Yaakov Katz
The Jerusalem Post
November 19, 2010 - 1:00am

When the gray-haired man entered the Lockheed Martin aircraft assembly plant in Fort Worth, Texas, last May, the workers thought he was just another corporate executive. His suit, tie and slightly British accent seemed to fit the mold.

The man was then given the opportunity to do something that most visitors do not have when visiting the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) assembly line – sign his name inside the cockpit of a plane.

Taking a black marker, he leaned inside the cockpit and wrote on the interior wall: “Maj.- Gen. Ido Nehushtan, OC Israel Air Force: Go!” The last word was basically Nehushtan’s way of urging Lockheed Martin and the US Defense Department to move forward as quickly as possible with the development and production of the advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter, which Israel is counting on as at strives to retain its qualitative military edge in the region.

On October 7, Nehushtan’s dream finally came true with the signing in New York of a contract, valued at $2.75 billion, for the sale of 20 F-35s to the IAF. The planes will begin to arrive in 2016 or 2017.

“Having the F-35 in Israeli hands will boost our deterrence,” Nehushtan said after the signing. “We also believe that the F-35 will improve Israel’s ability to retain air superiority and strengthen its ability to carry out its missions.”

Nehushtan knows what he is talking about from experience. In 1976, after completing his first year in the IAF’s Pilots’ Course, Nehushtan watched as the first four F-15s arrived, making this the first country outside the US to receive the new plane. At the time, all other countries in the region were flying third-generation aircraft made in the Soviet Union. The F-15 was a generation ahead.

“Until then the IAF was operating planes that were comparable to the Russian planes, but then the F-15 came and in a dogfight between an F-15 and an older Russian plane, there is no question that the F-15 had the advantage,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview last year.

“The moment the plane arrived, it boosted Israel’s deterrence. A plane that is advanced and is of a new generation has strategic significance and boosts our deterrence. It is therefore important that we are the first in the Middle East to get the F-35.”

THE COUNTRY’S LOVE affair with the F-35 – now at the center of a security package offered in exchange for a new moratorium on settlement construction – began in the early 1990s with the birth of the JSF program in the Pentagon, which was searching for a plane of the future that would replace the F-16, the backbone of the US Air Force’s fleet. The idea was to create a plane that could be used by the US and its allies and enable interoperability among different countries in future missions. By having other countries invest in the development, the Pentagon was also succeeding in offsetting some of the costs.

Seven countries joined the US in the program – the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy and Turkey. Israel was offered to sign on as a full partner at the cost of about $150 million, but due to a number of considerations – a mixture of economics and concern that its know-how would make its way to unfriendly hands – it declined.

In 2003, though, it decided to pay $20m. to join the program as a security cooperation participant which enabled it to review the plans for the plane but without a say in its development or configuration.

Many officials today look back at the decision to turn down the offer to join the program as a full partner as the original sin.

“Had we joined the program as a full partner, we would have been able to avoid the ups and downs we had with the Pentagon over the integration of Israeli systems into the plane, since we would have had a say on how the plane was built,” one senior IAF officer told the Post recently.

And ups and downs there were.

In 2005, Israel’s observer status in the JSF was revoked after the US accused it of upgrading the drones that Israel Aerospace Industries had sold Beijing several years earlier. Defense minister Shaul Mofaz reached an agreement with the US later in the year which allowed Israel to return to the project but placed restrictions on local defense industries in selling weaponry to China and eventually saw the resignation of Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron.

But this was not the end of the problems. As talks were renewed over the type of configuration of the plane the IAF would receive, the Defense Ministry was told by the Pentagon that no changes would be allowed to be made.

“This was against the way we had bought planes throughout our history,” the IAF officer explained. “Every plane we bought was unique, since we were able to add our own indigenous technology to it to provide it with the edge that we need to retain our air superiority in the region, and here we were told take it or leave it.”

While Israel was promised that it would be the first country in the Middle East to receive the plane, judging from history it could not count on being the last. Egypt also flies F-16s and Saudi Arabia flies F-15s as well. For this reason, Israel had to ensure that its unique technology would be installed on the aircraft.

ITS DEMANDS FOCUSED on three main issues – that it be allowed to install its own electronic warfare (EW) systems, that it be able to work with its own radar and communications systems and that it retain independent maintenance capabilities.

All of these demands went against the Americans’ vision of the deal.

The installation of the systems was said to be impossible since the US was not willing to provide access to the computer’s mainframe, deemed top secret even for close allies. Independent maintenance was also rejected since the idea behind a “Joint” strike fighter was that all of the partners work together. Part of this meant establishing regional maintenance centers – such as the one expected to be built in Italy – where all partners could send their planes for repairs.

Israel, however, refused to accept no as an answer.

“How could we accept such a condition with the possibility that in a future war, a country in Europe would say we are boycotting Israel and won’t let the IAF repair its planes?” a top officer from the IAF’s Materiel Command, which is responsible for weapons systems and technology, asked. “We need complete independence.”

