Two Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters will arrive in Israel in December 2016, making the Israeli Air Force (IAF) the first outside of the United States to receive the fifth-generation combat aircraft, a senior Lockheed Martin official said on 15 April.
The two jets are among 33 F-35s that Israel currently has on order. The defence establishment is keen to acquire another 17 in the coming years to form two full squadrons.
Five pilots and a squadron commander from Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel have been selected to become the country’s first F-35 pilots and instructors, IAF sources added, describing them as the “core” of the first squadron.
Steve Over, director of F-35 International Business Development for all partner nations in the programme, who is visiting Israel along with other senior Lockheed representatives, said Israeli pilots who have flown the platform have “begun to think differently” about air operations due to the jet’s enhanced manoeuvrability, networking, long-range data sharing, and stealth capabilities.
The first two F-35A fighters will be part of Lockheed’s low-rate initial production stage, which will continue until the end of the aircraft’s development stage, expected to be completed by 2018. “After that, we will ramp up the production rate significantly,” Over added.
More than 200 F-35s would have been produced by 2016 and 350 aircraft will be made by the end of 2018, Over said.
He added that, in the future, Israel might be interested in acquiring the more expensive F-35B short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant so that it can continue to operate fast jets even if its runways are destroyed by enemy ballistic missile attacks.
Alan Norman, Lockheed Martin’s chief F-35 test pilot, said the F-35 will enable Israeli pilots to approach targets without being seen, gather intelligence on them, and attack air and ground threats simultaneously, providing unprecedented survivability.
“It’s easy to fly,” he said. “The pilot is no longer a technician. He can truly be a tactician by focusing on bringing weapons systems into a battle arena.”
An active electronically scanned fire-control radar in the aircraft’s nose will be joined by several embedded antennas and sensors, including electronic warfare detectors, to provide “hemispherical” awareness, Over added. Pilots will be able to send each another sensory intelligence through a user-to-user datalink that does not betray the plane’s electronic stealth cover.
“It’s not invisible, but it can operate in a battlespace with impunity,” Norman said. “It will know where threat radars are, hundreds of miles away, and decide to either avoid or kill the threats. The sensors actively look for surface and airborne radars. It will locate threats without transmitting electrons off the plane.”
Six windows in the cockpit are designed to provide the pilot with visual missile warnings, while a helmet-mounted display provides the pilot with infrared and night vision (light amplification) views, Norman said.
A pilot can use the helmet to point to and designate a target, or request more information from the aircraft’s sensors, he added. Six cameras at the bottom of the plane look down at the terrain and can zoom in closely on targets from 13 km away.
“We just crossed 30,0000 flight hours with the jet,” Norman added. “We consider 200,000 flight hours to be the point of maturity, and we forecast that we will reach that in 2017.”
Over agreed. “This is probably the most tested aircraft, with 12,000 test flights conducted so far,” he said.
The Joint Strike Fighter will have a life span of 30 to 40 years, the delegates said, and 3,443 aircraft will be produced for the United States and eight partner nations, replacing nine types of fourth-generation aircraft.
In terms of software development, Lockheed is currently using the Block 2B software operational capability, but this will be upgraded to the Block 3i standard from the first quarter of 2016. The software upgrades are designed to allow for a “technology refresh of the hardware”, Over explained.
At Nevatim, IAF officials told reporters that the arrival of a new F-35 flight demonstrator will cut the time it takes for the air force to become acquainted with the new aircraft.