Israel Is Getting A Single F-35 Test Jet Unlike Any Other

In April 2016, state-owned defense contractor Israel Aerospace Industries confirmed it would install an additional suite of command and control software on top of the F-35’s basic programming when it received its first jets. No other country participating in the Joint Strike Fighter program has received the right to tinker with the aircraft at this level, instead having to rely on central U.S.-based facilities to devise new code packages. Israeli officials have been understandably secretive about what their additional lines of code will add on top of the aircraft’s existing functionality. H

However, it seems reasonable to assume the modification would help link the aircraft’s mission computer and sensors to Israel-specific networks. It could aid with a host of other planned changes, which will include new communications systems and defensive electronic countermeasures, some of which may double as active electronic attack systems to jam enemy radars or radios. This combination of equipment could potentially make the Israeli jets more multi-purpose than their counterparts around the world. And Having access to the software and mission systems architecture could help keep the jets fully capable even if the country suddenly found itself cut off from the global infrastructure the U.S. military, Lockheed and other future F-35 operators are establishing to support the ALIS.

“The ingenious, automated ALIS system that Lockheed Martin has built will be very efficient and cost-effective,” an anonymous Israeli Air Force officer told Defense News in 2016. “But the only downfall is that it was built for countries that don’t have missiles falling on them.”

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Perhaps more importantly, Israel has also secured the unique right to perform depot-level maintenance, to include overhauling engines and airframe components, within the country. Again, other future Joint Strike Fighter operators will have to send their aircraft to designated facilities in specific countries instead.

“We will not go to Italy or anywhere else,” Israeli Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Maxim Orgad, head of the Engineer Division at the service’s Depot 22, told Defense News in 2017. “These aircraft [the F-35s] will remain in Israel for whatever they need.”

In addition, greater access to the F-35’s mission systems will make it easier for Israel to integrate its own particular weapons onto the aircraft. In particular, the county is interested in purchasing a version of Rafael’s SPICE – standing for Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective – a precision-guided bomb with electro-optical and GPS-targeting capabilities, which fits in the Adir’s internal weapons bay. Pop-out wings reportedly give the 1,000 pound-class version of the weapon a stand-off range of more than 60 miles. Other munitions, like the Delilah standoff missile will also likely show up on the F-35I’s weapons list.

On top of that, domestic Israeli defense contractors are working with Lockheed to develop country-specific add-ons to the aircraft’s frame, including possible new external and conformal fuel tanks. If engineered correctly, this flush design could significantly extend the F-35I’s unrefueled range while hopefully keeping its low-observable characteristics intact. Lockheed’s proposed external wing tanks compromise the jet’s stealthy shape. Extra fuel on board the aircraft eases pressure on the Israeli Air Force’s relatively small aerial tanker fleet, too.

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Coupled with stand-off weapons, this added range in full stealth mode could be a great benefit to the Israeli Air Force, which routinely conducts pre-preemptive strikes in various countries, such as Syria, which have increasingly potent air defense networks. But really, the F-35I’s main reason for being is Iran. Oh, and there’s always the possibility it could enhance the country’s unspoken nuclear deterrent. Experts believe Israel has a stockpile of thermonuclear gravity bombs, in addition to land-based and submarine-launched missiles.