How Useful Are Israel’s F-35s For Gaza and Lebanon Operations? Surge in Parts From U.S. Facilitates Intensified Strikes

American lawmakers and defence officials have revealed in a new wide-ranging hearing on the F-35 fifth generation fighter that the United States was able to surge supplies and accelerate the provision of upgrades to the Israeli Air Force in the wake of the escalation of hostiles between the country and various Palestinian militia groups in early October. This support was provided as part of a much broader expedition of arms supplies to the Middle Eastern country, from surface to air missiles to bunker buster bombs, and occurred in parallel to a massive surge in the American military presence in the region both to provide active support to Israeli operations and to deter intervention in support of Palestinian militia groups by regional actors. Regarding support for F-35 operations chairman of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee Representative Rob Wittman observed that steps had successfully been taken to “accelerate F-35 weapons capabilities and increase spare parts supply rates.”  

Undersecretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante testified that Air Force Lieutenant General Mike Schmidt and his team, who headed the F-35 program, were able to share American mission data files with the Israeli Defence Forces within a week of the conflict’s outbreak, with General Schmidt later confirming the accuracy of LaPlante’s comments. “We are always trying to provide spare parts and capabilities to every one of our customers,” he stated, while declining to discuss more specific details. With the F-35 plagued by some of the lowest mission capable rates in the American fighter fleet, with only 30 percent of fighters found to be fully mission capable in 2023, Schmidt elaborated: “We are going to learn a lot” from Israeli F-35 operations since country’s small fleet had “high” mission-capable and fully mission-capable rates.” A surge in spare parts supplies to the Israeli fleet has been a key facilitator of this. Another has been the very basic nature of the missions the F-35s have been utilised for – namely serving as elevated sensor platforms and conducting basic bombing missions in airspace that is almost totally undefended.

The F-35 still suffers from over 800 combat bugs and is considered unsuitable for even medium intensity combat, with the nature of operations against non-state militia groups representing combat at a very low intensity. The value of the F-35 for such operations has frequently been questioned particularly when compared to fighters such as the F-16 Block 70/72, which has similarly advanced avionics but far lower operational costs and maintenance needs and thus can more easily maintain high availability rates. The extra cost of the F-35 is justified primarily by its stealth capabilities, longer range and superior electronic warfare capabilities. None of these most defining features, however, are thought to have had relevance in Gaza – or even against the Lebanese militia Hezbollah which is also very limited in its air defence capabilities.