David Weinrich

What is Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge?

IAI Lavi prototype, photo by author
IAI Lavi prototype, photo by author

In September 2016 US president Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a new memorandum of understanding to extend and increase the military aid package from the United States to Israel for another ten years. The headline figure was 38 billion dollars of which most must currently be spent on military equipment sourced or manufactured in the USA. Needless to say this throws up many schools of thought: On the one hand there are those who remember the Lavi fighter jet, a blue ribbon project for Israel and its aerospace and electronics industries, cancelled “after American pressure” and replaced by repeated orders for US built Lockheed Martin F-16 “Barak” aircraft. Others will say it’s the American tax-payer funding Israel’s wars whilst some will realize that when times are hard, US armaments factories will be guaranteed work. What it also means is that heaven forbid a major war should break out in the middle east, Israel will have “the edge” and be able to defend itself without the US having to put American troops on the ground, in the line of fire.So why did it take the Israel Defence Force (IDF) from the last days of the Obama regime until the first days of the Biden presidency to decide how to spend the first tranche.

Well the 2017 accord only became live in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, and on the Israeli side, a new five-year plan named “Tnufa”  to restructure the IDF to face existing and potential future adversaries for decades to come was only just gaining momentum. This plan attempts to anticipate the problems of fighting a multi-front war while employing the latest technologies to bring the most effective firepower from the largest number of different units to the forefront of the battlefields.Whilst much of the new technology is Israeli sourced, the US Military Aid covers more mundane items such as a third squadron of F-35A “Adir” fighter jets, a number of KC-46A “Pegasus” tanker aircraft to refuel them and extend their range and a squadron of CH-53K “King Stallion” heavy lift helicopters to replace the antiquated, under-powered and accident-prone Yassur helicopters familiar to anyone who has served in the IDF over the past 50 years. Missing from the “shopping list” so far is the widely anticipated purchase of the latest version of the F-15 Eagle, and the possible integration of vertical take-off Bell-Boeing CV-22 Ospreys for our special forces. Incidentally all three of the confirmed “buys” have shown teething troubles; the CH-53K is still undergoing testing and has just been hit by a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendation that the US Navy (USN) limit production the heavy-lift helicopter to six per year, less than planned, for the next few years until initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) is completed. This could seriously impact the IAFs wish to replace the Yassur by 2025.

The KC-46A is beginning to replace older (1950/60s vintage) airtankers in the USAF, however earlier this month, General Jacqueline Van Ovost, the head of US Air Mobility Command, described the Pegasus as a “lemon,” amid ongoing problems that prevent it from performing its primary aerial refueling mission on a day-to-day basis. Problems apparently persist with the “remote viewing system” (RVS) which can lead to the refueling boom striking the receiver aircraft, which has been reported as a particular problem when refuelling 5th-gen aircraft such as the F-35A, the future backbone of the IAF’s strike force.

The F-35A too is not without its problems. The story of the “Adir” began with the first flight of the X-35A in October 2000, and whilst over 250 examples have been delivered to 10 Air Arms, including 24 for Israel (with three more due in April), and to all credible accounts “it flies like a dream”, both acquisition and running costs are proving too hot to handle for many procurement experts.

F-35A Adir of the Israel Air Force, photo authors own

Israel already committed to 50 Adirs to form two squadrons, now a third has been added taking the IAF to 75 examples by the end of the decade. By that time, all legacy Barak and many Baz jet fighters will have been retired, obviously a mixed Adir and armed-UAV(Drone) force is envisaged to fight battles beyond our borders.

That capability is one that our neighbors cannot match, and even when the Emirates (UAEAF) and other potential customers in the region take delivery of their F-35As, it will be at least five years after we integrated our first squadron, and give us a ten year operational advantage for what is a very complex piece of kit. On that front at least, we have nothing to fear. Add to this our long range strike force F-15I Raam and nearly 100 F-16I Sufa fighter-bombers, together with undeclared high level assets, our borders should remain secure for the forseeable future.


