The IAF, the F-35 and the Revolution

As Israel contemplates the simmering neighborhood that seems yet again, as volatile as ever, there is an issue of great economic and military significance that is cooking within the Israeli defense establishment. From time to time, signs of it boil over into the public discourse, usually following some media initiative. It is not yet recognized, but this is taking place in the earliest stages of an impending Revolution in Military Affairs.

It regards Israel’s purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This is the newest generation of Western fighter aircraft, promising all sorts of vast improvements and advantages, amongst them, radar evading “stealth” technology. The F-35 is the last word in Western aerospace technology, and one may go on and on describing all its various bells and whistles, which are indeed, cutting edge. The aircraft can be equipped with a wide variety of systems, many of which are optional and customer specific. These systems greatly influence the price of the aircraft, with the version bought by Israel said to cost around $150 million.

The aircraft is designed to replace several different types of aircraft, and the United States has the intention of buying over 2400 of them, with several other countries invested heavily in the development and procurement. The program is said to be now running at twice the original projected cost, at $400 billion, according to the US Government Accountability Office. It is also way overdue, by up to five years late and counting with numerous yet unsolved technical problems. Costs are not under control, and development is still far from complete. Despite this, the aircraft has been put into production.

For many of those countries invested, all of their fighter eggs have been placed in one basket, as currently no other Western “fifth generation” generation fighter is available or under development, with the exception of Japan and South Korea, though these projects are many years away from production.

The US had a viable alternative in the form of the F-22 Raptor, an extremely impressive aircraft, so secret that a law was passed forbidding its export to any other country. It is superior in many performance parameters to the F-35. Its production was terminated after only 187 aircraft. Had it remained in low rate production, the US would have had an alternative to the F-35 that is in many ways superior, at roughly the same cost. President Obama was determined to kill the Raptor, and in July 2009, threatened to veto the entire project, if it was not cancelled. The final aircraft rolled off the production line in 2011.

The F-35 is already equipping training squadrons in the US even though its development has not been completed. Numerous problems beset the aircraft, mainly the Helmet Mounted Display System, software issues, maintenance costs as well as a variety of other unsolved snags. The flight test program is far from complete, and without a doubt, further issues will continue to arise as it progresses, further delaying operational readiness and further inflating the spiraling price tag.

Israel’s involvement with the program is a story unto itself. Israel refrained from joining the program as a Tier 1, 2 or 3 partner, mainly due to the requirement to invest several billion dollars in development and thus forgoing any rights to determine aircraft configurations, integration of local weapons or avionic systems or participation in production. When officials in the IAF and defense ministry woke up to this reality, they embarked on a vociferous and loud campaign to turn back the wheel, and in the process ruffled more than a few feathers.

This campaign was successful and in an impressive achievement, not only will unique Israeli systems and weapons be integrated into the Israeli F-35’s (now called F-35I’s) but local industries will receive a handsome share of the production of the aircraft. The cost however, is exorbitant, with almost $3 billion (of a $14 billion defense budget) going to buy the first squadron of 20 aircraft.

In all countries that are planning to order the aircraft, debates rage as to whether the purchase should go ahead, mainly due to the high cost. Countries like Canada have reopened their new fighter selection program, the Netherlands has withdrawn its commitment to buy the F-35 and Italy has downsized its order. Within Israel it is not clear to what extent this debate exists as much of it occurs behind closed doors, though several relevant articles have appeared in the press.

On the one hand the aircraft is the most advanced in the world, has stealth characteristics and will give Israel an unprecedented edge that only Turkey in the region is foreseen to possess. It will be a critical component in the IAF during the initial days of any conflict, when the air defense systems of the enemy need to be tackled first, to allow Air Superiority to be gained, and later, Air Dominance. The mere fact that the aircraft is part of the IAF order of battle has deterrent value.

Radar technology is also developing, and the full stealth advantage is only expected to last unchallenged for 5 to 10 years, after which the aircraft will rely more and more on its electronic warfare (EW) systems for protection. The aircraft is only stealthy when its weapons are stored internally, allowing for a very limited weapons load. When additional weapons are carried externally, the stealth advantage is lost and the aircraft carries some 5000 pounds less ordnance than the veteran F-15I for a significantly shorter range. The combat radius on internal fuel is given at 580 nautical miles, whilst the F-15I does just under 800. Some commentators assert that with certain tactics, the “4.5 generation” Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 can overcome the F-35, but that of course is unproven conjecture.

Currently no hostile Arab air force can come close to challenging the IAF even without the F-35I. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have large and modern fleets of aircraft, but these are unlikely to meet the IAF in battle. In any event the Israelis enjoy a very large advantage in the abilities of their aircrew.

When looking at the cost of the aircraft, one can only wonder what the future holds for the IAF.

