JERUSALEM—Anticipating rocket barrages targeting its runways in future conflicts, the Israeli Air Force is contemplating procurement of the F-35B fighter that can land vertically and take off in just 500 feet.
Israeli and American officials are discussing Israel’s acquisition of a squadron of the advanced aircraft, according to Walla, a Hebrew language website.
Israel has already contracted for 33 F-35A aircraft, the conventional takeoff and landing version of the aircraft. Israel is considered likely in future purchases to opt for the advanced STOVL (short take-off vertical-landing) version. This F-35B would find it easier to operate in a damaged environment, requiring only short strips of runway to take off after emerging from hardened concrete bunkers and no runway at all to land. Additionally, the planes could be dispersed in small numbers to remote locations around the country.
The immediate threat for Israel comes from Hezbollah in Lebanon, an Iranian proxy said to have 150,000 rockets. It also has a smaller number of guided missiles, which pose a danger to air bases remote from the Lebanese border. It is assumed that in any major conflict in the future, Hezbollah would focus much of its fire on air bases to deprive Israel of its most potent weapon. Israeli intelligence would be expected to provide the air force with enough advance warning to enable aircraft to take off before the opening barrage.
The air force has for some time conducted exercises in which planes take off and land during simulated missile fire on the base. Teams have been set up among ground personnel to quickly repair runways with special material.
The F-35, produced by aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin, is a stealth aircraft and one of the most advanced warplanes in the world. It has only recently come into service in the U.S. Air Force. The STOVL version is currently operational with the Marine Corps.
Israel is to receive its first two F-35A’s in December 2016. The first group of Israeli pilots to fly the aircraft will be sent to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in mid-year for training. The first squadron is expected to become operational towards the end of 2017.
An Israeli Air Force officer told Defense News that the F-35 would be able to cope with advanced anti-aircraft system like the Russian S-300 slated for delivery to Iran. "Your options for attacking the enemy (with stealth aircraft) are much more numerous and practical," he said. "The things that we could do before will entail much less risk, and the things we might not have been able to do before will be rendered doable."
The officer, who will be among the first pilots to be trained, said that stealth fighters change "the psychology of the arena by allowing you to hit the enemy without him being able to stop you. It really is a game changer and the enemy knows that."
The plane’s range is too short to reach Iran—Israel’s principal strategic opponent—but Lockheed-Martin is considering an Israeli proposal to add external fuel tanks that would more than double the plane’s range.
An official at the American manufacturer said that external fuel tanks were unlikely to be hidden by stealth technology. But, he added, "after you own the air space you don’t have to worry about stealth. You can add external tanks because you won’t be worried about being detected."
Israeli defense sources said it was hoped that Israeli engineers would succeed in making the fuel tanks stealthy as well.
Published under: Israel