F-16I Sufa of the Israel Air Force, photo authors own

At sea too, thanks to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s excellent foreign relations, we will soon see a quantum leap in capability with the arrival of a fleet of Thyssen-Krupp Marine Systems (TKMS) Sa’ar VI-class corvettes. At almost 500 million dollars each, these will form the “Tip of the Trident” with each ship armed with a range of weaponry, including 40 Barak-8 naval surface-to-air missiles amidships to intercept and destroy all types of airborne threats such as anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, combat aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In addition up to two C-Dome naval point defence systems will be installed on the bow deck of each ship to defeat short-range rockets and artillery shells. The forward bow section will also be fitted with an Oto Melara 76mm Super Rapid gun mount, which offers a high rate of fire against air and surface targets. The ships will also be fitted with 16 anti-ship missiles such as Gabriel, RGM-84 Harpoon and RBS-15 Mk 3 to attack enemy ships and boats together with two torpedo launchers for MK54 Lightweight Torpedo and last but not least, two 30mm Rafael Typhoon remote weapon stations.

The first Sa’ar VI corvette INS Magen – photo credit Israel Defence Force/Times of Israel

Impressive? Yes, but less than half the picture. Israel’s QME is in no doubt both afloat, and beneath the waves. Whilst the Sa’ar VI is more than just a new version of the Sa’ar V corvettes they are replacing, the really big news is under water where Israel and Germany have finalized a memorandum of understanding covering the Israeli Navy’s purchase of three Dakar-class submarines to be delivered starting in 2027. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who opposed the acquisition during his tenure, called for the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate the negotiations which included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s personal attorney David Shimron for work while on retainer to the offices of Miki Ganor which represents Thyssen-Krupp in Israel. As has been widely reported in the Israeli media, and even now, amazingly, hangs like the sword of Damacles over P-M Netanyahu, A.G. Mandelblit continues to move forward with an investigation into the game-changing acquisition of these state-of-the–art vessels.

INS Dolphin class submarine – photo credit ToI

The previous six Dolphin-class models delivered over the past few years cost around $700 million each, of which up to one-third was subsidized by Germany. The Dolphins are powered by three Tognum (MTU) V-16 396 SE 84 diesel engines giving the submarines an estimated top speed of 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph) submerged with a maximum unrefuelled range of 8,000 nautical miles (15,000 km; 9,200 mi) traveling on the surface at 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph) and over 400 nautical miles (740 km; 460 mi) submerged; they are designed to remain unsupplied for up to 30 days on station. Whilst their weapons load and defence systems are, as one would expect, mighty, these are sure to be just as cutting-edge and effective as anything our neighbors may be contemplating, again giving us at least a five year QME.

In 2016, it was revealed that a new sonar developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems had begun to be fitted on all our submarines. The new capabilities provided by the Rafael sonar also include detection of vessels with a low noise signature or “stealth” characteristics, agai8n keeping us well ahead of the game. The algorithms used in the sonar systems enable it to ignore many of the noises that can disrupt the range of the systems’ activity, while detecting very distant returns. The hunt for Red October has come to Israel!

Undoubtedly “The Greens” will also be getting a whole raft of new capabilities as the IDF future plans gain momentum, but that is beyond the scope of this review, and irrelevant anyway; as every Jewish mom knows, it is her conscripted son (or daughter) that really gives Israel the “Edge”. Whatever our enemies, foreign and domestic, may tell you, under the current administration, Israel as we approach 73 years of Independence, is as safe as it has ever been.

About the Author
David Weinrich has dedicated his life to chasing military aircraft for fun, in Europe, the Americas, the Far East and for the past 27 years, at home in Israel. He photographs them, underlines them in his books (quill & parchment, please), escorts foreign "plane spotters" to the farthest corners of Israel and now writes a Blog about them for the Times of Israel.