On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics rolled out its first F-35 bound for Israel, where the sleek stealth fighter is so greatly anticipated that it is known as the Adir, Hebrew for mighty, powerful and great.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was among the foreign, state and local dignitaries at Lockheed’s complex in west Fort Worth to see the F-35 unveiled and then described as the weapon that will become the backbone of Israel’s security needs far into the 21st century.
“The F-35’s technology represents the crown jewel of air power superiority,” Liberman told a crowd of several hundred that included Gov. Greg Abbott and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. He said the fighter jet will “dramatically enhance” his country’s ability to defend itself in a complex and volatile region against security threats both “conventional and unconventional.”
“This yet again emphasizes U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s military superiority and Israel’s security,” Liberman said.
Israel’s air force, which will be the first to have a fully operational F-35 outside the United States, is scheduled to buy 33 Lightning IIs and has an option to buy 17 more. The aircraft on stage Wednesday will undergo additional testing before being delivered in December.
Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin
Analysts say that Israel’s purchase of the fighter already means that the Jewish state will be the dominant air power in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. The F-35 is so crucial to the country’s defense that Wednesday’s rollout ceremony was broadcast live on Israeli television.
The event in the Fort Worth hangar sparked tweets from around the world. The Israelis, more than once, praised the Obama administration for supporting their defense with the purchase of the F-35, with Liberman saying it came despite the countries’ disputes over how it deals with its neighbors.
“Israel and the United States share a special bond, deeply rooted in the shared history we have,” said Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed’s chairman and chief executive officer. “We also have an exciting future, one that will bring greater safety, security and prosperity to our people, to our nations, and to the world.”
“The name Adir means ‘Mighty One’ in Hebrew. It is a fitting name for Israel’s fifth generation fighter as it accurately describes the incredible capabilities of this aircraft,” Hewson said. “I believe it also captures what two great powers can achieve together, and how much stronger they are, when they join together as one.”
Taking flight after stumbles, setbacks
The F-35 moves at supersonic speeds with stealth capabilities that allow it to avoid detection. Israel is buying the F-35A, the lighter and sleeker version used by the U.S. Air Force.
The U.S. joined with eight other countries to build and develop the F-35. Its partners are Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey. Japan and South Korea, along with Israel, are foreign military customers.
Israel has stuck with the F-35 through more than a decade of development stumbles and setbacks.
The commitment that the [Defense Department] has made to me is that they want to buy as many F-35 as quickly as they can as soon as they can,
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the program executive officer for the F-35.
The Pentagon recently reconfirmed its commitment to buy 2,443 of the planes — 1,763 for the Air Force and 680 for the Navy and Marines. In a letter to Congressional leaders last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said the Pentagon’s focus “for the foreseeable future is to acquire F-35s at the highest rate affordable,” according to Bloomberg News.
“The commitment that the [Defense Department] has made to me is that they want to buy as many F-35 as quickly as they can as soon as they can and they will continue doing that to meet our security needs until we run up into financial or budget issues,” said Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the program’s executive officer.
Lockheed has already built more than 170 combat capable jets and plans to deliver more than 50 this year, officials said. By the end of the decade, it hopes to produce 17 fighters a month and hire another 1,000 assembly line workers. To meet the demand, Lockheed’s Fort Worth plant is in the midst of a $1.2 billion reconfiguration.
Dominant air power
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Washington, said the F-35 has progressed “without any real slippage in the number the Pentagon needs.”
“The Pentagon has stuck to the 2,443 come hell or high water, even through all the problems it has had,” said Thompson, who has done consulting for Lockheed.. “I’d say the closest thing to guaranteed employment for the next 20 years is working at the F-35 plant.”
Still, Israel standing firm with the F-35 is important and “symbolizes that the Jewish state will be the dominant air power in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. No other country will have a fighter as remotely as capable as the F-35,” he said.
Calling Israel’s purchase “one of the most important endorsements” the F-35 has received, Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with the Teal Group, said the country obviously believes in the stealth fighter because it could continuing flying F-15s and F-16s at a cheaper price.
“They clearly think it is worth the premium,” Aboulafia said. “They are the only Middle East customer and probably will be for five to eight years, at least.”
Still turbulence ahead
While everyone was singing the F-35’s praises Wednesday, the program could experience some turbulence in the coming weeks if Lockheed and its major union don’t reach a contract agreement.
Members of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 776 voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to authorize a strike if the union and management don’t reach an agreement by July 10. The union could vote to go out on strike on July 9.
The machinists strike in 2012 lasted about 10 weeks.
Hewson and others praised the skilled workers at Lockheed several times during Wednesday’s ceremony, but Michael Rein, director of communications for the F-35, also stressed that during the previous strikes Lockheed always made its annual delivery quotas. “The company has plans in place to keep the line going,” he said.
Bogdan said they’ve talked to Lockheed about the importance of staying on schedule.
“There’s always a worry that we can’t stay on schedule, for whatever reason. Whether it’s a strike or a tornado coming through Texas,” Bogdan said. “We have talked very openly and frankly with the Lockheed Martin leadership about how important it is to stay on schedule for all our partners and they recognize that and I think the union does, too.”
This reort includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.