Israel continues to look at a buying spree of U.S. military aircraft and helicopters, according to recent reports. The deal could involve the Israeli Defense Ministry’s choice of new planes, including an option to buy twenty-five more F-35s and a series of new refuelers. Israel’s aging fleet of helicopters and refuelers have been a bone of contention for years with rumors that Israel needs to replace them soon to maintain its capabilities.
On the other side of the coin, the request for more F-35s or possibly the new F-15EX would increase an already advanced fleet of fifth-generation F-35s. Israel was an early user of the F-35, seeking to buy the plane in 2010, and using it operationally in 2018. It had two squadrons of the plane by early 2020 and views the plane as a gamechanger in tensions with Iran. Israel has a new multi-year war plan called Momentum that includes a need to confront the “third circle” threat, which is a euphemism Israel uses for Iran. Israel recently conducted advanced tests with its multi-tiered air defense and announced new capabilities for its Iron Dome air defense system.
With air defenses at their peak of technology, the question for the Air Force is what to do next. According to a report at The Jerusalem Post, which followed a report at Walla News, the security cabinet in Israel has backed a Defense Ministry procurement plan worth billions. The Finance ministry had opposed the plan. Israel is facing new elections in early 2021 and it has been putting off many budget decisions. However, the military usually comes first in Israel for budgets. Hints about Israel’s desire for more purchases were made in 2020 and continued through early January 2021.
This wish list includes the KC-46A deal for four refuelers. Reports said that Israel wanted this deal pushed up to receive the aircraft early. The deal is worth some $2.4 billion. They will replace the aging Boeing 707s Israel currently uses. Then Israel wants more large helicopters and could choose the Boeing Chinook or the Sikorsky CH-53K. Lockheed, which makes the F-35, also owns Sikorsky. The F-15EX is also being considered. Reports indicate that the V-22 Osprey is being looked at as well. In December 2019 rumors said Israel might want fourteen of the Ospreys as well as the two KC-46s. But interest in the KC-46s goes back to 2016. The Israeli government has debated this issue seemingly endlessly, although such long discussions are not unique to Israel. Procurement takes years. The United States, for instance, keeps buying the KC-46s, with some seventy-nine now under contract. The aircraft is a high priority for America and is capable of multiple mission types. However, like the F-35, it has been plagued with criticism.
Reports in Israel over the years about the need for new helicopters have painted a picture of a desperate need for them. The Air Force wants to replace its 23 Ch-53D Yasur helicopters with the new helicopters by 2025. But years are going by. In September 2019 an Israeli delegation went to the United States to look at the Sikorsky helicopter. In the intervening years some reports indicated Israel might prefer the Chinooks. The interest in the Chinooks goes back to 2018.
The question is now whether Israel will move quickly to actually make these purchases and when the aircraft might arrive. The option for more F-35s is not as pressing as the refuelers and helicopters. However, the fact that the defense ministry will change hands after the March 2021 elections means that there may be more excuses to put off the choice of the new aircraft.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen Publishing) and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.