August 06, 2012
Credit: Credit: Lockheed Martin
David Eshel Tel Aviv and David Fulghum Washington
A $450 million agreement between Israel and Lockheed Martin to allow Israel's own electronic warfare (EW) equipment on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter paves the way to finalizing an initial 19-jet, $2.75 billion JSF deal between the U.S. and Israel, a cornerstone of Middle East defense cooperation. But it also means much more.
The long-expected accord further highlights the growing acknowledgment of the technological and economical limits of stealth capabilities in aircraft, as well as the need to keep the JSF relevant long past the advent of far more superior radar capabilities.
The F-35's stealth features have been a key reason for buying the JSF, but not the only argument for joining the world's largest-ever defense acquisition. Low radar cross section is a niche capability, and new sensor technology advances can make it less important. China, India and Russia are already finding weaknesses in stealth as they develop it for their own advanced strike aircraft.
“We think the stealth protection will be good for 5-10 years, but the aircraft will be in service for 30-40 years, so we need EW capabilities [on the F-35] that can be rapidly improved,” a senior Israeli air force (IAF) official tells Aviation Week. “The basic F-35 design is OK. We can make do with adding integrated software.”
Another important aspect of the acquisition is the aircraft's cost. “Israel cannot afford to be in the position of not having the F-35 in its arsenal. With the higher production [runs], the reduction in costs will allow the F-35 to become the replacement for the F-16,” the senior official says. Despite the JSF's high price tag, the Israelis want to shed their older aircraft because they are expensive to maintain, despite substantial U.S. aid.
“The additional cost to maintain old aircraft is not part of the U.S. annual military aid,” the IAF official explains. “Therefore, any further delay to procuring the F-35 would add spending to our defense budget, which would have to draw on resources needed for other programs.”