Key point: Jerusalem wants to maintain a vast technological edge over its regional rivals. Having enough F-35s to deter or fight most countries in their region certainly would do just that.
The open source intelligence group Jane’s reported that the Israeli Air Force is mulling over buying even more stealthy F-35 fighters.
Israel currently operates two squadrons of twenty-five F-35s each and is the only country in the Middle East that operates the powerful airplane—though Israel’s F-35s are one-of-a-kind. The F-35I as it is known, is similar to the F-35A, the conventional take-off and landing F-35 variant and also the nimblest of the slightly differing stealthy designs.
Where the standard F-35A and the Israeli F-35I differ is on the inside. Though initially resistant to Israeli requests, the United States eventually allowed tweaks including a modified weapons bay that could better accommodate domestic Israeli weapons and allowing Israeli F-35s to be equipped with domestic electronics and sensors.
The Israeli Air Force was able to successfully argue that in ten years, the F-35 stealth platform, in its current form may be obsolete, despite the F-35 airframe’s thirty to forty year estimated lifespan. Given Israeli’s unique defense situation in the Middle East, this was evidently a convincing argument.
Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other
Jane’s also reported that the IAF could be deciding between a third F-35I squadron or another F-15 squadron. As I’ve previously written, Israel has a not-inconsiderable F-15 fleet, also tailor-made to Israeli specifications. Israel has had their F-15Is in service for several decades, and their F-15s are noted for high range and loiter time, made possible by very large conformal fuel tanks which can carry an additional 18,000 pounds of jet fuel.
Jane’s has also reported that the IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, may push Israeli Acquisitions Committee to approve both another F-35I squadron as well as another F-15I squadron. This balance makes sense, as the F-35I is extremely capable, but the F-15I has a larger and heavier payload capacity.
This push for another F-35I squadron may have been somewhat encouraged by the recent detente between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. As reported, the United Arab Emirates has expressed interest in acquiring the American F-35.
If their bid is successful, the UAE would become just the second Middle Eastern country to have a stealthy fighter in service—a potentially disruptive acquisition, though the current American administration insists that equipping the UAE with stealth fighters would strengthen the Israeli position against Iran rather than undermine Israeli’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East.
Whichever decision the Israel Defense Forces comes to, the IAF will likely soon be even more capable than ever before. Israel’s qualitative—and quantitative edge probably won’t be eroded anytime soon. Watch this topic closely for further developments in the future.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with 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 first appeared earlier this year and is being reposted due to reader interest.