In a ceremony this week, the first Israeli F-35 will roll off Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas. Then in December, two stealth fighters will touch down in Israel, ushering in a new era of Israeli air power.
The F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single- engine, multi-role, multi-nation, fifth-generation fighters. The Israeli model is designated F-35I due to unique local features, and called in Hebrew “Adir” (mighty, great, or slang for marvelous, awesome).
As is traditionally done, the plane will be transformed into an Israeli fighting machine, fully integrated into the IDF network by independent command and control software and other indigenously made capabilities and ordinance. Israeli companies such as Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems and others also manufacture vital components for the entire program, from composite segments and communication systems to the Helmet-Mounted Display System.
The F-35 may be an engineering marvel, but mounting costs, lengthening schedules and technical challenges have led to plummeting public support. A report released several months ago by the Pentagon’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) presented a myriad of flaws and glitches, and was widely perceived as a testimony to the program’s failure.
A recent analysis by Shaul Amsterdamski and Uri Tuval in Calcalist claimed that Israel has become “entangled” in a deal to procure a “problematic” plane.
The acquisition was defined as “a gamble” and the entire program called “a failure.”
There has always been a tendency in Israel to criticize expansive and expensive projects, even when vital for defense. Who hasn’t heard the sentence: “We could have abolished poverty with the cost of one F-15!” Among other things, such claims ignore the fact that our fleet is purchased using US Foreign Military Funding.
Moreover, the program boosts the Israeli economy by supplying jobs to hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
It has also been “argued” that we could upgrade current fighters instead of investing in new ones, but there is no such option. The F-16, the backbone of our current fleet, is an old, outdated plane. The F-35 is replacing it. Period.
“Replacing” is an understatement. The F-35 is not an incremental technological improvement but a quantum leap. Besides stealth, revolutionary capabilities enable whole new ways to collect, fuse and share information.
The F-35 is not only an independent warfighting machine, but integrated into a networked battlespace. The ramifications for effectiveness and survivability are dramatic.
Unlike what one hears in the public debate, I believe that the DOT&E report and others, as well as hearings in Congress, all indicate that despite the hurdles, the program is steadily pushing forward, and challenges are being mitigated and solved.
If the program is on track, and Israel has committed to buying the plane, who cares about PR? The answer is that politicians sometimes make crucial decisions without sufficient staff work, and a negative vibe over the F-35 could impact further procurement decisions.
Minister Yuval Steinitz has been quoted as saying that “it’s not that the plane has problems, it’s just that it’s less good.” Steinitz is wrong.
Every ambitious technological project has setbacks, and the F-35 is no exception.
A fundamental design flaw in the F-16 led to multiple crashes in the 1970s, earning it the scornful nickname “Lawn dart.” Only a complete redesign of the horizontal stabilizer in 1981 solved the problem.
Aerodynamic instability in the original F-4 Phantom design led to reconfiguration of the entire wing geometry, giving it its unique dihedral (upward angle) wingtips.
The V-22 Osprey tiltrotor program almost shut down due to soaring costs and tragic crashes. But this unmatched aircraft has been successfully deployed for almost a decade now.
Probably the most famous setback was Apollo 1, slated to be the first manned test flight of the Apollo program. In 1967, less than a month before launch, a cabin fire destroyed the Command Module and killed all three astronauts.
The investigation revealed multiple faults, ranging from technical flaws to schedule and cost overruns, much of which had been withheld from Congress.
Flight director Gene Kranz addressed his team, and said this about the tragedy: “We were too gung ho about the schedule and we blocked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.
“Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we.”
He then coined the phrase “tough and competent” as a guiding principle of professionalism and excellence.
I believe that the F-35 program reflects the “tough and competent” creed, and demonstrates that the Apollo 1 lessons have been learned.
The program should not be judged by a list of developmental hitches. On the contrary – leadership’s stress on transparency and accountability, is a positive indicator of a robust process that will ultimately result in a better and safer aircraft.
There still may be setbacks, some even devastating, but this does not mean we should stop pushing forward, just as the Apollo 1 disaster did not halt the race to the moon.
Some Israelis question our need for submarines.
Doubting the requirement for fifth generation fighters is just as preposterous.
Our region is characterized by instability and volatility.
We may not currently face a direct, existential threat, but if we do not prepare ourselves for the entire spectrum of warfare, and do not maintain regional dominance – we are doomed.
The F-35 will enable fulfillment of the IAF’s top priority mission of maintaining air supremacy, with lethality and strike capacity as key factors. It will also support Israel’s “campaign between wars” of thwarting imminent strategic threats, and preventing terrorist elements from acquiring scale-tipping capabilities.
For decades to come, this aircraft will be one of the key enablers of our qualitative military edge. This is much more than an operational calculation, for deterrence is one of the pillars of our defense strategy.
Partnership with the US has a profound impact on our strategic posture. Our technical and doctrinal inputs are valuable assets for the US, empowering Israel as a valued ally.
But above and beyond military might and strategic alliances, it is our fundamental culture of innovative pioneering. The F-35 is part of Israel’s leadership in mankind’s air and space endeavors.
The F-35 is coming online with perfect timing for the transitional era of “Manned Unmanned Teaming,” as autonomous systems are integrated, and slowly coming to dominate the battle-space.
Whether the F-35 will indeed be the last manned fighter jet, or if robots only take over after a sixth generation, it is obvious that the term “fighter pilot” is soon to become extinct.
I believe that the transition to robots and autonomous weapons could have been accelerated, but cultural change isn’t easy.
Speaking of culture, the days of “flying by the seat of your pants” are over. We must change our perception of pilots as super-human. An F-35 pilot will operate one of the most advanced machines ever built, but he or she is no more important or worthy than counterparts in other services. All must possess superb professional skills and the ability to operate as part of a networked team.
In conclusion, the F-35 is an incredible fighter. The best of its kind. And Israel needs the best.
Lt. Col. (res.) Reuven Ben-Shalom is a former pilot in the IAF and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies. (www.CCSt.co.il)
The article was originally published on the Jerusalem Post