Israel will expand its fleet of next-generation F-35 fighter jets in a move that officials believe will help maintain the country’s qualitative military edge over its Mideast neighbors for years to come.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced Sunday that his Security Cabinet has approved the purchase of 17 additional F-35s, exercising an option it held on the aircraft. The acquisition will increase to 50 the number of F-35 jets being sold to the key U.S. Middle East ally.
The F-35, built by Lockheed Martin, is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program with an estimated cost of nearly $400 billion. The first F-35 built for Israel was rolled out in a ceremony at Lockheed’s manufacturing complex in west Fort Worth in June. It’s expected to arrive in the country in about three weeks.
A senior Israeli air force official described the addition of the F-35 as a game-changing development that will give Israel a “strong and effective tool” in dealing with challenges across the region.
He said its ability to integrate various cutting-edge systems would preserve Israel’s ability to act freely in hostile airspace. He cited its long range capability, its ability to provide pilots with critical data in real time and a stealth system that can evade or delay detection by the world’s most sophisticated radar systems.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military briefing guidelines, said Israel would begin training with the new planes immediately, but that it would take “more than a few months” for the first planes to be operational.
He did not specify what missions Israel might make with the planes, but said the F-35s are expected to meet all of Israel’s needs. In recent years, Israel has reportedly carried out long-range airstrikes as far away as Sudan, and is believed to have struck Hezbollah-bound weapons shipments in neighboring Syria.
Israel has also hinted in the past at making plans to strike Iran, some 1,000 kilometers away, if the Islamic Republic presses forward with a nuclear program it considers suspect. The threat of Israeli action in Iran has dropped following the international community’s deal with Iran last year to curb its nuclear program.
Both Syria and Iran possess sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft systems. He said these systems will still present a challenge, but the F-35 will be “very helpful” against them.