At the closing of last week, the Israeli government’s premier defense manufacturer announced an important development for the country’s air power. On 26 December, officials of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) launched production of the outer-wing set of the F-35 stealth fighter, a key component to make the advanced fighter jet invisible to radar.
In an official statement by IAI, the company asserted that “the construction of the new production line significantly upgrades IAI’s technological capabilities, automation and robotics, and will enable the company to establish itself as a major player in the military and civilian aerostructures.”
Like all augmentations of the F-35, the stealth-wing project was hammered out in close collaboration with the plane’s maker, Lockheed Martin. IAI’s board of directors approved the construction of the production line nearly four years ago in 2015, following a decision by Lockheed to expand the production of the sets. IAI was chosen by Lockheed as the subcontractor.
It is important to put this last piece of information into context. The project awarded to IAI to create parts for a Lockheed weapons platform is really a unique privilege. Speaking at the launch announcement, IAI Vice President Shlomi Karako acknowledged that IAI had been accepted to a “limited club” of companies with these manufacturing capabilities. “The opening of the production line constitutes a significant milestone in the realization of the company’s strategy for building advanced capabilities” in the field of stealth technology, Karako added. IAI has now joined other Israeli companies that have had important roles in the F-35 project. Elbit Systems, for instance, built the center fuselage composite components as well as the helmets worn by the pilots. Echoing this point, Lockheed Martin Israel CEO Joshua “Shiki” Shani said that the expansion of IAI’s collaboration with Lockheed Martin “is another proof of the deep partnership and trust” the American manufacturer has with Israeli aeronautics and defense production, adding that “the precision, technological components, personnel and manufacturing quality needed for the wings of the F-35s require the highest standards. IAI has proven its capabilities in the production line in the hundreds of wings produced so far.”
Israel is one of the few nations permitted to modify Lockheed F-35 fighters, having dubbed its spursed up version the F-35I Adir, or “Mighty One” in Hebrew. The Adir is still in the production stage, however, as all the additional parts and software are still being integrated into the “A” model F-35s already obtained by Israel. The new stealth wings are likely the most important component in the Adir project coming together.
So what does this new stealth technology consist of?
Reports imply that the new wing sets will be coated with unique radiation-absorbent material that renders radar ineffective. Radiation absorption as a method of countering radar is nothing new. There are currently several materials militaries use for this purpose. The process typically involves covering the body of an aircraft with absorbent-laced paint. The iconic F-117 Nighthawk, for instance, America’s first stealth fighter, uses radar-absorbent iron-ball paint magnetically charged so as to reduce the reflection of electromagnetic waves. The innovation of IAI has been to apply radiation-absorbent materials in through a unique composite layer of materials via a process known in the industry as Automated Fiber Placement (AFP). Three-millimeter-thick threads are tightly woven together to become one unit, which enhance the radar-absorbing capacity of the substance being used.
Deliveries of the outer-wing sets to the Israeli Defense Forces are expected to start at the beginning of 2019, and include in the first phase about 700 kits with potential for further orders. Back in 2016, when IAI was still working on the backend of the stealth project, the company projected the production line to build a total of 811 pairs of F-35A wings by 2034.
The real important question moving forward is what Israel may have in mind for its new stealth capabilities.
Israel’s acquisition of the F-35 was not merely another incremental upgrade to it’s airpower. Jerusalem bought the latest Lockheed fighter because it had very specific things it needed to do with it. Back in May, Israel announced it had become the first country to deploy the F-35 in combat. At a security conference held in the coastal city of Herzliya, Israel Air Force (IAF) commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin told listeners that the Israeli F-35s had participated in at least two of the strikes in Syria that had taken place over the winter and early spring. In a rather loaded gesture, Norkin showed his audience images of an IAF F-35 over Beirut, Lebanon. The F-35 and its unique capabilities in both stealth and operating as an integrated weapons platform, plays a very important role in both Israel’s Syria and broader “anti-Iran” strategy. If the IAF would be hitting targets within a country armed with Russian technology and home to a network of Iranian military outposts, it needed the tools to execute these attacks efficiently and with minimal risk to its personnel. That’s where the F-35 came in.
Even with the non-modified versions of the F-35, Israel has scored important wins in Syria over the past year. The stealth improvements will give Israel even more of an edge if it is to go after deeper targets like Iran and its proxies in both Syria and now Lebanon.
Truth be told, these improvements to F-35 could not have come at a better time. One consequence of President Trump’s recent and rather bizarre Syria withdrawal is that Israel will have less flexibility in targeting enemies to its north. Trump alluded to this reality during a press conference while visiting U.S. troops in Iraq. When asked about the implications of the Syria pullout vis-à-vis Israel, Trump said that Israel can do a “great job” in “defending itself.” The fact that Israel is now at it alone in Syria has not changed the country’s approach. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted in a recent speech at a fighter pilot graduation ceremony (a very appropriate venue indeed), Trump’s decision on Syria does not affect Israeli policy. “We stand by our red lines in Syria and anywhere else.” Indeed, as the IAF strike on Damascus last week demonstrates, the new situation in Syria will not prevent Israel from continued and even increased action on the northern front.