The Israeli Defence Ministry has confirmed long suspected plans to expand its fleet of F-35 fifth generation fighter aircraft, with an order planned for 25 airframes under a $3 billion contract. The acquisition will enlarge the country’s fleet of stealth aircraft by 50 percent, with 50 aircraft already ordered and split between two squadrons. The final decision was made by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant after consultations with Israeli military and defence officials. At $120 million per airframe the F-35 is widely considered the most cost effective fighter in production in the Western world, with the class having consistently triumphed over competitors in tenders wherever it has been offered. Israel was previously speculated to potentially favour a variant of the F-15 based in the American F-15EX, due primarily to the much greater degree of combat testing and operational readiness the class has, as well as its much longer range allowing it to more easily reach targets in Iran.
Despite its advantages, the F-15 lacks advanced stealth capabilities seen on the F-35 which prevent it from operating effectively in heavily defended airspace – an issue which became particularly problematic after Iran demonstrated the potency of its indigenous air defence assets in an engagement with the U.S. Air Force in June 2019. A number of resolutions have reportedly been trialled by the Israeli Air Force to mitigate the effects of the F-35’s range issue, which are reported to include carriage of external fuel tanks for the initial stages of flight after which they are jettisoned to restore the fighters’ stealth profiles in preparation for penetration of Iranian airspace. The lack of airborne refuelling aircraft with stealth capabilities potentially leaves the fleet vulnerable if relying on refuelling, as existing aerial tankers will likely be vulnerable to Iranian fighters with long range missiles. As the F-35 is the only fifth generation fighter in production in the Western world, and one of three in production worldwide alongside the Chinese J-20 and the newer but less stealth Russian Su-57, there remains a strong incentive to ensure it can be utilised in a potential offensive against Israel’s primary regional adversary.
The Israeli Air Force has seen the average age of airframes in its fighter fleet increase significantly in recent years due to a lack of major acquisitions, with the fleet size expected to contract over the coming decades due to the unaffordability of replacing existing airframes 1:1 with newer generations of aircraft. A lack of ‘4+ generation’ fighter classes means that other than two F-35 units, its fleet lacks many key 21st century capabilities including electronically scanned radars, which limits situational awareness and electronic warfare options, as well as air to air missiles capable of long range engagements. Indeed, some units such as its older F-15A/B fighters acquired over 40 years ago still use missile classes such as the AIM-7 which are several generations behind the cutting edge. This leaves the large majority of fighter units at a significant disadvantage if facing many of the aircraft fielded by potential adversaries such as Algerian Air Force Su-30MKAs and Iranian Air Force Su-35s.
At $120 million per airframe, the F-35A’s cost compares highly favourably with other Western fighters particularly those produced less efficiently in European states, including the F-16 Block 70/72 acquired by Taiwan for approximately $124 million per airframe, further F-16 Block 70/72s sold to Jordan for over $350 million each, and the Eurofighter sold to Kuwait for $321 per airframe. Both sales to the Arab kingdoms, however, are widely suspected to have been affected by government corruption due to the abnormal costs involved. Israeli Air Force F-35s are expected to be configured to the F-35I standard, which is a unique modification of the baseline F-35A with local avionics which are thought to make it more capable than other export models of the aircraft sold to non-NATO countries. They are also set to be produced at the F-35 Block 4 standard which introduces a range of significant performance enhancements including an expanded internal missile payload. The F-35 has nevertheless suffered from wide ranging performance issues and very low availability rates, with a large portion of Israeli F-35s grounded in December 2022 to inspect for possible causes of malfunctions after aircraft in the United States and South Korea faced significant issues.