Here's What You Need To Remember: Israel's strategic position and unique challenges have necessitated several improvements to their F-35s - improvements that Lockheed Martin (grudgingly) allowed.
Israel secured a number of contractual rights from Lockheed-Martin that make their F-35I variants optimized for conflicts in the Middle East — and potentially the most capable F-35 variant in the world.
Domestic Repair and Maintenance
The F-35 Lightning II program is tightly owned by Lockheed. Physical or data systems modifications to the aircraft are essentially not allowed. Any maintenance other than the routine is to be done at specialized Lockheed facilities to protect the airframe’s design from prying eyes.
But not for Israel.
Israel’s Nevatim Air Base hosts F-35 maintenance facilities that have the necessary repair tooling and the properly trained personnel to conduct not only routine maintenance but beyond-routine overhauls as well. Other F-35 partner countries are contractually required to have any deep maintenance done at Lockheed facilities. While this is more lucrative for Lockheed, it would also keep F-35 know-how under wraps and could help to keep technical details about the F-35 program a secret.
Israel’s unique geopolitical situation in the Middle East necessitates a rapid domestic-repair capability. In the event of a regional conflict, Israel could require rapid on-site repairs to keep their F-35I fleet in the air. Although the requisite technician training tooling installation won’t happen overnight, Israel is the only F-35 partner country with a domestically operated maintenance regime.
Israeli C4 Systems
One of the F-35’s greatest strengths is its ability to gather real-time battlefield information and use this information to update battlespace knowledge, also known as command, control, communications, and computing (C4) architecture, which is state of the art. Israel has essentially been allowed to create an “app” that operates on top of Lockheed’s C4 information architecture. This “app” will use data gathered by the F-35 to network with the other “nodes” in their information-gathering network — Israeli F-15s and F-16s that operate on in tandem with Israeli C4 architecture.
All F-35s are equipped with BAE Systems’ AN/ASQ-239 EW suite, which offers “offensive and defensive options for the pilot and aircraft to counter current and emerging threats,” designed to “optimize situational awareness while helping to identify, monitor, analyze, and respond to threats.” Essentially BAE’s EW system allows the F-35 to stop enemy radar and beat opposing aircraft and their missile threats.
Lockheed has allowed Israel to modify the standard BAE EW suit with their own Israeli-made system, presumably a kind of attachable pod, which could be tailored to counter regional capabilities.
Support of Israeli Weapons
One of the weapons systems Israel uses with the F-35 platform is their Spice family of guidance kits. The Spice kit is essentially a guidance kit that can be equipped to a variety of munitions to improve their accuracy through electro-optics, GPS, or through a “man-in-the-loop” system in which an onboard Weapons Officer can guide bombs to a target using the bomb’s nose camera and a secure television link for very high accuracy.
Conformal Fuel Tanks
Typically aircraft can increase their range thorough inflight refueling — which the F-35 is capable of — with drop tanks, which are attached to hardpoints under the wings or fuselage of an aircraft, or by installing conformal fuel tanks, which are contoured tanks that usually hug the fuselage or wing roots of a plane.
Drop tanks negatively impact an airframe’s stealth characteristic because they are optimized for internal volume and not for defeating radar, although they can be jettisoned when empty. Conformal fuel tanks, however, can be more “stealthy” than drop tanks. If carefully contoured, Israel could, in theory, installed fuel tanks that not only increase the F-35’s range but also only marginally affect the Lightning II’s stealth characteristics.
Once fully implemented, Israel’s F-35Is will be among the deadliest in the world.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture. This article first appeared in April 2020.