Israeli F-35 Demonstrates Short Range Cruise Missile Defence Capability: Yemeni Strike Intercepted

On October 2 footage showed the first ever deployment of a F-35 fifth generation fighter to intercept an enemy missile, with a fighter from the Israeli Air Force firing an AIM-9X infrared guided air to air missile to intercept a cruise missile inbound from the country’s southern borders. Footage of the shootdown is thought to have been taken by the F-35’s helmet mounted display, and marks an important landmark in the fighter program’s evolution. Although fielding just two F-35 squadrons, the Israeli Air Force is the only service in the world to have used the stealth fighters for operations other than basic bombing of undefended ground targets. The only other such operations took place from 2021 and saw an F-35 shoot down transport drone allegedly of Iranian origin transporting supplies to the Gaza Strip. The F-35 is the only NATO-compatible fifth generation fighter in production, and one of just three of its generation in production worldwide alongside the Chinese J-20 and Russian Su-57. With the aircraft quickly proliferating across NATO and accounting for the overwhelming majority of Western fighter orders over the last decade, the opportunity to observe its performance in combat will be highly prized by Israel’s Western security partners.  The only service to have used fifth generation fighters for a more diverse range of combat missions has been the Russian Air Force, which has employed its sole squadron of Su-57 fighters for roles including precision strikes, air defence suppression and air to air combat.   

Although the Palestinian militia group Hamas does not field ballistic or cruise missiles, missile strikes have been launched on Israel from the Yemeni Ansurallah Coalition despite the considerable distance separating their territories. The missile targeted by the F-35 closely resembles and is thought to be from the Yemeni Quds series of weapons – with Quds notably being the Arabic word for Jerusalem which is the claimed capital city of both the Palestinian and the Israeli states. Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah also field very large arsenals of cruise missiles, with the possibility of either entering the current conflict having been raised repeatedly. A fighter based anti cruise missile capability was first pioneered by the Soviet Air Defence Forces with the deployment of the MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor, which would for 20 years by the world’s only fighter or interceptor with an electronically scanned array radar – providing sufficient power to engage such small low flying targets. The integration of electronically scanned array radars onto Western fighters from the 2000s ensured anti cruise missile capabilities would proliferate quickly.

The latest Israeli air to air kill was notably gained within visual range, with the AIM-9X missile able to cover only a very small area around each F-35 unit. Whether the fighter class is capable of beyond visual range engagements against cruise missiles remains in serious question – and has important implications for its viability in missile defence roles. With the F-35 still suffering close to 800 performance defects, issues have been widely reported and often forced units to be grounded – which occurred in Israel’s case in December 2022. Many of its capabilities needed for higher intensity combat, such as long range air to air combat, also remain in need of refinement. Beyond intercepting cruise missiles, F-35s will otherwise be relied on heavily to serve as airborne sensors to cue ground based air defences, which is a capability that has still not fully matured. The possibility of F-35s integrating anti ballistic missiles has also notably been raised repeatedly.