Something important happened in Israel on November 5 of this year: the ministerial committee for the acquisition of new equipment firmly opposed the defense establishment’s demand for 31 stealth F-35 aircraft on top of the 19 already ordered. Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz led the unprecedented opposition to the deal, which was valued at roughly $4.5 billion, against Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
The F-35’s single engine affects its maneuverability, range and payload capacity – Photo: Reuters
Somewhat unexpectedly, all the parties to that conflict came out satisfied — at least to all appearances. The ministerial committee, which Steinitz headed on this issue, reduced the number of F-35s Israel ordered from the United States in the second shipment from 31 to 14, fewer than half the quantity that the air force had asked for. (The 19 F-35s already ordered are to be paid for with $2.7 billion in aid money.) The Defense Ministry, IDF and air force, entrenched on the other side of the confrontation, accepted two “thin” squadrons of the aircraft, which is the most advanced in the world, together with additional infrastructure for absorption, operation and maintenance for the remaining aircraft, for which an option was kept open. Lockheed-Martin, the manufacturer, still holds an Israeli order for 33 aircraft. Considering the image of the Israeli Air Force in the world, the order is worth a good deal more than a few aircraft here or there.
“We are honored that Israel decided to acquire another squadron of F-35A aircraft [known in Israel as Adir], a fifth-generation fighter combat aircraft,” Lockheed-Martin’s statement read in part. “Israel joins other countries who have increased their order of F-35 aircraft over the original quantity over the past two years.”
The first two aircraft, which are expected to land in Israel in December 2016, exactly two years from now, will become operational about a year later. Israel has been consistently reducing the number of its aircraft. During the 1970s, the air force had 700 aircraft in service. In the 1980s and 1990s, that number declined to 600. Currently it has half that amount, about 300 aircraft in all.
Minister Yuval Steinitz led the debate over the aircraft in the acquisitions committee with a great deal of determination. “This seems to be the first time that the acquisitions committee said no to a request from the defense establishment,” Steinitz told Israel Hayom, “and it is the right thing in terms of security and democracy. I follow David Ben-Gurion’s view that it is not the army, but rather the civilian echelon, that should determine the power structure. The committee is not a rubber stamp, and certainly, neither am I. A matter this serious, in terms of strategy and economics, requires a thorough examination, and that is what we did.”
Steinitz said that as the committee approached its debate over the aircraft, he received telephone calls from very high-ranking officers, even retired generals: “They told me: The deal is not right. The aircraft is not a good one. It is not operational, and there are concerns about its capabilities.”
Considering that the F-35A is the next combat aircraft for Israel’s air force, Steinitz’s statement could sound very disturbing. What, exactly, is he saying? His position on the issue can be summed up in three main points:
• “We do not have to put all our eggs in the air force’s basket,” Steintz argues. The great advantage of the aircraft is its ability to strike enemy targets with precision. This advantage, which was used extensively in World War II and, for Israel, in the Six-Day War, is less significant now. The alternative that Steinitz suggests is missiles, which can be launched from any platform — ground or sea — in as little as three to four minutes, without risking a pilot and a $15 million aircraft. The development of affordable missiles such as the LORA or the EXTRA, with a 500-kilometer range, could provide an excellent solution. “Three hundred missiles can be produced for the cost of a single aircraft,” Steinitz says.
• “The F-35 is inferior in performance to previous-generation aircraft such as the F-16, the F-15 and even other fifth-generation aircraft such as the Chinese stealth aircraft [which is in development, and little is known about it]. Its manufacturers paid for its stealth with reduced capabilities.” Steinitz bases his statements on a study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2008, which the Pentagon commissioned, and other research commissioned by the American undersecretary of defense and the comptroller general of the United States. “The main mistake in planning is that the aircraft is a single-engine one,” Steinitz says. This affects its maneuverability, range and payload capacity. Its stealth is partial, and low-frequency radar is being developed throughout the world that will reduce this advantage even more.
