A look at Iran and its terrorist proxies in Syria and Lebanon, the Israeli cabinet approved on February 7, a request from the Israeli Air Force to use foreign military funding and loans from the United States to fund approximately $ 9 billion of US military aircraft and weapons. The Jerusalem decision launches a process intended to culminate in the acquisition by the Air Force of new American fighter jets, air refueling supplies and helicopters. These purchases would help meet vital Israeli military needs and support efforts to maintain its qualitative military advantage over any potential regional adversary.
Under the approved plan, Israel will use both existing financing mechanisms and new loans. The first will come from Washington’s annual foreign military funding provided pursuant to a 2016 US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding.
The decision was delayed due to disagreements over whether it would be prudent to finance part of the purchases with loans. Israel’s finance ministry reportedly opposed the plan. However, motivated by growing threats from Iran and its terrorist proxies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi , supported the decision.
Yet the recent ruling does not provide for approval for specific aircraft or aircraft quantities. This decision is simply the first step in the Israeli acquisition process. The IAF will now present its recommendations for specific fighters, aerial refuellers and helicopters.
In the case of combatants, Israel considers both the F-35 and the F-15EX. Like the US Air Force, the Israeli Air Force considers it useful to mix the complementary capabilities of the two planes. Israel bought two F-35 squadrons and would like more. Indeed, the F-35 is the world’s most advanced multirole fighter, combining exceptional sensor and network capabilities with advanced technologies that make it difficult to detect.
The Air Force reportedly used its F-35I Adir variant to hit Iranian targets in syria and piloted it in Liban and other areas. Israel is fighting Iranian efforts both to establish another front against Israel in Syria and to deliver precision-guided munitions parts and technology through Syria to Hezbollah in Liban. As Iran acquires more advanced anti-aircraft capabilities and potentially advances its nuclear program, the advanced capabilities of the F-35 will become even more important.
Despite the exceptional capabilities of the F-35, Israel is seeking to improve the capabilities of its F-15 fleet. The Air Force is interested in acquiring an Israeli version of the F-15EX – dubbed the F-15IA – and upgrading some of its older F-15Is. Taking into account maintenance and sustainment costs as well as other factors, the F-15 aircraft costs less per flight hour than the F-35.
The F-15EX also has a much larger capacity for transporting ammunition. The F-15EX can carry around 30,000 pounds of weapons, while the F-35 can carry 5,000 pounds internally and has up to 18,000 pounds of total payload capacity when using external stations.
The F-35 can carry four to six missiles internally without increasing the aircraft’s radar signature, and has additional carrying capacity when stealth is not required. By comparison, the F-15EX can carry up to 12 external missiles. In addition, compared to the F-35, Israel expects to have more leeway in tailoring the F-15EX’s software and hardware to Jerusalem’s unique needs. This could include Israel’s own electronic warfare, communications, missile, and avionics packages.
The complementary capabilities and characteristics of the F-35 and F-15EX make Israel very likely to move forward with plans to acquire a squadron of each aircraft, starting with the F-35. The objective is to increase the capacity and the capacity of the Air Force.
When it comes to in-flight refueling, Israel currently uses modified and obsolete Boeing 707s. As a result, the Air Force sees an urgent need to purchase around six KC-46s. This purchase would provide additional refueling capacity and capability, expanding the range of Air Force fighters to deal with threats further afield from Israel. For conflicts closer to home, tankers would increase the time Air Force fighters can wander over potential targets.
The Air Force also wants to replace its aging helicopter fleet. The service wants the new helicopter to provide traditional utility vertical lift capabilities, agile maneuvering conventional ground forces and equipment in conflict zones while supporting special operations forces and recovering downed pilots.
The Boeing CH-47F and Sikorsky CH-53K are the main candidates. The Boeing option offers proven capabilities and a lower purchase price. Sikorsky’s option, however, would offer three engines per helicopter for improved safety and performance as well as greater external lift capacity. But the benefits of the CH-53K would come at the cost of fewer helicopters and possibly higher maintenance costs.
Depending on a number of factors, the Air Force may also look to procure the V-22 Osprey to extend the range and speed of Israel’s vertical lift capabilities for special missions.
Regardless of Jerusalem’s final decisions, these aircraft acquisitions will bolster U.S. military innovation and industrial base, increase interoperability of U.S. and Israeli military forces, and strengthen Israel’s advantage over any potential regional adversary.
With the growing threat from Iran and the extended purchase times for these planes, there is no time to waste.
Bradley Bowman is the Senior Director of the Defense of Democracies Foundation’s Center on Military and Political Power. He previously served as Senate National Security Advisor and US Army helicopter pilot. Brig retired. General Jacob Nagel is Visiting Principal Researcher at FDD and Visiting Professor at the Technion Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. He previously served in the Israel Defense Forces and in the interim roles of National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel and head of the National Security Council.