Three Israeli F-35I stealth fighter jets have landed in Israel as part of a clear effort by the country to greatly expand its fifth-generation warfare capabilities and potentially further deter or hold off threats from Iran.
Called F-35 “Adir” jets, the new planes add to the existing line up of fifth-generation fighter jets either stationed in the Middle East or in close enough proximity to perform operations if called upon. While much of the U.S. and global focus has shifted from counterterrorism to great power warfare preparation, asymmetrical threats are by no means entirely disappearing from the radar.
America’s F-35 jet, for instance, was used to attack Taliban targets in Afghanistan in recent years. This fifth-generation aircraft continues to expand its Close Air Support (CAS) mission envelope, including the addition of ground attack capabilities in closer proximity to maneuvering ground troops. Given this growing mission scope for the F-35, the new Israeli aircraft may be well suited to take on additional missions in the Middle East where counterterrorism precision targeting or counterinsurgency Close Air Support might be needed. Therefore, while F-35s are likely to enjoy air supremacy in most places throughout the Middle East, it still brings added tactical value should there be a need for CAS or various kinds of covert air attacks and precision strikes. This would prove quite relevant in the event of another ISIS-type threat or emerging terrorist training camp which might need to be eliminated from the air should there be moving targets. There does appear to be an extremely pertinent and impactful tactical reason to operate F-35s in CAS, given the aircraft’s speed, 25mm cannon and lower-to-ground maneuverability to avoid incoming enemy ground fire. At the same time, there is also emerging consensus acquire some kind of non fifth-generation light attack plane specifically configured for counterinsurgency. However, the particular blend of reconnaissance, networking and attack potential woven into an F-35 may bring an entirely new generation of integrated CAS because incoming video and targeting data could almost instantly be merged with weapons applications and close-in attack.
The largest overall impact of additional F-35Is in Israel, however, may be when it comes to deterring Iran. Iran is among a handful of nations known to operate Russian-built S-400 air defenses which means any attacking country would likely need stealth bombers or fighter jets attacks to establish air superiority. Iran is also believed to operate some F-14 Tomcats, dual-seat Navy fighters once used by the U.S. Air Force. These planes, or other Iranian aircraft would need to be destroyed in the air, something F-35I stealth fighters would be well positioned to accomplish.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions—still of great concern regardless of whether some kind of U.S.-Iranian cooperative deal is reached—might need to be kept in check with the threat of stealthy fifth-generation precision air strikes able to destroy facilities or transport vehicles looking to move nuclear material. Unlike a ship-fired Tomahawk or precision land missile, a maneuvering air asset such as an F-35 might be uniquely equipped to track and destroy moving targets in the event Iran seeks to maneuver troops, mobile launchers, weapons or even nuclear materials.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.