The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has launched a new squadron of its bespoke F-35 variant in a ceremony attended by Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin and other IAF top brass. The 117th will be the third squadron of the IAF’s F-35I “Adir”' fighter, joining the 116th “Lions of the South” and 140th “Golden Eagle” Squadrons. But, unlike the latter two, the 117th Squadron will be a dedicated training squadron; outfitted with simulators, a small instructional crew, and two F-35I aircraft to date, its purpose will be to train F-35 pilots for the IAF’s other squadrons. First established in 1953, the 117th Squadron served the country’s oldest F-16 squadrons prior to being reconstituted into its new instructional role. There is some ambiguity as to the military’s plans for the 117th Squadron’s future. Israeli sources told the Jerusalem Post that it is currently “unclear” if the military has any long-term plans to eventually convert the 117th Squadron into a combat squadron. But a Jane’s Defence Weekly report published several days later alleged—without explicitly citing any sources—that the 117th will become an “operational squadron” in the “coming decade.”
Last month, the 116th Squadron marked its first foreign outing by participating in the Falcon Strike 2021 drills in Italy along with American, British, and Italian F-35 jets. The IAF drill sorties lasted through June 17 and included ground support missions, simulated dogfights, and deep penetration airstrikes. An IAF officer allegedly told reporters that the drills were aimed at honing the service’s capabilities against Iran, which actively supported Hamas during the recent resurgence of the Gaza conflict. Israel’s fleet of F-35 jets will enhance the IAF’s capacity to project power across vast swathes of the Middle East, further bolstering its considerable ability to threaten Iranian missile sites and weapons production hubs.
The F-35I Adir offers a unique Israeli spin on Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation stealth fighter, it is currently the only operational F-35 variant that was heavily tailored to a foreign country’s specifications. The F-35I’s sweeping changes include data link functionality that is unique to Israel’s Armed Forces, along with Israeli-manufactured helmet-mounted displays. The Israelis have, in essence, layered their Command, Control, Communications, and Computing system on top of Lockheed’s stock F-35 operating system. Israel Aerospace Industries general manager Benni Cohen likened the Adir’s avionics changes to an iPhone app, integrating with the F-35 jet’s present software to enhance the fighter’s capabilities. These changes are driven by the Israeli military’s belief in the F-35 platform’s long-term value as a data-gathering/processing and electronic warfare platform. “We think the stealth protection will be good for 5–10 years, but the aircraft will be in service for 30–40 years, so we need electronic warfare capabilities that can be rapidly improved,” a senior IAF official reportedly told Aviation Week. “The basic F-35 design is OK. We can make do with adding more software.”
Israel has ordered a total of fifty F-35 fighter jets. As per negotiations between Jerusalem and Washington, the first nineteen of these will be stock F-35A models. The rest will adhere to Israel’s F-35I standard.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.