Israel claimed that it required its own electronic warfare systems since it could not rely on the American systems. This demand was a result of the Yom Kippur War, before which Israel had received the US’s most advanced EW systems, which had been used successfully in Vietnam just a year or two earlier. The systems, though, were not configured for the daunting Soviet-made SA-6 surface-to-air system which wreaked havoc on IAF jets.

That war and the reliance on the US system taught the IAF an important lesson. “When it comes to EW we have unique challenges, and therefore can rely only on ourselves and our own systems,” said the officer.

The demand that it be allowed to install its own communications system also made sense for Israel, which uses a different communica-tions network than the US. Had it not been allowed to change the system, it would either be forced to change its entire current network or not buy the F-35.

In the end, the US proved to be more flexible than initially anticipated and in the negotiations – ahead of last month’s signing – Israel had most of its requests approved. In other cases, the Americans agreed to set up a joint logistics team with the IAF which will continue to work through issues as they come up throughout the production phase.

For example, with regard to the EW, the IAF received permission to insert its own parameters for operations within the Middle East into the American EW system already installed on the plane. At a later stage, it is also possible it will be allowed to connect an “add-on” EW piece to the one already installed.

“There is no question that in the beginning the answer we received was that this is the way the plane comes and there is no changing it,” the officer said. “As we began working together with the Americans, they became more flexible over time.”

But there were many other considerations along the way, including demands by defense the production of the plane and ultimately its high price tag of around $130m. apiece. If Israel accepts President Barack Obama’s offer to receive another squadron of F-35s for free as well as other security and political benefits in exchange for a three-month freeze, it will be as if it is paying $65m. per plane.

AT ONE POINT last year, some circles within the defense establishment recommended that the IAF back down from the F-35 and consider alternatives such as Boeing’s new F-15 Silent Eagle, which is not completely stealthy but is said to have a fairly low radar signature.

For Nehushtan, though, the F-35 was more than just a plane. Yes, it will give superior military capabilities, but just as important is the boost it will provide to deterrence.

“The fact that Iran and other countries will know that our planes can fly into their territory without them even knowing about it is a powerful message in of itself,” he has been known to say.

The fact that Israel will be the first foreign customer to receive the aircraft is also a demonstration of America’s commitment, some argue, to its security and its qualitative military edge in the region.

But this is not as straightforward as it appears. While the IAF will begin receiving at least 20 F-35s sometime around 2017 – and possibly 40 if it accepts the US’s current offer – other countries in the region are also arming themselves at an alarming pace.

In September, the Obama administration unveiled unprecedented plans to sell Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of the most-advanced military platforms, including 84 F-15 fighter jets, 70 Black Hawk helicopters and 60 Apache attack helicopters. Egypt is also purchasing new F-16s from the same block as the latest IAF F-16s came from.

Israel told the Pentagon that it understands the importance in selling advanced military platforms to moderate Arab countries, particularly in light of the Iranian nuclear threat and the realignment taking place within Gulf states.

On the other hand, Israelis are concerned with the possibility of a future regime change in either or both of these countries. There is concern that what happened in Iran in 1979 could one day happen in other countries in the Middle East.

The Americans’ counterargument was that if the US doesn’t sell the equipment to these countries, Russia likely will. Secondly, by selling the planes, the US reserves for itself a certain degree of control over their use since the countries will be dependent on it for spare parts and maintenance.

While there is some truth to these arguments, Israelis point to the sale of F-4s to Iran in the 1970s. Despite sanctions imposed on Iran and an embargo that has been in place since shortly after the 1979 revolution, the Iranian air force continues to somehow get its hands on spare parts.

But while Israel is concerned with the arrival of additional F-15s in Saudi Arabia, possibly of even more concern is that the proposed deal includes Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), basically freefall satellite-guided smart bombs that can be fired from a standoff position of dozens of kilometers.

The problem, one senior IAF officer explained, is that unlike other weapon systems, the JDAM does not need to be “driven” by the pilot to its target.

“Our pilots are better trained than Saudi pilots,” he said. “But even an untrained pilot can drop a JDAM and accurately hit a target dozens of kilometers away.”

What Israel can take comfort in is that the Saudis are not getting the most advanced JDAMs currently in use in the US and Israel, like the version of the bomb that adds a laser seeker to its nose and gives it the ability to engage moving targets.

Nehushtan had fought hard in his previous job as head of the IDF’s Planning Division to prevent the sale of JDAMs by the Bush administration to Saudi Arabia. In June 2007, he flew with Amos Gilad, head of the Diplomatic-Military Bureau at the Defense Ministry, to voice concerns about the proposed sale for to top Pentagon officials.

It remains to be seen what impact the Saudi deal will have, although one thing is increasingly clear – the power balance in the region is shifting and Israel’s qualitative military edge is no longer as obvious as it once was, even with the F-35.


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