Nicknamed the "Sufa," or thunderstorm, the F-16I is a redesigned and custom modified version of the F-16, adapted to the specifications of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). The F-16I is different from any other F-16, including those of the U.S. Air Force. The celebration of its unveiling off the Lockheed Martin assembly line was held on November 14, 2003. Israel has ordered 102 of the fighter jets and the first shipment is expected to arrive in Israel by February 2004. The acquisition is the largest Israeli acquisition from Lockheed Martin and is expected to raise the number of the IAF's fleet of F-16s to 362, second only to the United States Air Force. Israel also has an strong relationship with U.S.-based Lockheed Martin. According to John Bean, Lockheed Martin's Vice President of F-16 programs, "This program illustrates the strong bond between Lockheed Martin and Israel; we hope to strengthen that relationship through our continuing commitment to this program." The development of the F-16I involved extensive cooperation between American and Israeli defense industries.
Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Minister of Defense, was present at the unveiling ceremony. According to Mofaz, "This is a key moment in our national defense history. The F-16I's strong characteristics elevate our air force to a new level of capability. This acquisition not only enhances our military strength but contributes to our nation through significant industrial cooperation."
The F-16I will be equipped with both U.S. and Israeli made weapons. The F-16I, with its expanded radius of operation, can reach as far away as Iran and Libya without refueling. Its 23,600-kilogram takeoff weight means that it has a greater capacity for weaponry than conventional F-16s. The F-16I will be the first F-16 in the Israeli arsenal armed with the AMRAAM air-to-air missile, given it the ability to shoot down other jets within 50 kilometers. Its radar, the Northrop Grumman APG-68, is also more advanced than any other in the IAF fleet. The F-16I is also equipped with the Synthetic Aperture Radar system and Litening navigation pod, which gives the F-16I all-weather, day and night attack capabilities. It also has internally mounted FLIR (forward looking infrared) viewers and state-of-the-art systems hardware from Lahav - a division of Israel Aircraft Industries. The technology from Lahav allows simultaneous and multi-target engagement and increased survivability. The "Sufa" also contains side fuel tanks, which allow for increased weapons capabilities underwing. A two-seater, an advanced weapons specialist can sit behind the pilot.
Despite the $4.5 billion price tag, the Israelis think their investment in the F-16I is a strong investment. According to one of the three squadron commanders, "This is a jet that doesn't exist elsewhere. We did not buy a jet that has experience in the U.S. air force." He continues, "We don't think about the price of the jet in terms of dollars, but in the defense of the State of Israel."
The three squadrons of F-16Is are expected to be fully operational by 2008. They will be based in the Ramon airbase in the Negev. The development of the F-16I is also expected to increase development and support commerce in the Negev region. The F-16I aircraft will replace aging IAF aircraft, including some, like the A-4 Skyhawks and F-4E Phantom IIs, dating from the 1960s and 1970s.
Upon the unveiling of the aircraft, Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said, "I look at the baby and it's strong and impressive -- and I hope it will make peace."
Sources: Arieh O'Sullivin, "First F-16I unveiled"& "Pilots itchy to fly it", Jerusalem Post, (November 16, 2003); First F-16I Sufa Ready for Delivery to Israel, JINSA, (November 21, 2003); "Lockheed Martin, Israel Air Force Celebrate Inauguration of Newest F-16 Jet Fighter," Lockheed Martin Aeronautics; IAF Inventory