Burdened by Aging Fleet, Israel Air Force Likely to Choose F-15s Over F-35s for New Squadron

The next squadron of fighter jets Israel will acquire from the U.S. may not be more stealthy F-35 jets, but rather an upgraded version of the older F-15. This possibility reflects an ongoing debate about Israel's security needs

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israel Air Force F-35, known locally as the "Adir," during the "Vered Hagalil" training exercise in February 2021.
An Israel Air Force F-35, known locally as the "Adir," during the "Vered Hagalil" training exercise in February 2021.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the near future, the defense establishments of Israel and the United States will discuss an unusual deal. Israel wants to pay the American aerospace corporation Lockheed Martin $1 billion from the funds of U.S. defense aid. However, the payment is not intended for additional advanced F-35 aircraft for the air force. Instead, the intention is to acquire diversified support systems (whose details were not reported). The equipment is meant to assist in the activity of two F-35 squadrons that the air force is creating. The Defense Ministry recently sent a letter of request on this subject to the Biden administration.

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The “Adir” (the “mighty one,” as the F-35 is called in Israel) transaction includes 50 aircraft, whose supply began in 2016 and hasn’t yet concluded. The natural course of events, to procure a sufficient number of the planes to meet the air force’s needs, would be to sign an agreement now to acquire another squadron of 25 aircraft, a step that was approved in principle by the U.S. Congress. However, the negotiations between the governments over that deal have been stalled for a lengthy period. The Israeli decision to make do at this stage with additional systems and not additional aircraft, stems in part from a certain feeling of frustration.

The defense establishment hoped at first to implement a far more rapid procedure of integrating Israeli-made systems and munitions in the U.S.-manufactured Adir aircraft. That’s good for local industry and is especially good for the Israel Air Force, which would acquire singular capabilities that aren’t available to other air forces. However, the administration has been raising difficulties over the years, and the pace of assimilating these systems is especially slow.

The decision to acquire the F-35s, which was made in 2010, was preceded by professional hesitations, which echoed some of the criticism about the plane that was voiced abroad. The process of developing the Adir was accompanied by delays, and some observers saw the project as a white elephant. That dispute has faded by now. There is high praise for the plane in the IDF and notably in the air force, as there is in their American counterparts.

Even so, the direction that’s now emerging is that the next combat squadron the air force will acquire will not include the F-35, but the state-of-the-art version of the F-15I (“Ra’am,” meaning thunder), manufactured by Boeing, an aircraft the air force began to acquire back in 1998. In its new incarnation the F-15 will be more expensive than the F-35, whose price has gone down over the years, in complete contrast to the pessimistic forecasts that were voiced upon its acquisition. However, those who back the decision underline specific advantages possessed by the F-15, even though it lacks the “stealth” capabilities of its newer competitor. One such advantage is the ability of the F-15 to carry heavier munitions over longer distances. Another consideration is related to the delivery date. Israel wants to press the administration to speed up the delivery of the first F-15s to 2026 or the year after.

Acquired in the 1980s

The reason is clear: Israel’s fleet of combat aircraft is ageing, and is based in part on planes that were acquired in the 1980s. In the course of the present decade, safety considerations will mandate removing some of them from service, so that replacements need to be found urgently. In any event, the order of battle of the combat aircraft at the air force’s disposal is expected to be reduced across the coming decade. It’s true that a new plane, and certainly the Adir, is capable of performing multiple tasks that were never dreamed of in the warplanes of the previous generation. Nevertheless, a lively discussion is underway in the defense establishment about the red line regarding the number of planes that are needed.

Some former senior figures in the defense establishment believe that the safety margins the present hierarchy is leaving itself are too narrow. Such considerations are related also to the type of operational scenarios that are envisioned. A war in Gaza, where Israel has absolute air supremacy, is not comparable to a confrontation with Hezbollah, which possesses an extensive air defense system. And if, in a somewhat extreme scenario, Israel will decide that it needs to attack the nuclear sites in Iran, that war, if it happens, will require many more aircraft.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog visiting the Tel Nof Air Force base in November 2021.Credit: Government Press Office

The present rate of acquisition of the Adir is low, having decreased from six planes a year to three, far fewer than what’s needed. That situation is related to internal allocations in the IDF from the American aid budget, which according to senior sources were stretched across too many procurement goals, instead of setting forth a clear order of priorities in regard to combat matériel. Criticism is also being voiced about specific items of acquisition. For example, Israel purchases jet fuel for its planes from the United States every year to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, from the defense aid.

Despite the emerging direction – giving preference to the acquisition of an F-15 squadron – the intention in the Defense Ministry and the IDF is to acquire a third F-35 squadron down the road. And despite the growing dependence on drones – the air force inaugurated a third drone squadron on Wednesday – there are no signs at present that the remotely piloted aircraft will shunt aside the fighter planes in the coming decades. In the foreseeable future, the senior personnel of the air force, pilots all, will continue to push for the massive purchase of manned aircraft.

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