• “They are not allowing us to install Israeli systems on the aircraft to the same extent that they are installed on the earlier aircraft, such as the F-16 and the F-15.”
In principle, any country that purchases aircraft from the United States can buy an F-16, but only Israeli Air Force aircraft carry Israeli-made systems, at a rate of 15 percent. This gives Israel two outstanding advantages: the first strategic, and the second industrial. The Israeli system on an F-35 is much smaller, and when it is in stealth mode it cannot carry some missiles, such as the Python-5 made by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, which is considered the best air-to-air missile in the world.
Steinitz says the reduced aircraft deal did not harm a reciprocal acquisition, and the American order of 800 pairs of stealth wings from Israel Aerospace Industries is still on. “Even the air force thinks we got a good deal in the end,” he says. “We have an option for aircraft that we were not required to purchase, and we have until the end of 2017 to use it. The aircraft will not be operational by then. The first aircraft will already fly in Israel and we will have practical experience with them, so that we will be able to decide on the basis of facts. In any case, the price of the aircraft will not go up.”
The critical mass principle
Yair Shamir was a member of the acquisitions committee. Although he serves as agriculture minister, his record is quite relevant when it comes to whether Israel should buy the stealth aircraft, and if so, how many. The son of the late former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Yair Shamir was a pilot in the air force and retired with the rank of colonel. His last position before entering political life was chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries.
“The air force deliberated on whether to upgrade the F-15 so that it could be the spearhead for more decades to come, or to buy the F-35,” Shamir says. “But that argument ended the moment the decision was made to acquire the first 19 stealth aircraft. By doing so, the Israeli Air Force followed in the footsteps of the American Air Force, and there is no turning back. The option of going back to the F-15 and building an infrastructure for it to upgrade it to the next generation is not a realistic one,” he says.
Shamir also agrees the decision to build the stealth aircraft with only a single engine was a mistake, and that a dual-engine aircraft would raise its level of performance, particularly regarding ammunition payload, by a fair amount. “When this aircraft was planned, they wanted to put everything in because quite a few people spoke of it as the last manned aircraft. That’s why it also had to be appropriate for the [U.S.] Air Force, the Navy and the Marines — one size fits all. That doesn’t work. Even today there are 200 known structural changes that have to be made to the aircraft, and I believe that they will be. But, like I said, that debate is behind us.”
Shamir adds that once the decision was made to acquire the stealth aircraft, the obvious question became how many?
Obviously, 19 aircraft are not enough. Looking ahead on the basis of past experience, the air force keeps this type of combat aircraft in service for about 40 years. There is wear and tear over the years, there are accidents, aircraft are damaged and taken out of service. In short, it is not enough. A critical mass is needed. In my opinion, critical mass is two squadrons: one in the north and one in the south. Each squadron should have 16 aircraft, plus another aircraft for testing. That is the calculation that led to the decision to acquire 14 aircraft during this round. We have an option for the rest.
“It is very important that the infrastructure that is built here, which includes simulators, maintenance and other things, be capable of handling 50 aircraft, so that if we decide to use that option, we will pay only for the marginal aircraft. An option to purchase aircraft is an accepted procedure in the aviation world. El Al too, for example, acquires options and pays for the aircraft only when it actually buys it. The Defense Ministry wanted to pay in advance for the entire transaction. That is not necessary. Those aircraft will only be arriving here in 2022 anyway.”
Shamir is very pleased with what he describes as an “excellent” deal. “We made sure the defense industries would not be harmed by the reduced order. If the air force says the aircraft suits it, who am I to argue?”
He also approves of the fact that the acquisitions committee intervened over the Defense Ministry’s demand.
“Questions like this should come up for public debate,” he says. “All the agricultural problems in the Negev could be solved for the price of two or three aircraft. This is an enormously important matter. The committee must ask questions to be certain that we are getting a proper return on investment. From a different perspective, the defense establishment does not like to have its affairs interfered with, so the confrontation got personal [between Steinitz and Ya’alon]. That’s no big deal — from now on, the defense establishment will prepare more thoroughly for discussions in the acquisitions committee.”
