"It's technologically magnificent and the next big thing. At present, we're gearing up and learning how to deal with this animal. It's like nothing that we've had here in the past, or that they've had anywhere else." Thus a senior Israel Air Force officer brings home the challenge that the Air Force will face in commissioning its first squadron of F-35 stealth fighter jets in the coming years.
The first of the 19 innovative aircraft produced by US company Lockheed Martin will land in Israel in 2016, but the feverish work in advance of their arrival began a while ago. "No-one knows how to fly this plane operationally. These planes are already flying in the US, but only in training flights, and the US Marines will probably be the first to deploy them operationally at the end of this year. After it is declared operational in the US, we will know a great deal more about the concept of how to operate it," the senior source told "Globes".
The Air Force's preparations include setting up a new infrastructure to enable it to absorb the new combat aircraft that will boost Israel's military superiority in the turbulent Middle East, from selecting the base where the aircraft will be stationed, to construction of underground pens for housing the expensive aircraft, suitable hangars even special testing installations that reduce the extreme engine noise. "All the future installations will have to meet the Americans' information security demands," the office says.
The first stealth aircraft will arrive here only in four years' time, even US Air Force pilots are still learning the new aircraft and its systems, but the Israel Air Force's senior command is already keen to procure a second squadron. They are casting eyes at the IDF's next multi-year budget, attempting to have it include the next procurement deal over the next five years, and not without cause: a substantial portion of Israel's air power is based on an array of aircraft that will become obsolete in the next few years. Many of the F-16s and F-15s have served the Air Force for over three decades.
They are still fine for routine Air Force operations, but the day is not far off when they will start to think of substantial upgrades and enhancements that will prolong their lives. The new stealth aircraft are not meant to enlarge the Air Force, and when they arrive it will be easier for it to take at least some of the older aircraft out of operational service.
When the deal for the stealth aircraft, which cost more than NIS 10 billion, was signed, Israeli defense companies expressed resentment at being excluded from the new plane. They were especially incensed at the fact that locally produced systems could not be installed on it, unlike what they were accustomed to with the Air Force's previous fighter jets.
"Historically speaking, the Air Force has bought aircraft as platforms, and integrated Israeli systems into them. In this case too, we are maintaining the same concept, and communications, navigation, and electronic warfare systems will be installed on our stealth aircraft as well," a senior office says. The Israeli defense companies will however have to meet their own challenge in the age of the stealth aircraft: to produce weapons systems, bombs and missiles that will suit the structure of the new plane, which carries its weapons payload in an internal bay, and not under the wings like older generation aircraft.
Carrying weapons in an internal bay helps to minimize the aircraft's radar signature. "At present, the Israeli companies are not capable of producing such weapons, and it seems that, at least at the start, we will have to rely on US-produced bombs and missiles for the aircraft. The Israeli companies will presumably find a way of closing the gap, and they are already doing important work in this direction," the officer says.
The old transport fleet of Hercules aircraft is also about to undergo an extensive facelift and renovation program in the next few years. Alongside comprehensive plans for extending the lives of the old Hercules, known as "Karnaf" ("Rhinoceros") in the Israel Air Force, the Air Force also awaits three new Hercules, also from Lockheed Martin, to be called "Shimshon" ("Samson").
Goodbye to the Skyhawk
The Israel Air Force is interested in a complete squadron of the new version of the Hercules, comprising 10-12 aircraft. For the time being, Air Force commanders will be grateful if the IDF's multi-year procurement program includes buying another three Shimshons. The commissioning of these will happen at the same time as the commissioning of the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 trainer jets for combat pilot cadets. The new trainers will gradually replace the old Skyhawks.
The first nine aircraft will arrive in Israel in the summer of 2014. The squadron will be located beside the Hazerim flying school near Beersheva, and by early 2015, all 30 aircraft are due to be delivered. "This is a new aircraft, originally designed as a training aircraft," senior Israel Air Force office says. "We have been following the Italians' activity in this area closely, and they have clearly done good, serious work. Our deal for procuring the new aircraft is progressing at the desired pace, and we're happy. At the same time, it's still not clear whether 30 aircraft will be sufficient to train all the combat pilots we want to train. At the moment, we have a fairly ambitious operating plan based on efficient maintenance making it possible to get much more out of the aircraft." Now, the Air Force is looking for a Hebrew name for the new Italian plane, in accordance with the force's tradition, and its officers are still thinking about what colors to paint it.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on January 31, 2013
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