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The Weapon's Edge


The F-35’s Combat Debut

June 7th 2018


After 179 months and more than $400 billion in acquisition costs, the F-35 finally made its combat debut—and almost nobody knew.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF), the first international customer to receive the Lockheed Martin-built aircraft, was quietly the first to use it in combat operations, finally revealing so on May 22.

“We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East. It has become part of our operational capabilities,” says IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin. “We are the first to attack using the F-35 in the Middle East and have already attacked twice on different fronts.”

The Israeli F-35 flew in Lebanese airspace, past Beirut, on its way to attack Iranian targets in Syria, according to air force images. It has also conducted operations in another unidentified area. And according to news reports, the Israeli F-35 took part in the attacks on Syria following the downing of an Israeli F-16 by a Syrian surface-to-air SA-5 missile.

Israel was the first to employ the fifth-generation fighter in a war zone

The IAF is adding Rafael missiles and a Litening targeting pod to the F-35I

The air force declined to specify the stealthy fighter’s capabilities, except to characterize them generally as a “game changer.” The F-35 proved to be a “super intelligence collector,” flying in stealthy mode with the capability to disperse data to forces in the air and on the ground, says an air force officer.

Details of the strikes emerged as Norkin addressed a convention of senior officers from international air forces, held as part of the Israeli Air Force’s 70th anniversary commemorations.

While he did not confirm the F-35’s role in the missions, it likely supported destruction of Syrian air defense systems following the firing of rockets into Israel by an Iranian Uragan rocket artillery system. Norkin said the Syrians fired more than 100 surface-to-air missiles, including the SA-5 Gammon and SA-17 Buk medium-range surface-to-air types, as well as the SA-22 Greyhound missiles fired by the Pantsir close-in weapon system.

Norkin says the air force also destroyed a Hamas tunnel 20 m (66 ft.) below the ground in the same raids. Media reports have suggested F-35 operational use since the beginning of 2018, but none were confirmed by the service. The air force announced it had achieved an initial operational capability with the F-35 last December.

While the first operational missions are a significant milestone for the wider F-35 program, it is unclear whether its capabilities made a significant difference in the raids. The Israeli Air Force has managed to strike Syria several times this year, hitting a mix of Syrian and Iranian targets deep inside Syrian territory with virtual impunity, apart from the aforementioned loss of an F-16 in February. Part of this capability is due to Israel’s extensive electronic warfare (EW) and spoofing capability. It came to the fore more than a decade ago when Tel Aviv secretly attacked a reactor being built with support from North Korea. Details were kept secret for 11 years until March, when the air force published a blog about the raid.

Such a disclosure by Israel is unusual, but could well represent a clear message to Iran, which has been increasing its presence in Syria—as well as to Israeli politicians as encouragement to purchase more of the aircraft. It comes on the heels of the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem and a souring of relations in the Middle East.

The Israeli Air Force’s “Golden Eagle” squadron is currently operating nine F-35s since the first Adir arrived in late 2016. The F-35s are undergoing an array of flight tests before being integrated into operational activity, including the IAF Flight Test Squadron performing a series of aerial refueling tests from Tel-Nof AFB.

Israel sees the F-35 as a major part of its “Long Arm” capability needed to handle potential threats.

Beyond testing, the service has done more than any other F-35 customer to equip it with homegrown systems. For Israel that includes additions to the fighter’s organic EW system and other systems, which are being adapted to be carried in the F-35 weapons bay. An updated list has been submitted to the U.S. Defense Department.

For example, Rafael is working on adapting a 5th-Generation Plus air-to-air missile to the aircraft, advanced versions of Rafael’s Python 5 and Derby air-to-air missiles. The company’s Litening 5 targeting pod is also in the adaptation process. The main changes are related to the capability to carry the systems in the F-35 weapons bay.

The tests were performed even before the special F-35 test aircraft that is part of the signed deal arrives in Israel. The delivery of the test aircraft is expected in late 2018 or early 2019.

The U.S. has used its stealthy F-22 Raptor in combat a number of times, flying it for the first time in combat in September 2014 during the first U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State militants in Syria. And although the U.S. F-35A and B variants have been declared operational and deployed overseas, they have yet to see combat.

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