After UAE Deal, Israel Asks U.S. for F-22 Stealth Jets to Preserve Military Edge

The American F-22 Raptor is the most advanced fighter plane in the world, and defense officials who claim to have been left out of the loop on the sale of the F-35s to the UAE are now trying to press their case for it

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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An F-22 Raptor at a U.S. airbase in Ohio, August 2020.
An F-22 Raptor at a U.S. airbase in Ohio, August 2020. Credit: US AIR FORCE/REUTERS
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Israeli defense officials have confirmed that Jerusalem has asked senior American officials to consider removing obstacles hindering the sale of F-22 fighter jets to the Israeli Air Force to preserve its air superiority following the agreement of the United States to sell the F-35s to the UAE.

Senior Israeli defense officials say the purported concealment of the sale of F-35 jets to the UAE complicated a possible sale to Israel of the world’s most advanced fighter plane, the F-22 Raptor, as well as other advanced equipment.

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The defense officials refused to comment on the issue officially.

On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s assent to the sale of F-35s to the UAE was not part of the peace agreement signed between it and Israel in Washington last month, and that it was only provided in the course of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s talks with the Pentagon last week. In a statement of his own, however, Gantz claimed that negotiations on the arms sale to the UAE were known to some Israeli officials, but were kept hidden from him and from Israel’s security establishment.

Defense officials said the purchase by Israel of the F-22 is not currently on the table – but they declined to elaborate further. Senior officials said that if the defense establishment had known that the United States was in talks with Israel and the Emirates about the normalization of relations between the two, they would have taken advantage of the opportunity and engaged in negotiations over weapons systems to extend Israel’s military assistance agreement with the United States – which currently expires in 2028 – or to draft a new and improved agreement.

In the latest meetings between Israeli and American defense officials, the Israeli representatives raised the possibility of buying the F-22. This was not the first time that Israel has expressed interest in purchasing the fighter, as have other countries, but all of the foreign purchasers have been turned down.

The F-22 is the most advanced fighter in the world in terms of maneuverability, armament and range. In 2011, when funding for it ended, the United States shut down its F-22 production line, and its sale to foreign militaries was banned by federal law – in part over concern that the planes’ advanced technology would leak out to hostile countries.

Senior Israeli defense officials say the purchase of the world’s most advanced air superiority fighter would help preserve Israel’s quantitative military edge in the region.

“Our qualitative advantage is narrowing with respect to planes, drones, armament and air defense systems,” a senior official said in a closed meeting. “The pace of change in the Middle East is high. It’s a different Middle East from what it was in the last decade, and many countries that are not in direct conflict with Israel are investing huge sums to build some of the most advanced air forces and air defense systems in the world.”

The former commander of the Air Force’s air division, Brig. Gen. Amnon Ein Dar, who stepped down in July, wrote in the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies’s journal “Bein Haktavim” that, “Israel’s air superiority has been under increasing threat in recent years. … At a time when we are required to deal with the developing challenges in the field of advanced surface-to-air missiles and flat-trajectory fire, modern air forces are developing in the region,” he wrote. “Granted that they aren’t considered a threat at the moment, but the negative potential requires monitoring. The countries of the region are equipping themselves with an array of huge quantities of advanced forces of fighter planes and drones made in the United States, Europe, Russia and China.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, stands with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz upon Gantz's arrival at the Pentagon, Sept. 22, 2020.Credit: Alex Brandon

Ein Dar’s view is widespread among senior Israel Defense Force officers when it comes to the sale of advanced weapons to the Gulf states, even if they are considered friendly countries or are in the process of normalizing their relations with Israel.

After the American jet sale to the UAE was made public, Israeli defense officials sought to ask the United States to consider changing the mix of aid in the current American military assistance agreement with Israel, which was signed in 2019 and runs through 2028. As part of the agreement, the United States has reduced the ability of the Israeli army to spend U.S. assistance dollars in shekels in Israel, meaning that they cannot be used for purchases from Israeli suppliers. The Israeli officials have asked that this be changed, both in the present agreement and in any future pact.

Grumbling over Gantz’s agreement

On his visit to Washington last week, Defense Minister Gantz met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. On his return to Israel, Gantz was quick to announce a new agreement with the United States that he said will guarantee Israel’s military advantage in coming years. The agreement would appear to include the procurement of advanced weaponry that Israel is to receive in coming years, as part of the army’s preparations for the period through 2030 and maybe even beyond.

But the alleged concealment of the sale of the F-35s to the UAE – which Netanyahu claimed at the end of August that he would not oppose – along with defense establishment’s efforts to minimize the damage and the fact that a state budget has yet to be approved have led to increased tensions within the Israel Defense Forces.

Gantz’s agreement with the United States has also sparked major criticism within the IDF.

Defense sources have criticized the visiting Israeli delegation’s decision to buy the V-22 Osprey, which the Israel Air Force had decided in the past to do without. The air force thought that the cost of the combination helicopter and airplane was too high, as was the cost of deploying and maintaining it. In addition, the air force thought Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin’s CH-53K helicopter better addressed its needs for future missions and believed it would be easier to integrate into the fleet. Air force representatives also made it clear to the political leadership that they were not interested in purchasing a number of different types of helicopters, unlike combat planes, a variety of which is needed to meet all the needs.

Defense officials said the commander of the air force, Amikam Norkin, is not interested in the V-22 and has made that clear to his superiors. On the other hand, the army’s ground forces and the chief of staff’s office would like to see the IDF receive the V-22 due to its ability to land vertically like a helicopter and to help transport infantry forces.

For its part, the air force is interested in investing in advanced drone models that the United States has and that could be purchased with American defense assistance funding. The new agreement that Gantz returned to the United States with does not include these drones, however.

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