At a recent security conference held in the coastal city of Herzliya, Israel revealed that it had become the first in the world to use the F-35 stealth fighter in combat. Israel Air Force (IAF) commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin told an audience earlier this week that Israel is the first country in the world to carry out an “operational attack” with the F-35.
As part of his presentation, Norkin showed images of the F-35 over Beirut, Lebanon. According to the general, the stealth fighter did not participate in the most recent strike in Syria but did in two previous ones. Israel Defense Forces, primarily via its air force, have continued to operate against Iranian forces in Syria since the large-scale Israeli strike in Syria on May 9, 2018. According to Norkin, while Israeli “actions have been taken since the recent events,” Israel’s main goal is to “maintain freedom of action in the region [and] disrupt and prevent [possible attacks] while keeping the situation below the threshold of war.”
Norkin concluded: “We are continuing with our operational mission against the arming of Hezbollah and Iranian moves to establish themselves in Syria. As far as we are concerned, anywhere we identify consolidation [of Iranian forces] or the introduction of weapons, we act.”
Coming Full Circle
The IAF commander’s announcement was in a way the closing chapter in a long story. Israel was a participant in the F-35’s development from the beginning. For nearly 13 years, Israeli engineers and aeronautics experts played a role in the weapon systems design and construction, having signed an agreement to formally join the system development and demonstration (SDD) of the aircraft with Lockheed Martin in 2003. The development program was repeatedly delayed because of technical issues and cost overruns.
From Jerusalem’s perspective, these were more than inconvenient scheduling glitches. Israel had been banking on the fighter in order to address its projected security concerns over the coming years, not the least of which is Iran’s expansion in the region. For a long time, there were fears in Israeli military circles that the stealth jet may reach the air force too late to cope with these challenges.
Israel ordered 20 F-35s configured for its requirements under a $2.75 billion contract signed in October 2010. The actual arrival of the first F-35s wouldn’t happen for another six years. In November 2016, the first Israeli F-35s landed in Nevatim Air Base. The arrival of additional jets over the coming period made Israel the first country to have an operational F-35 squadron outside of the United States.
The Fighter Revolution
Along this journey, Israel was busy crafting its own new strategic approach to air warfare evolving around the innovative capabilities of the F-35. This “technological revolution” in tandem with similar trends in militaries around the world was based on creating a “digital network in the skies” that integrates strike jets, electronic warfare aircraft, in-flight refueling tankers and helicopters into a multitude of real-time data sources that include ground forces, the navy, and intelligence services. It’s called network-centric warfare, and the Israeli version of this program is run by the IAF’s Information Communication Technology branch.
This approach has been a complete paradigm shift from the traditional role of the fighter in warfare. The glorified dog-fighting planes from the WWII era had very specific roles, taking out other planes by maneuvering to the enemy’s six, and maybe participating in more surgical bombing strikes. When fighters started becoming flying digital weapons platforms, the methods of implementing these aircraft also began to change drastically. War planners began to understand that fighters could play an important role in an integrated system and should be designed from the outset to fill this slot.
To put this into practical terms, the F-35 isn’t meant to face adversaries head-on and destroy them, although it certainly possesses this capability too. The F-35 can take out an enemy aircraft miles beyond visual range by feeding data from ground and other friendly sources into its own weapons systems. Conversely, the fighter can support the armaments of other units by passing targeting information to another platform, like a drone, naval destroyer, or even ground units, and down a target without even firing a shot. All of this has given combat pilots an unprecedented “view” of the battlespace without having to actually see it. This means F-35 pilots are directing a variety of combat platforms in different locations all from the seat of the cockpit.
Customized Israeli Style
Of course, creating a new and original method of warfighting couldn’t be based solely on Lockheed’s design of the aircraft. From the outset, Israel pushed to be allowed its own modifications on the fighters it purchased. Officials at Israel’s air force had already stated in 2010 that any aircraft delivered to Israel would have “unique Israeli features installed in them.”
The United States initially refused to allow the integration of Israel’s own electronic warfare systems into the aircraft’s built-in electronic suite. Israel still went ahead with its own plans to introduce a plug-and-play feature to the fighter’s main computer to allow for the use of Israeli electronics in an add-on fashion. The specific modifications included the add-on of Israel’s own external jamming pod, fixtures for indigenously produced missiles, and computer systems built by Israel’s Elbit, the largest private defense contractor in the country. The plans for customizing their F-35s were underway, but there was still the obstacle of getting the Americans on board. In the summer of 2011, the IAF dispatched two officers to the US where they discussed issues involving the integration of Israeli technology into the fighter with Pentagon and Lockheed Martin officials. Shortly afterward, it was reported the US had agreed to allow Israel to install its own electronic warfare systems and missiles in its F-35s.
Israel’s Wars, the West’s Proving Ground
While all of this is interesting for understanding Israel’s developing defense approach, which will no doubt continue to have major effects on the region, there are also much broader implications to Israel putting its F-35s into action.
Israeli wars have long been a proving ground for Western, and specifically American, armaments. This was first played out during the Six Day War when, in 1967, American Sherman tanks, spruced up by Israeli engineers along with French Mirage fighters, were pitted against Russian T-55 tanks and MiG-21s, then considered two of the most advanced pieces of military hardware in the world.
Another important but little-known example occurred in July of 1981 when the IAF encountered Syria’s air force over the Bekaa Valley. During the skirmish, the F-16s first air-to-air combat success against another fighter was achieved with a successful air-to-air shoot-down of a Syrian MiG. It was the first direct face-off of the US-produced F-16 against the Russian MiG model.
The following year, IAF succeeded in another important air operation that turned out to be a major milestone for Western air warfare development. Ever since the Vietnam War, NATO had been faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of Russian air defense based on radar surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries. These missiles locked onto the fighters’ radar signature to home in on the moving aircraft. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 in which Israel lost 109 aircraft in 18 days to Egyptian-operated Russian missiles highlighted the desperate need to find a solution. Operation Mole Cricket was a mission to destroy Syrian air defenses to prevent them from interfering in Israel’s operations in Lebanon.
While many tactics were deployed to interfere with the SAM tracking capabilities, one important factor was the radar-jamming capabilities deployed on the 96 participating IAF fighters themselves. The operation was the first time in history that a Western-equipped air force successfully destroyed a Soviet-built surface-to-air missile network and demonstrated that the dreaded SAMs could be overcome in a large-scale operation.
Fast-forwarding almost forty years, this progression puts into context the importance of the current Russian deployment in Syria and how it factors in with the security concerns of Israel and the West in the country. Russia’s latest anti-aircraft system, the S-400, has caused quite a stir in the media and among US military brass due to its advanced tracking technology and “counter-stealth” capability. Russia has installed S-400s to protect its own assets in the region but has not handed them over to Syrian control. There has been considerable concern these missiles could interfere with US or Israeli air operations if Russia chose to use them to defend Syrian targets.
The recent IAF announcement that it has been deploying F-35s in the region, apparently undetected, should be taken as a very good sign for both Israel and the US. It is a strong indication of the highly effective stealth capability of the fifth generation fighter. Hopefully the world will not have to learn too much more about the full war capabilities of this silent and deadly weapons system.