In February 2003, the United States and Israel signed an agreement to cooperate in developing America’s latest jet fighter design, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The agreement stipulated that Israel would pay the United States millions for the rights to use and participate in the plane’s design. Israel Aerospace Industries will manufacture the outer wings of Israel’s F-35s, and the helmet-mounted displays will also be manufactured in Israel.
The United States initially refused to allow the integration of Israel’s electronic warfare systems into the aircraft’s built-in electronic suite. However, Israel planned to introduce a plug-and-play feature added to the main computer to allow for the use of Israeli electronics in an add-on fashion and to fit its external jamming pod. In July 2011, it was reported that the U.S. had agreed to allow Israel to install its electronic warfare systems and missiles. In 2012, Lockheed was awarded a contract to make changes to the first Israeli F-35s to allow the installation of Israeli electronic warfare equipment produced by Elbit Systems. Israel also planned to install its indigenously-produced guided bombs and air-to-air missiles.
According to the Congressional Research Service, “Israel (and Singapore) are considered ‘security cooperation participants’ outside of the F-35 cooperative development partnership. As a result, Israel is not eligible to assign staff to the F-35 Joint Program Office in Washington and does not receive full F-35 technical briefings.” In addition, Israel is not permitted to alter the F-35’s software code.
The Israel Air Force (IAF) announced in September 2015 that the first squadron of F-35 jets was to be established. Israel was the first country outside the United States to receive the F-35. The first nine of 50 ordered by Israel became operational in the IAF at the end of 2017. After receiving three planes in 2023, Israel now has 39.
The F-35 is a one-of-a-kind single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighter designed to perform ground-attack and air-superiority missions. Its stealth technology allows Israeli pilots to execute top-secret missions without tipping off the enemy. Within 20 seconds of takeoff, a team on the ground can see the route data of the jet, letting the pilot fly at his or her best while knowing that they’ve got support on the ground.
Breaking Defense states, “One of the key capabilities of the F-35 is its capability to absorb electronic signals from radars and air defense systems and to quickly classify them, geolocate them, and display them to the pilot. Then the aircraft can distribute that data to other combatants.”
The F-35 does not need to be physically pointing at its target for weapons to be successful. Sensors can track and target a nearby aircraft from any orientation, provide the information to the pilot through their helmet (and therefore visible no matter which way the pilot is looking), and provide the seeker-head of a missile with sufficient information. Electronic warfare and electro-optical systems are intended to detect and scan aircraft, allowing engagement or evasion of a hostile aircraft before being detected. The F-35 has external hardpoints to carry missiles, bombs, and drop tanks.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu, former commander of the IAF, told Breaking Defense that the F-35 would bring two main capabilities to the Israeli Air Force’s existing ones: “The stealth, of course, is the obvious one, and it is crucial in an area where different forces, deploy advanced anti-aircraft systems. The second capability is the one that allows this aircraft to receive and distribute all kinds of combat data from a long list of sensors,” which, he said, “is very important for an air force that is performing combat missions almost on a daily basis.”
Israel was the first to use the F-35 in a combat arena in 2018.
In 2020, Captain S. (full names are not allowed to be published) became the first female F-35 pilot in the IAF and is believed to be the second woman to fly the plane in combat.
The F-35 gives Israel the edge it needs to take on groups and armies with even the most advanced technology.
During the war with Hamas in 2023, F-35I Adir fighter jets shot down a cruise missile, the first known cruise missile intercept by the American-made stealth fighter.
“Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II,” Wikipedia.
“Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Israeli procurement,” Wikipedia.
“The First F-35 Squadron,” Israel Defense, (October 1, 2015).
Arie Egozi, “Israelis To Boost F-35 Fleet’s Electronic Warfare,” Breaking Defense, (June 15, 2020).
Anna Ahronheim, “Israeli Air Force makes history: First female F-35 pilot,” Jerusalem Post, (September 18, 2020).
“Israel receives 3 new F-35 stealth jets,” China.org.cn, (September 27, 2021).
Jeremy M. Sharp, “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel,” Congressional Research Service, (February 18, 2022).
“Three new F-35 fighter jets land in Israel,” Jerusalem Post, (November 13, 2022).
Dan Arkin, “Israel Receives Three New F-35 Fighter Jets,” Israel Defense, (July 23, 2023).
Seth J. Frantzman, “Israel uses F-35I to shoot down cruise missile, a first for Joint Strike Fighter,” Breaking Defense, (November 2, 2023).