According to foreign sources, the IAF has some 226 F-16C/D and F-16I aircraft and 25 F-15I’s. These aircraft are multi role fighters, capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, just like the F-35. The oldest of these were acquired in the 1980’s and will be due for replacement in the next decade or so. In addition there are some 150 older F-16’s and F-15’s mainly used in the air-to-air role and these are some forty years old and more. All in all, if the IAF was to replace all of these without reducing its numerical strength, some 400 high performance jets must be bought, with the only candidates being the F-35 and a revamped version of the veteran F-15, the F-15SE. The cost is obviously astronomical, and in all probability quite beyond the capacity of the Israeli economy to fund, even with the generous US defense aid.

Obviously a different solution is needed. This is where the approaching Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) comes in.

A RMA is defined by the US Army War College as “a major change in the nature of warfare, brought about by the innovative application of new technologies which, combined with dramatic changes in military doctrine and operational and organizational concepts, fundamentally alters the character and conduct of war. The Revolution in Military Affairs consists of four new warfare areas: Information Warfare, Precision Strike, Dominating Maneuver, and Space Warfare”.

In this case we are specifically talking about the field of Precision Strike.

In all probability, the role of manned strike aircraft will increasingly be taken over by Unmanned Aerial Systems and surface-to-surface precision guided ordnance.

In very recent times dramatic changes have been taking place in the field of precision guided artillery, rockets and mortars.

Artillery, rockets and mortars have always been a statistical weapon, that is, for a target to be struck, a number of rounds need to be fired, usually involving a complicated series of time consuming corrections until the required accuracy is achieved. Now with the advent of GPS guided ammunition, it is possible to strike an unobserved target with a single round.

The components that can largely replace manned strike aircraft, are the rocket and cruise missile. Arab armies have reverted to the use of rockets, largely as a result of their spectacular lack of success in the operation of manned aircraft.

These have been in the form of anything from the crude Qassam rockets to the Scud and El-Hussein ballistic missiles fired by Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. The large ballistic missiles typically had an accuracy (known as Circular Area of Probability or CEP) of between 3000 to about 100 meters.

Just to demonstrate where all this is heading, the Chinese have recently adapted a ballistic missile to the role of lethal aircraft carrier killing ordnance, by coupling it with a precision guidance system, in the form of the DF-21 Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile.

The advantages of such missiles are that no aircrew are endangered, they are relatively cheap and are difficult to intercept.

Their disadvantages are that whilst a manned aircraft can be used for thousands of sorties, a rocket can only be used…once. Therefore a very large quantity must be bought and maintained. They are also vulnerable before launch and when in storage. Rockets are largely dependent on the GPS network which is not controlled by Israel. For full control, Israel would have to develop and launch several satellites of its own.

Despite the drawbacks, the case is very strong. Imagine with what ease the Israelis could strike at Iran with absolutely no risk to aircrew, when using ballistic missiles with conventional two ton warheads and pinpoint accuracy against hardened targets. This would be more effective than any manned strike, as aircraft typically do not carry such heavy warheads.

The IDF can largely replace its manned strike aircraft with a force of rockets and ballistic missiles of various sizes. This will involve a large investment in infrastructure as well as a significant expansion of the navy as a launch platform. The navy must be exploited for this as tiny Israel does not possess the depth to adequately hide a large force of rockets and missiles.

The air to air mission will in all likelihood remain partly a mission for manned aircraft together with a force of advanced surface to air missiles.

Close Air Support, EW and reconnaissance will probably move to UAV’s, leaving perhaps only the various transport roles to manned aircraft.

These changes are relevant to air forces worldwide, and as aircraft become unaffordable, and technology ripens, the era of manned air forces is about to pass. This will be the next RMA and it is closer than many believe.

Militaries are almost always deeply conservative organizations and often resist change. The Israeli Air Force carries immense prestige and political clout within the defense establishment. It is unclear at what rate the decision makers in the IAF will embrace such change if at all, and it is also unclear at what rate will the other defense establishment decision makers accept such change. Will it be very gradual (and therefore costly) or will it be taken up quickly? Many political and personal factors will be involved here and therefore it is very difficult to say.

It basically involves a massive downsizing of the budget and manned component of the IAF and it is likely that there will be great resistance to any such a development.

The US military aid, spent in the United States, for Israel will also be an obstacle. It dulls the incentive of finding a more cost effective solution to the strike capabilities of the IDF. There are also those within the US military industrial complex who will not welcome the reduction or cessation of this funding.

There is very little justification for buying more than one or two squadrons of F-35’s, indeed, only the argument that many components (mainly wing sets) are planned to be manufactured in Israel, and in order to “earn” this work, significant numbers may need to be bought, carries any weight.

The bottom line is, however, that the F-35 is too expensive to fully re-equip the IAF and newer technologies offer drastically cheaper and more effective solutions.

What is required in order to lead this revolution within the Israeli defense establishment is a strong leader who will be capable of navigating the process whilst resisting the adverse pressure both from the US (mainly Lockheed Martin, the government and possibly Boeing) and the Israeli Air Force.

With some foresight and exploitation of technology, it is possible to save the country billions and billions of dollars whilst not compromising its military strength or deterrence.

About the Author
Gideon Afek is a commercial pilot and amateur aviation historian, with a background in project management and sales; Born in South Africa, Gideon immigrated to Israel from Australia in 1985