How Reasonable a Purchase?

Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced last year his decision to make the F-35 Lightning II ‏(aka the Joint Strike Fighter‏) as the future fighter plane of the Israel Air Force and it should be approved.

In August 2010, Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced his decision to make the F-35 Lightning II ‏(aka the Joint Strike Fighter‏) as the future fighter plane of the Israel Air Force. Was it the right choice?

The F-35 is a fifth-generation combat aircraft. As such it has some unique capabilities that would make every combat pilot’s mouth water: It is stealthy ‏(that is, nearly invisible to enemy radars‏); it has a suit of sensors that enables it to scan and track a large number of targets − in the air, in the sea and on the ground − and provide the pilot a view of the terrain, day and night and in adverse weather, so as to warn him of any threat. The plane’s communications system enables the pilot to share this data with other aircraft − as well as with ground forces and command posts, and also to benefit from data provided by these external sources.

The plane was also developed in three models, to answer the distinct needs of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and the Marines. Eight countries participated in its development, each investing large sums of money in the project. Israel did not join the project as a participant, though it did receive, as early as 2003, the status of “security cooperation participant” ‏(for which it paid some $50 million‏), which gave it access to information.

All this said, the F-35 also has some very important shortcomings. Even during the very early stages of the project there was the question of how the aircraft would be adopted to Israel’s special needs. Israel wanted to install its own weapons and electronic systems in the plane ‏(in particular, electronic warfare systems‏), and wanted access to the plane’s software source code − requests that were denied by the American side.

Another important issue was the price. As one of only two fifth-generation combat aircraft that exist now in the world, this aircraft was supposed to be the “affordable” part of the high-low mix ‏(the F-22A Raptor is the “high” part‏) in the U.S. Air Force inventory. Its price tag was initially estimated at some $50-60 million apiece, but delays and overruns in the development project pushed up the price. The final price per unit is still unknown, but is estimated at $130-$150 million. Its entrance into operational status has also been postponed multiple times ‏(most recently to 2016 for the F-35A − the model that Israel wants‏).

For many years, preservation of its qualitative advantage has been a main element of Israel’s security concept. For this reason alone, it was clear since the beginning of the JSF project that when the time came, Israel would be interested in purchasing the aircraft.

But the F-35 will not be the panacea for Israel’s security problems. Actually most of its tasks can be performed with similar effectiveness by existing planes with one type of upgrade or another. Many of its unique capabilities can be achieved even today by existing planes, upgraded with Israeli-made systems. And the high price, which will allow for the purchase of only a small number of aircraft, will mean the IAF will need to retain a large number of F-16s for many years.

Furthermore, since the F-22 is not being exported, Israel will miss the “high” part of the high-low mix. The F-35 cannot be a substitute for the F-15, which is today used both to ensure air superiority and to launch long-range attack missions. These planes are also expected to stay in the order of battle for many years, again, with upgrades of one kind or another.

There are technical issues as well. The plane, with all its marvelous gizmos, will probably be less aerodynamically capable than the older F-16. Its stealth is limited, and its early production batches will be authorized to be equipped with only a few of the weapons systems it is supposed to carry.

Therefore, if the considerations for purchasing the plane were tactical only, the deal, under the current price conditions, would not be justified. The picture, however, is more complicated. For one, the plane is not being paid for with money from Israeli taxpayers, but with American aid.

The choice is not between “guns or butter,” but between various American-made weapons systems − fighter planes or ships, tanks and cannons. The requirement to purchase such systems and the strategic relationship with the United States also rule out examining other options, such as purchasing European aircraft ‏(or even Russia’s future fifth-generation combat aircraft‏).

There are additional considerations: the advantages the F-35 deal will provide to the Israeli defense firms that will be allowed to participate in the plane’s production, and the deal’s contribution to Israel’s complex relations with the United States, which for its own reasons is interested in Israel’s purchasing the plane. It should be mentioned here that the IAF’s reputation is very important for the manufacturers of the F-35. If Israel buys it, others will want it, and the more buyers there are, the lower its price per unit will be.

Thus, given these considerations, the purchase indeed has an additional logic, which gives considerable weight to the decision to approve the deal.

Yiftah S. Shapir directs the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies. A longer version of this article appeared in INSS Strategic Assessment, in advance of the center’s annual conference, January 31-February 1.