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F-35s Are an Important Acquisition, but Arrival Celebration Is a Farce

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands next to one of the F-35 fighter jets just after it landed at Nevatim air base, Israel, December 12, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands next to one of the F-35 fighter jets just after it landed at Nevatim air base, Israel, December 12, 2016.Credit: Amir Cohen, Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

There was something ridiculous about the excesses at the Nevatim Air Base on Monday, at the ceremony marking the arrival of the Israel Air Force’s first two F-35 planes (nicknamed “Adir” in Hebrew, meaning mighty or glorious).

The demonstrative excitement with which the planes are being received and the triumphalist mannerisms Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted recently, inspired by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump – while in the background lurk a police investigation and daily discoveries regarding suspicions of corruption in the Israel Navy deals – provoked a degree of disgust ahead of proceedings.

In addition to this heady brew, there was the pair of planes’ unexpected delay due to adverse weather conditions at their intermediate stop in Italy. (We can only hope this won’t prove an obstacle when it comes to real operational activity.) All together, the ceremony assumed the dimension of farce, like a script by the late satirist Ephraim Kishon.

The arrival of the two planes on Monday evening heralds the beginning of the Israel Defense Forces’ acquisition of an advanced and important weapons system, albeit one that is also the subject of professional controversy. It doesn’t reflect a new stage in the Return to Zion or another Operation Entebbe. Therefore, the enthusiasm with which some media outlets celebrated the new planes, without even an ounce of critical thinking, has been surprising.

Israel's first F-35, code-named "Adir."

We can reasonably assume that satirists will go to town with the militaristic ritual, which was cast in an even stranger light due to the forced postponement of the ceremony. This is a ritual in which the IDF also takes an active part – to the point of halting a substantial degree of the base’s activity in order to prepare for the ceremony, which even included the uprooting of weeds in the area.

A soldier sits inside one of the F-35 fighter jets after it landed at Nevatim air base, Israel, December 12, 2016.Credit: Amir Cohen, Reuters

You could probably find a better use for the time of officers and soldiers, like that of the thousands of guests, who spent hours waiting for the ceremony – first due to the strict security arrangements dictated by the presence of the country’s leaders, and later by the weather delays.

But the discomfort felt by many because of the ceremony’s excesses shouldn’t be the heart of the debate: that should be about the actual effectiveness of the plane itself.

Despite the project’s tremendous cost to the U.S. administration, the numerous delays and hitches during the manufacturing process, every senior member of the Israel Air Force, past and present (as far as is known), is convinced of the plane’s necessity for Israel.

Because the air force is not only the leading professional expert in the field, but also the body with the most orderly staff work in the Israeli establishment, we have to hope that this time, too, its officers know what they’re doing.

Guests waiting for the arrival of the first Israel Air Force F-35s at the Nevitim Airbase in southern Israel, December 12, 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

One of their key arguments concerns the absence of a genuine alternative. Israel may have to decide on the limited acquisition of fourth-generation planes, such as upgraded F-15s and F-16s – which are also very costly – in order to fill some of the spaces that will empty out due to the retirement of planes that are 40 years old and more. However, the air force’s commanders are convinced that, in the coming decades, the state-of-the-art F-35s are absolutely essential.

In an article published Monday by researcher Yiftah Shapir on the website of the Institute for National Security Studies, he wrote that the F-35 will not be fully operational before 2019. Shapir sees many advantages to the plane, first of all its “low radar cross section” (“stealth”), the improved ability of the plane to “track and follow a large number of targets,” its ability to fuse data received from other sources in the air and on the ground, and the possibility of using simulators to train pilots, which costs less.

And yet, the limited involvement of the National Security Council in monitoring such an expensive acquisition is a concern (the NSC’s involvement in the acquisition of the German submarines and missile boats was an exception, and there is a suspicion that it also contributed a negative aspect). It’s unacceptable that the only oppositional voice in discussions about the acquisition was that of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was equipped with a PowerPoint presentation he assembled mainly from the U.S. media.

Another argument being made against the purchase regards the huge cost (approximately $7.2 billion for 50 planes) and the government’s ability to channel some of that money instead toward social needs, such as reducing the economic gap or assisting the elderly and the disabled. This argument is particularly relevant in regard to the high maintenance costs of the planes in the future.

An F-35 jet arrives at its new operational base at Hill Air Force Base, in northern Utah.Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP

The purchase itself was made using U.S. military aid funds. The administration in Washington, whether it’s outgoing President Barack Obama or his successor, Donald Trump, is always interested in promoting such transactions, in order to benefit the American defense industry. But at most, part of the money could have been used to purchase other U.S. weapons systems (including missile interception systems and protective measures for tanks). The United States would not have agreed to fund improvements to the Israeli health or welfare systems with the money.

If the Israel Air Force is correct in its favorable opinion of the F-35, the plane’s greatest importance will be as a means of preventing war.

The planes were not purchased in order to bomb the Gaza Strip, which doesn’t even have aerial defense systems. At this initial stage, the F-35 is a deterrent weapon. The fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East to which the Americans are willing to sell the plane, along with the unique systems the Israeli defense industry will install in it afterward, only serves to strengthen Israel’s perceived power in the eyes of its neighbors.

The events of the past six years in the Arab world has seen a significant decline in the conventional military threat against Israel from its neighbors. According to Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, a strategic window of opportunity has been created here, one the IDF must exploit in order to close outdated military units, lay off about 12 percent of the career army and promote measures to streamline its operational capabilities.

But equally, the events of recent months have illustrated the extent to which the world has become an unpredictable place. There is almost no possibility of foreseeing how the complicated relations between the great powers and the rise of new extremist forces in the region will influence military skirmishes, which could even develop into a war.

Under these circumstances, Israel has to make sure it maintain its deterrence, and this is being done through the acquisition of the F-35s. Israel’s security – certainly at such volatile times, and also when the conduct of its own leaders often raises questions – remains highly dependent on a strong air force.

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