“The right weapons for attack”
Maj. Gen. (res.) Eitan Ben-Eliyahu was the commander of the air force between 1996 and 2000. An experienced combat pilot with many stories to tell, he absorbed the F-16 combat aircraft into the air force and commanded the first squadron to fly them.
“The first F-15 aircraft were acquired in 1976,” he says. “The air force agreed to receive the first four of the aircraft that would be used for development and evolution tests [similar to buying a product’s display model], as long as they reached Israel 12 months before the other aircraft in the series were to arrive here. These four aircraft had an enormous impact on the rebuilding of the army, which was licking its wounds from the Yom Kippur War, the rebuilding of Israel’s deterrence in the region, and on the strength of the strategic alliance with the United States. It was a milestone for the image of Israel’s military might and diplomatic power.”
That, he says, is “the real significance of buying top-of-the-line, spearhead aircraft that are ‘the best in the world.’ The fact that Israel has this kind of aircraft is enormously significant. It goes far beyond any discussion of the aircraft’s characteristics. I am not saying that such a discussion should not be held — it should be held at the professional and operational levels, but it should not be the deciding factor. The political echelon should give its opinion on the strategic significance of this kind of aircraft, on its comprehensive contribution to defense.”
A similar issue came up in the early 1990s: whether to acquire 22 F-15 aircraft or 50 F-16 aircraft using the same budgetary framework. The field ranks asked for the latter. The F-16 is loved by its pilots, and the large number of aircraft was tempting for the commanders. But the issue of ensuring technological superiority for Israel came up in an intimate talk between President Clinton and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin asked for the F-15E, the jewel in the American Air Force’s crown, which had not been offered to any other country. Although Clinton approved Rabin’s request, the decision fell through and F-15 aircraft were ordered. (Israel received 25 F-15I aircraft, which are called “Re’em” in Hebrew, and to this day they are the most advanced aircraft in the air force.)
Ben-Eliyahu says, “We must bear in mind that the chief purpose and justification of all the American aid is the acquisition of aircraft, which started with the Phantom fighter jet. Ever since then, the budget has only been increasing. If we do not purchase aircraft, the aid will shrink. It seems to me that in the current political situation, in which there are tensions between ourselves and the Americans, this kind of rare expression of the strategic alliance ought to be preserved. They are giving us their own spearhead.”
In the end, the critical question is what this aircraft will contribute to the battlefield of the future. According to the air force’s doctrine, the air force must gain aerial supremacy on the battlefield so that it can deal effectively with enemy targets. The effort to gain aerial supremacy becomes increasingly difficult over time, and takes time even if it succeeds. But the space of time available has grown shorter, and today an army cannot wait several days for the destruction of the threats to its air force.
When this writer visited Lockheed-Martin, he was offered a battle plan suitable for the F-35 aircraft: it would use its stealth feature to paralyze command positions of anti-aircraft batteries in the first attack wave (as Israel did in the First Lebanon War without stealth aircraft, destroying the Syrian missile array). In the second wave, F-35s could operate as an “ordinary” aircraft, carrying warheads under their wings.
Ben-Eliyahu is critical of the acquisitions committee’s decision. “A ‘thin’ squadron must contain 20 aircraft at the very least, though 25 would be better,” he says. “So it would have been better to go with 40 aircraft with an option for another 10, or complete one strong squadron with 25 aircraft.”
As for the missiles, Ben-Eliyahu says, “If they really think that the missiles are the answer to national security, they should have gone all the way with that. But the army’s basic combat doctrine is going on the offensive: surprise, and taking the fight into enemy territory. That is what we learned. This doctrine took a severe hit with all the investments, which are justified in themselves, in systems such as Iron Dome, Magic Wand and Arrow. We must not rely exclusively on defense, and we cannot win if we do not possess the means to attack. That, to me, is the bottom line.”
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=22241