The actual details of the first-ever operational missions of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft that were carried out in recent months by the Israel Air Force are subject to operational security and cannot be disclosed. But the announcement made on Tuesday by IAF Commander Amikam Norkin that Israel’s F-35s operating from Nevatim airbase had already taken part in operational strike missions was in itself just as important as the missions themselves.
The F-35 has been flying with the IAF for 17 months. The rate at which they have been delivered is relatively slow — only nine have so far been supplied by the United States, less than half the regular strength of an IAF fighter squadron. Nevertheless, the IAF announced back in December that it had achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with the F-35, meaning that the aircraft that were already in service, along with their pilots and ground crew, were ready to carry out limited operations, and not simply training flights.
Norkin’s announcement, made at a conference in Israel for air force commanders from 20 countries, was planned for maximum exposure. It was a message to Israel’s adversaries in the region that the IAF now has “stealth” capabilities and is the first air force in the Middle East flying aircraft that are capable of evading radar systems and of operating in hostile environments, virtually undetected.
Not all the missions that the F-35 has so far carried out needed this capability. They took part in an airstrike on a Hamas tunnel on the border of the Gaza Strip. Hamas does not have radar, but F-35s were used on this relatively simple mission as part of the process through which its proves it various capabilities. More complex operations against Iranian and Hezbollah targets north of Israel would have utilized its stealth capabilities and some of these did not necessarily involve the F-35 launching missiles itself.
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Being capable of operating in areas covered by hostile air-defense missiles allows the F-35 not only to strike targets but to use its array of sensors to detect and track targets and pass on the information to other “non-stealthy” IAF aircraft with larger payloads, allowing them to attack with greater precision and to minimize their exposure to antiaircraft missiles.
Due to the high cost, intensive maintenance, limited payloads and strategic value of stealth fighters, no air force, not even the American air force, is planning in the near future to give up on non-stealth fighters. One of the main questions now facing military planners is how to achieve the best balance, or “blend” of fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, which will enable an air force in the 21st century to operate cost-effectively in hostile environments. Senior IAF officers speak of the F-35 as a “force multiplier,” also enabling the older fighter jets to carry out more daring missions.
Of course, the photograph presented by Norkin at the conference of an Israeli F-35 flying over Beirut underlined the connection between the first operational use of the aircraft and the tense situation on Israel’s northern borders. But there’s nothing new about the way Israel rushes new hardware into service. In technological terms, the arrival of the F-35, with its unique capabilities, is the dawn of a new generation of air-power. The last time the IAF underwent such a generational transition was in 1976 when its first F-15s arrived.
At the time, the plane had also barely begun flying operationally with the U.S. Air Force, and IAF commander David Ivri was so eager to begin operating it that among the first four F-15s, he accepted three pre-production aircraft that had been part of the test program. Years later he explained that he had been willing to take these planes, which did not have all the avionics of the production model and had already been through rigorous flight-tests, “for the sake of deterrence, so that everyone in the Middle East would know that Israel already had F-15s, the best fighter plane in the world.”
With the F-35, Israel also took shortcuts so it could be operating early over the Middle East. While other foreign customers have begun training on their F-35s in the United States using American air force facilities to give their pilots their early experience with the plane, the IAF preferred not to fly the plane in the United States. All the training that its first pilots did there was on simulators. The first time an Israeli pilot actually took off in an F-35 was from Nevatim in the Negev, the morning after the plane landed there on a delivery flight in December 2016.
Among the particular reasons that the IAF has rushed to push the F-35 into operational service has been the decision of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to try to boost its own capabilities across Israel’s border — operating drones from bases in Syria and working with the Assad regime to improve its air defense capabilities. Another circumstance that has changed over the last two years has been the presence of the Russian military, with its advanced S300 and S400 air defense systems. While Israel and Russia have an efficient “deconfliction” system that ensures the two nations do not confront each other over Syria, the Russian presence, as well as that of other air forces operating in the region with increasing intensity, means, as a senior IAF officer said this week: “We have to take much more care in operating without being observed.”
Israel was the first nation to use the main prior American fighter jets in combat — the F-15 and the F-16. Their operational success with the IAF, helped boost sales, for their manufacturers. Just as it did for the French Mirage III in the 1960s. Another guest at the air force commanders’ conference this week was the CEO of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson.
Norkin’s announcement wasn’t meant only for Israel’s enemies but for its allies as well. The news that F-35s have now been tested successfully in battle will have been music to Hewson’s ears. “Lockheed Martin needed this boost,” said one IAF officer this week. “It’s why they have been prepared to do everything we asked for and get the planes to Israel before any other buyer.”