F-35’s and Israel Air Force’s fight to remain the nation’s first line of defense
By Amir Oren
The debate over the real value of the F-35 fighter plane in the larger scheme of Middle East strategy did not start with the secret talks between Washington, Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem, which brought about the UAE formal-normal move to officially recognize Israel and sign “a peace accord” with it, though there was never either a shooting war or a state of war between the two.
At the turn of the century, the Pentagon came up with, and commissioned Lockheed Martin to develop, a Joint Strike Fighter – JSF, later named F-35 Lightning II. Joint, because the US Air Force, Navy and Marines were to take part in the program; Strike, because its main mission is tactical Air-to-Ground attack rather than long-range strategic bombing of the B-52, B-1, B-2 variety (thus the F- rather than B- designation), and Fighter, because it may engage in dogfights, though usually beyond visual range. The technological and financial burdens were huge and shared by an international consortium, which Israel later joined, though it weighed very heavily on its defense budget and necessitated cutting vital but lower priorities.
Ever since the 1967 war, the IAF proved the wisdom of its founders’ vision. It cannot storm an enemy compound, surround it or occupy an area. Planes must take off from a base and return to it, provided the enemy has not rendered it inoperable by pre-emption or retaliation. But it is the most versatile of all military means, capable of intercepting, striking, intelligence gathering and lifting men and material around several fronts, day and night.
The key is the ability to generate combat sorties. The sheer number of planes or squadron is only one input, where the crucial factor is output – how many times a day, in a war which only lasts a week or two, can an Air Force send its manned machines to their targets. A system of systems is needed. The most apt and skilled aircrew (pilots and navigators, or flight officers), command and control, intelligence, planning, targeting, logistics, air defense and many other elements. When a plane lands it has to be quickly turned around – checked, fixed, refueled, rearmed – and a refreshed crew must climb into its cockpit.
If five to seven sorties – depending on the distance, time and complexity – are marked daily to one plane, it is the equivalent of half dozen planes on single sorties by less sophisticated air forces. By that measure, Israel has always excelled, counting on the best available talent for pilots and on grooming a dedicated corps of maintainers, without whom the planes would be only good for an air and space museum (or worse, sitting ducks on the tarmac). This latest feature is a constant weakness in many Arab aviation organization, making them dependent on contractors, who are not expected to stay around and get hurt during war, when they are most needed.
The two indicators for an air force’s quality are its pilot-to-plane ratio and the average number of monthly flight hours each pilot gets. These are kept classified, but it is customary to aim for two pilots per fighter and some 20 hours a month, for the force to hone its edge and be ready for any contingency.
Maintaining the proficiency of fighter pilots is very expensive, so cruel decisions must be made – who among candidates, cadets and first-term pilots should be invested in, at any stage of application, training and service, including in the reserves, where the cut-off age is 51.
Earlier in Israel’s history, pilots’ timber was given top priority in recruitment, and whoever was good enough to graduate from flight school did. Now, with better planes but not as many of them, even very good cadets may have their flying career stopped in mid-training, in order for only the very best to graduate and go to F-35 squadrons or to fly late model F-15’s and F-16’s. A youth may be more qualified than his father or grandfather were, when they became fighter pilots and took part in the 1956 to 1982 wars, yet he will be regrettably told there is no space for him. He will probably be assigned to flying unmanned aerial vehicles or volunteer for an air commando unit.
By keeping these standards, under the command of one of its most effective leaders ever, Major-General Amikam Norkin, the IAF remains one of the best in the world and probably has no peer in the Middle East. But if the F-35 is as good as advertised, the ballance in the man-machine mix could tilt in favor of those less capable air forces who may be permitted to acquire it.
Well known is the assumption that if the UAE gets it, others – Saudi Arabia, Egypt – will not be far behind, with technology and doctrine soon spreading around the region and being picked up by alert observers, and their regimes could fall in a coup or revolution, turning arms against their suppliers.
Another, less mentioned concern is 007 in reverse. The James Bondish number was painted on the tail of the Iraqi Air Force Mig-21 after it was flown to Israel in 1966 by a defector, in an operation (“Blue Bird”) set up by MOSSAD and IAF intelligence. Israeli and later American test pilots learned valuable lessons, which helped their brothers-in-arms fly their Mirage III’s and F-4’s against Migs.
Gulf countries pilots could be suseptible to recruitment by hostile powers, through ideology, pressure or incentives, whether during their flight training in the U.S. or back home. It is quite imaginable that a renegade F-35 pilot could take off and fly away – not West towards distant Israel, but rather East to the closest Iranian base. There it will be flown, taken apart and reverse engineered by helping hands, perhaps Russian or Chinese, eager to learn its Stealth, connectivity and other secrets. They may even paint 700 on its tail, anti-Bond.
In the pomp and circumstance surrounding the UAE-Israel deal, in which the F-35 is a vital ingredient, this is a worrisome scenario worth considering. It helps explain why, when Gen. Norkin was asked earlier this summer whether the IAF insists on opposing F-35 sales to any of Israel’s neighbors, including peaceful ones, his affirmative answer was very firm.