Shortly before the US Congress votes on the nuclear agreement with Iran, Israel has publicly announced the efforts of its air force to double the flight range of the F-35 Stealth strike fighters, the fifth generation of the air force's planes.
The Israeli version of the plane, manufactured by Lockheed Martin according to Israeli specifications, is called Adir (Awesome). The first two Adirs will be delivered to the Israel Air Force (IAF) in December 2016, and will join the Golden Eagle squadron at Nevatim Air Base in the Negev.
"Defense News" reported that Israel was now building infrastructure and local capabilities necessary for operating the Adir starting in late 2017, "With an eye on Iran and other complex, heavily defended theaters."
The preparations are taking place on two parallel tracks. One is part of the general multinational F-35 program, while in the other, Israel is counting on continued US support for integrating weaponry and other program elements.
“The Stealth and other advanced capabilities provided by this fifth-generation fighter are self-evident,” an Israeli air force officer told Defense News when asked how the F-35 would maintain superiority over advanced anti-air systems, like the Russian S-300, slated for delivery to Iran. “Your options for attacking the enemy (with the stealth fighters) are much more numerous and practical. The things that we could do before will entail much less risk, and the things we might not have been able to do before will be rendered doable.”
The officer, an Adir project manager and one of the initial cadre of pilots tapped to fly the F-35, said that the stealth fighters change "the psychology of the arena by allowing you to hit the enemy without him being able to stop you... It really is a game-changer, and the enemy knows that."
In interviews in Israel and the US, sources involved in the projects said that at the request of the US administration, Lockheed Martin was now working with Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. to adapt Israeli-made air-to-ground weaponry to the plane. At the same time, Lockheed Martin is considering Israeli ideas for (probably detachable) external fuel tanks on the plane's wings in order to extend their range.
“We’re studying proof of concept trade studies on carrying extra fuel,” a Lockheed Martin program official told "Defense News." Hinting that the external fuel tanks would not benefit from the F-35's stealth capabilities, the sources said, "After you own the air space, you won’t have to worry about stealth. So then you can add external tanks because you won’t be worried about being detected.”
IDF and Israeli defense industry sources told "Defense News" that eventually, they hope to develop external tools with Stealth capabilities. They noted that these efforts were justified, because the external fuel tanks would make the range of the Adir twice as long, or even more, with little risk of the airplane being detected by enemy radar. “It’s short-sighted to expect that all the smart people working here on conformal fuel tanks will not manage to make them stealthy," an IAF officer said.
According to "Defense News," Israel has received an exemption from the protocol requirements of the F-35 program requiring foreign air forces to do most of the maintenance work on the planes in Lockheed Martin's logistics centers. The Israel air force will be able to do most of the maintenance work in Israel, except for heavy maintenance, due to concern that a war could break out exactly when some the planes are outside Israel. A logistics center for maintenance of the Adir planes is now being built at the Nevatim base for this purpose. This center will have direct access to Lockheed Martin's information system.
The Israel air force is about to send the first group of Adir pilots to the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in mid-2016. At the same time, dozens of maintenance technicians will be sent to the US Air Force logistics base at Eglin, Florida.
Israel has an option to purchase 75 more Adirs. As of now, Israel has signed contracts to buy 33 of them: 19 under a contract signed in 2010 and 14 more in a contract signed in February 2015. According to Israeli defense sources quoted by "Defense News," Israel hopes to sign a contract to buy 17 more planes under a multi-year budget plan that will be valid until the end of 2020. All of these planes will be the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing version. At some stage in the future, or perhaps even the near future, Israel is likely to sign a contract to buy Adirs with short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities. Israel is likely to decide to buy these planes if it believes that the runways in its airbases will be vulnerable to missile attacks.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 10, 2015
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