for political and public debate. In the United States, for the first time, a transport plane pilot has been appointed to head its air force, an indication that fighter pilots no longer exclusively decide on the order of priorities.

There are many alternatives to the F-35 - from the acquisition of advanced models of the F-15 and F-16, which cost only half as much, which will make it possible to integrate Israeli systems, and which will get here more quickly, to putting more emphasis in the field of unmanned air vehicles in which Israel leads the world. In the United States and Britain they have begun training fighter pilots to go over to operating UAVs. The knights of the skies are not happy to be grounded but the technological and economic advantages are obvious.

The F-35 lobby claims that anyway the money earmarked for purchasing fighter planes comes from the American foreign aid budget. But the billions of the American administration are not painted blue. It is possible to use the resources for renewing the additional strategic arm of the IDF - the Israel Navy - or for improving the equipment of the ground forces. It is also possible to develop missile and UAV projects in cooperation with American companies and thus to fund them from the aid money.

Despite the Iron Dome festival of the past few days, the former and current defense ministers Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak, as well as the senior civilian echelons of the Defense Ministry, forced the IDF and the IAF to accept the system to which they had no intention of devoting resources. The time has come for civilians to intervene once more.