Israel's first two F-35 stealth fighter jets landed in Israel Monday evening, after their departure was delayed due to poor weather conditions.
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The jets, purchased from the United States, landed amid much fanfare at the southern Nevatim Air Force Base, near Be’er Sheva.
The Israel Defense Force Spokesman said the delay was caused by severe weather and fog at Italy's Cameri air base as well as American safety restrictions. Officials from the air force and the planes' manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, made it clear that the delay related to safety restrictions and not limitations on the planes' capabilities.
Israel Air Force Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Tal Kalman told reporters that it was decided to delay takeoff due to the bad visibility. "Since this was not a combat mission we decided against endangering the planes and the pilots and to postpone the flight," he said.
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Among those attending the ceremony were U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Avidgor Lieberman, Israel Defense Force brass and officials from Lockheed Martin. During his stay in Israel, the U.S. defense secretary and the Israeli defense minister area expected to hold a meeting as well as a joint news conference.
In remarks at the beginning of the ceremony, Prime Minister Netanyahu told Defense Secretary Carter that the American defense chief's presence was a sign of America's commitment to Israel's security. The prime minister expressed thanks to President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress, and stated that Israel was America's best ally in the Middle East, and beyond, as he saw it.
Netanyahu expressed Israel's appreciation for the strong alliance with the United States, which he said endured from administration to administration and from decade to decade. For his part, President Rivlin expressed confidence that the commitment to Israel's security would continue in President-elect Donald Trump's administration.
Netanyahu said Israel's military strength is receiving a highly significant boost with the addition of the F-35s to the Israel Air Force arsenal, noting that he is asked on nearly a daily basis to approve far-reaching operations. "Our long arm has now become longer and mightier," he stated, adding that only a strong Israel will bring about peace,
For his part, Defense Secretary Carter told the audience that the F-35s were critical to maintaining Israel's military edge in the region.
The air force had not prepared for an evening ceremony, where temperatures dip quite low after sundown. Of the hundreds of guests, who have been waiting for hours at the base, some of the foreign visitors opted to visit a nearby winery, while others who remained waited in a tent that was set up or in buses.
Israel Air Force pilots will take the controls on Tuesday for the first overflight of Israel by the state-of-the-art plane, already nicknamed the Adir (Hebrew for mighty or glorious,) which was plagued by problems during its development.
Lt. Col. Yotam (whose last name cannot be published for security reasons), the commander of Israel’s first F-35 squadron that is currently being established, will be the first Israeli pilot to fly the stealth fighter.
“Everyone understands that Israel bought the planes to attack in places that we are not always able to attack," he said last week regarding the future goals of the new F-35s. "This plane will do it excellently."
A senior officer added: "We are not buying the F-35 to attack Gaza. If we did, it would be a mistake.”
Describing the F-35 as the “new generation” of planes, the officer compared it to “the difference between a new smartphone and an old Nokia cellphone.”
The F-35 thinks and behaves very differently from the old F-15s and F-16s, the officer said. The plane’s stealth capabilities make it unique, but it also has the capability to collect intelligence and attack targets.
As for the criticism surrounding the numerous faults and problems encountered with the F-35, he said: “Whoever thinks we can undertake such a crazy project without problems, doesn’t understand how to build a project. It is clear there will be failures, and it is great that they are found in the development stage.”
The security cabinet recently decided to purchase 17 more F-35s, bringing the total number of planes ordered by the air force to 50. The additional purchase will enable the air force to outfit two full squadrons of the planes.
With reporting from Reuters.