Is Israel About to Lose Its Edge in the Air?
In a September 2 letter to Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that Washington would ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal. The letter highlighted items the Obama administration has provided Israel, including the delivery of Jerusalem’s first F-35 stealth fighters slated for next year. But expectations for the F-35 to maintain Israel’s regional air dominance may be misplaced. The aircraft lacks the performance to go toe-to-toe with other new fighters fielded by neighboring states.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) is one of the most experienced and capable air forces in the world, with roughly 400 American-made F-16 and F-15 fighters in its inventory. For the most part, this force resembles a smaller version of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) “legacy” fighter fleet – fourth generation aircraft originally developed during the 1970s. Like the USAF, however, many of these aircraft are three decades old and nearing the end of their service life.
The IAF has since added 25 multirole F-15I “Ra’ams” and approximately 100 F-16I “Soufas” – both heavily modified with Israeli-made electronics. Alone, the F-16Is and F-15Is have proven effective against existing threats and will keep the IAF’s air-to-ground abilities strong for at least the next decade. But its ability to compete in the air-to-air arena is quickly eroding. Israel’s neighbors are adding new advanced fighters that surpass the IAF’s older fighters. Israel has so far ordered 33 F-35 Lightning IIs, but the aircraft’s sluggish performance and delayed delivery raise troubling questions about the IAF’s future as the dominant air power in the region.
The F-35’s development has been plagued with delays and budget overruns. In 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated the average cost per aircraft would be $69 million and that it would enter initial operating capability sometime between 2010 and 2012. However, it wasn’t until July of this year that the first variant, the F-35B, was declared ready for service, and the GAO predicted last year that the average aircraft cost could rise to $135 million.
But the real blow to the IAF came early this summer when testimony by an F-35 test pilot suggested that the F-35 is less capable in air-to-air combat than the older aircraft it is meant to replace. While, the USAF and the aircraft’s chief designer Lockheed Martin have argued that the pilot’s simulated dogfight involved an early model F-35 which lacked advanced sensors that come standard on production models. Nonetheless, statements by the test pilot point to alarming shortfalls in power and maneuverability.
The report also revived a reoccurring debate among air-power theorists about the future of aerial combat. There are those who claim that modern technology, stealth, and improved air-to-air missiles negate the need for agile fighters in traditional close-combat dogfights. The F-35 was designed with this concept in mind.
If the F-35 cannot hold its own against fourth-generation fighters, which are increasingly equipped with infrared sensors that can detect stealth aircraft, it will be limited to ground-attack missions and require escorts to carry-out operations in contested airspace. The former head of the USAF’s Air Combat Command admitted last year that the F-35 was not built as an air-superiority fighter and needs the USAF’s existing stealth fighter, the F-22, to protect against enemy aircraft.
This shortfall represents a major problem for Israel, which cannot acquire the F-22. Congress banned its export and production ended in 2011. Israel will therefore have to continue to rely on its existing fourth-generation fighters to retain competitive air-to-air capability – which undermines a core reason Israel invested in the F-35.
In the meantime, while Israel has already upgraded many of its older F-16s and F-15s as result of the F-35’s delays, their airframes are in some cases more than three decades old, requiring more maintenance to stay in the air. As Israel patches up its old planes, the country’s hostile neighbors are buying sophisticated “fourth-generation-plus” and “fourth-generation-plus-plus” fighters which can compete, if not surpass, the IAF’s legacy fighters.
To Israel’s south, Egypt is receiving its last F-16C and D Block 52 aircraft (the latter is similar to the F-16I) from the U.S., introducing its first French-built Rafales, and is in negotiations to buy 46 MiG-35 from Russia. To the west, Algeria just placed an order for more of the formidable Russian-made Su-30 it already flies. In Syria, reports suggest Russia recently delivered a handful of MiG-31s – the fastest combat jet in production.
In the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates has the most advanced variant of the F-16 – the E and F block 60/61 models – and is looking for more fighters. In May, Qatar ordered two dozen Rafales to boost its fledgling air force, and Kuwait announced last month it is buying 28 Eurofighter Typhoons. Saudi Arabia is receiving the last of its 72 Typhoons, upgrading 67 F-15S strike fighters (similar to the F-15I), and preparing to accept 84 of the most advanced F-15s in the world – a sale Israel opposed. And Israel’s foremost regional foe, Iran, is courting Russia and China for large jet purchases once UN arms embargos are repealed as part of the nuclear deal.
In the interest of maintaining Israel’s steadily eroding QME, Washington has thus far refused Arab requests to buy stealth fighters, and Israel is hoping for a permanent ban on F-35 sales to other Middle Eastern militaries. Still, the U.S. continues to offer other modern fighters carrying advanced sensors and weapons to Israel’s rivals, allowing them to gain qualitative parity at a time when the F-35 remains delayed and heavily flawed. And given the ballooning budgets of some Middle Eastern powers, if the U.S. is not willing to provide certain pieces of military hardware, Arab militaries can shop elsewhere.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington in November, the U.S. is expected to offer Israel a hefty arms package to allay its security concerns following the Iran nuclear deal. If the package is really meant to maintain Israel’s QME it should address the closing fighter gap – brought, in part, by the F-35’s shortfalls. But Jerusalem should be mindful that the U.S. is facing the same fighter dilemma. The commander of USAF in Europe proclaimed last week that America’s “advantage in the air… is shrinking.” If USAF brass is considering other options for itself to make up for the F-35s lack of air-to-air prowess, the White House should offer similar solutions to Israel.
Inventory of Prominent Middle East and North African Air Forces
(Multirole and Air Superiority Fighters Only)