Early Delivery: TEFEN Takes Off with 75 Nextgen JSF F-35s for Israel (Updated)

1st In: Leading off what will surely be a long list of foreign purchase orders Israel tenders 25 Stealth JSFs (Updated Below)

Despite the JSF’s numerous next generation capabilities including stealth technologies, you could hear this F-35 order coming from a mile away. Well, 3 years at least.. That’s how long Israel has been talking about acquiring the new fighter about to roll off assembly lines. Another major chunk of the TEFEN procurement plan in the air has been filled. 25 conventional JSF fighters (A mode) with deliveries starting in 2014, and an option for 50 more in the form of VTOL versions of the multi-role fighter.

The JSF is a fine next generation platform, but this deal 3 years in the making, and with another 4 years in the waiting - comes less than 3 months after Israel’s smarting rejection for the American bird of prey, the F-22 Raptor.  America already has 100 Raptors with US forces, new ones rolling off assembly lines would have been able to help Israel now, as opposed to in 2014.

Critical detail: Israeli electronics

The 1st JSF under construction at Lockheed

The 1st JSF under construction at Lockheed

Being amongst the first to receive the new fighter is certainly a score, but the back story on the remaining issue, the ability to install IAF electronics at the factory is the real nail bitter. The IAF routinely replaces large electronic components in its fighters as part of customization, radars sensors, displays etc. One of the prime benefits is the ability to work with other Israeli systems like armaments, fuel pods, air to air missiles which are also developed by Israel, as well as keeping the planes as superior as possible.

The F-16I SUFA, and F-15I Raam are prime examples of this customization, benefiting from Israeli options installed directly during manufacturing which is much cheaper than buying a fully decked plane and then replacing its systems – for obvious reasons. This important detail is still outstanding in the JSF talks

[...] Israel said it plans to buy a fleet of F-35s as it upgrades its military technology. The first batch of 25 would be the variant of F-35 designed for conventional take off from military airfields, but the later 50 could include a version that can land and take off vertically, similar to a helicopter.

If approved by Congress in the next 30 days, Israel will likely sign an official contract with the US Air Force in the coming months and begin receiving the aircraft in 2014.

While news of the Pentagon approval was positively received in the Defense Ministry, officials said it was still too early to celebrate since Israel has yet to receive final Pentagon approval to allow the IAF to install Israeli-made systems in the plane.

The result of the negotiations will be a determining factor in the number of aircraft Israel decides to purchase.

The technology issue was discussed last week between the IAF and a team of US military officers from the JSF Program who were in Israel. It also was at the focus of talks Defense Ministry Director-General Pinhas Buchris held in Washington earlier this month.

Israeli demands include installing an advanced radar and conformal fuel tank design for long-range missions made by Israel Aerospace Industries, as well as other electronic and weapons systems that could require changes to the configuration of the aircraft.

“We have unique needs and need to retain our superiority in the region,” a senior defense official explained. “To meet these needs we must to be able to install our own systems.”

If Israel exercises the vertical option, it would be the first time that the IAF obtains this capability, needed out of fear that Israeli airfields would be paralyzed by enemy missiles in a future conflict and planes would have difficulty taking off in a conventional fashion. [...]

It isn’t specified whether a global look at replacing systems is being discussed, or the added benefit of being able to do so at the configuration stage. I suspect the latter, as the issue is complicated by the many countries and entities involved in the JSF project and this is where details could become more difficult to resolve, holding up the process. New funding directly aimed at sorting through & overcoming export hurdles was allocated to the JSF recently, maybe this will move things along.

Next Gen decisions

Customization will involve access to much more of the plane’s systems than just buying the aircraft outright which raises security issues. If the IAF can’t customize the fighter the climbing costs of the JSF may be hard to justify. Estimated at 50-60+ million each, limitations on Israeli systems & arms may put the ongoing associated costs - together with a climbing cost per plane, right out of the IAF budget’s reach. Making the plane not cost effective enough to purchase in any real quantity as an early replacement for older aging F-16s, could mean Israel is 1st in, but not all in with the JSF currently.

Late model F16s can carry as much as a non stealthed F35 and at much cheaper prices. Stealth will benefit the opening rounds of conflict greatly despite its weight / carrying limitations, at which point a non stealthy F35 armed up with bombs becomes a very agile F-16 of sorts . A number of stealthy JSFs added to much cheaper (15-20 Million dollars) late model F16s, or a mix of less JSFs and the addition of a theoretical squadron of F-22 Raptors is conceivable, maybe even preferential when when considers how widely sold the ‘stock F35′ will eventually be.

For now, it seems like 25 is the magic number, and there are hundreds yet to be built to fill the US Air Force & partner countries requirements first. Custom, cheaper and as a result superior Israeli F35 variants will be crucial to the JSF becoming Israel’s own fighter of the future. The JSF is a full conflict ahead, in the mean time Israel has got other worries.

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UPDATE: Lockheed responds, tries to bridge gaps

The consummate sales work with billions on the line, Lockheed responded in Tel Aviv yesterday to concerns such as mine above, regarding the plane being so likely oversold & exported, and thus an even more pressing need for IAF customization. (JPOST)

[...]
“No other countries in this part of the world are in discussions,” Tom Burbage, general manager of the F-35 program for Lockheed Martin, told reporters in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Asked about Saudi Arabia, Burbage said there were no talks between Lockheed Martin and Riyadh regarding the plane.

Burbage also revealed that $200 million worth of contracts had been signed with Israeli defense companies involved in the development of systems related to the Joint Strike Fighter. He said this would likely increase to half a billion dollars by the end of the program. [...]

This isn’t Kansas

I’m a big fan of Lockheed, and Being too, and Raytheon etc etc. So I say this with love, the winning of some contracts to provide elements of the fighter is nice, but they were won irrespective of export considerations. The JSF program wanted helmet mounted visual sights, so it got Israeli companies to provide the helmets because Israel developed & employed the tech. This does not negate the legitimate request to customize the aircraft for Israel’s needs. I say that because Mr. Burbage is likely too often dealing with the JSF partners & partner countries, for whom winning local development & procurement / manufacturing contracts has been the number one barter & pressure component since the program began.

They threaten funding, number of planes sought, some even threatened to drop the program entirely.. But we are not in Kansas here or the UK for that matter. Israel is not seeking a few contracts, and I’m sure Burbage just wants to smooth over the road in case the Pentagon decides to not allow Israeli participation in customizing the F35 for its export needs, judging by the whopping 80 million each price tag - I don’t blame him for stressing in general. But this is about security for Israel, not a few design wins.

It won’t be long before Egypt, the Saudis and a few smaller gulf emirates want JSFs. It is in everyone’s best interests for Lockheed to lobby for adapting the JSF, not against. So far, judging by the tone - It suggests the opposite from the program director, meaning Israel’s difficult dealings with the Pentagon will continue.