The Israel Air Force will receive the first of its Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter planes in Fort Worth, Texas, this week. The aircraft will only be coming to Israel in another six months – exactly 40 years after the first of Israel’s F-15s landed here. On that occasion, the fact that the ceremony marking their arrival only broke up after the onset of Shabbat caused a political crisis that cut short the government headed by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This time, as with every similar event since, a reasonable safety margin was built into the schedule. The ceremony for the F-35 – dubbed the “Adir” – will not threaten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government since it is being held on a Monday.
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The F-35 is ushering in what experts on aerial combat call the “fifth generation” of military jets. When it comes to the Israel Defense Forces, the first generation was the French Mystère fighter, which saw action in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. The Mirage was the second-generation plane, deployed in the 1967 Six-Day War. The third generation is represented by the Phantom jet, the U.S. aircraft that saw action in the War of Attrition and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The F-15 and F-16 followed.
The F-35 has been the subject of high praise in Israel (as a wonderful aircraft to fly), but also criticism over its cost and on more ideological grounds (that it would be better to invest in the country’s naval and ground forces). But what’s decisive is facts and insights that form the basis of Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel’s approach. Eshel is part of the fourth generation of air force commanders who have consistently advocated for Israel’s participation in the plans to develop the plane, preferring it over other versions of the F-15 and F-16.
There have always been those few select volunteers who have pulled Israel ahead and, for the most part, took greater risks themselves. That includes the country’s pioneers and the elite Palmach strike force of the pre-state period, and then the paratroopers and fighter squadrons. The air force is still an airborne Palmach of sorts, but with a non-Israeli organizational order.
The power of the F-35 lies in its lethal accuracy and greater immunity from being hit. It’s a kind of computerized and networked focal point for other, simpler equipment in the air and on the ground and sea – paving the way for them in a hostile environment. Like a lead aircraft of the fourth generation and drones, it will deliver overall power at a bearable price, with foreign funding and reduced risk to Israeli forces.
The third squadron will also include planes that can take off vertically from runways at bases hit by thousands of Hezbollah missiles or from improvised landing strips in times of emergency. Toward the middle of the century, the air force might be based one-third on F-35s and two-thirds on drones.
The direct cost only tells part of the story. This is a very attractive deal. It’s like tickets to a show in which the parents pay full price, but the kids get in for half price. Ultimately, it involves medium input but a sizeable output.
The F-35’s basic weakness doesn’t relate to the aircraft itself. The problem is with the country’s leadership, which decides what to do with it and how to integrate the military advantage it provides in a way that will give Israel security and peace. The poor inventory when it comes to the Israeli cabinet will be on display this week, with the presence in Fort Worth of Avigdor Lieberman, who is defense minister after insufficient evidence was found of criminal wrongdoing on his part in the past.
The first generation of Israel’s leadership – David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir – were all born in the 19th century. The second generation was from the very early 20th century – Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. The third were from the 1920s – Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon. And the fourth, from the 1940s – Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. The fifth generation of political leaders are late approaching the runway. And without a pilot, there’s no point in a plane.