The Next Generation of IAF's OrBat?

From new heavy-lift helicopters to the next generation of the veteran F-15 fighter jet – the Israeli Air Force is looking toward a possible upgraded order of battle

(Photo Credit: Boeing)

Boeing is a giant corporation with a workforce of hundreds of thousands of employees in dozens of US states as well as outside the USA. Boeing Israel, with its headquarters in Tel-Aviv, represents the Boeing Corporation opposite the various organs of the Israeli government and the Israeli industries. Boeing provides Israel with JDAM munitions and fighter aircraft and is IAI's partner in the development and manufacture of the Arrow-III missile system, for which Boeing manufactures parts of the interceptor missile's engine and guidance system.

Four advanced aircraft platforms by Boeing are currently undergoing various stages of RFI (Request for Information) processes by the Israeli defense establishment: a heavy-lift helicopter, a fighter aircraft, a tiltrotor aircraft and a refueling tanker. All four aircraft, currently under examination, are manufactured by Boeing.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) will probably be delighted to take possession of all four platforms, but the decision-making by the government, the Israel Ministry of Defense (IMOD), the IDF and the IAF will be fairly difficult owing to budget constraints and operational considerations. Additionally, some of these platforms face serious contenders in the market.

This report reviews the current status of these four aircraft platforms by Boeing, each one of which is an extensive project that could shape the future of the IAF.

The CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopter, intended to replace the IAF's aging CH-53 helicopters currently in use: the IAF submitted an RFI to Boeing, and the response should be provided by the end of this summer. Subsequently, the IAF will test Boeing's helicopter, send crews to fly it (some IAF pilots have already flown the Chinook helicopter) and consolidate a recommendation for the IAF staff and the IDF – the IAF's recommendation regarding the heavy-lift helicopter for the next 30 years. As stated, IAF helicopter pilots have already flown the CH-47 Chinook with US Army Special Forces and "expressed their satisfaction." The CH-47 Chinook faces a serious contender – Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky's CH-53K King Stallion.

The F-15I Advanced fighter, the latest model of the F-15 platform, intended to replace the IAF's aging F-15B/C/D and F-15I currently in use: Boeing regards this platform as "Israel's future strategic bomber." The Israeli government should decide, at some point, whether to acquire this platform and if so – the number of platforms to be acquired, and what the mix of F-15I Advanced fighters and F-35 stealth fighters by Lockheed Martin should look like. At the moment, the IAF is reviewing alternatives and examines the capabilities of this platform vis-à-vis its future needs.

Another Boeing platform currently under examination is the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, a platform intended to airlift special operations forces to their destinations at high speed and at various flight levels. In the past, Israel intended to acquire this platform and a letter of agreement for this transaction remained unfulfilled. The agreement refers to the acquisition of some twelve V-22 Osprey aircraft, including a flight simulator and a crew training package.

The final Boeing platform currently under consideration is the KC-46 refueling tanker, based on the civilian passenger aircraft Boeing 767. Boeing is convinced that Israel needs a new refueling tanker fleet owing to the obsolescence of the refueling tankers based on the outdated passenger aircraft Boeing 707. The current status is this: official documents were submitted to the US government and to the US Air Force, but a contract is yet to be signed. The people at Boeing hope that the contract will be signed in 2018. Boeing may face serious competition in the airborne refueling category, too, in the form of IAI's capabilities of converting passenger aircraft into military and cargo aircraft and refueling tankers.

The major US manufacturers have already spoken publicly about Israel becoming a potential client.

In the matter of the CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopter, Randy Rotte, Boeing's director of Chinook global sales, told FlightGlobal (May 20) that Boeing is already in talks regarding the helicopter's Block II configuration with several international customers, including Israel: "There are questions being answered in Israel," he said. "They're in the fact-finding phase."

One of the unique and most interesting features of the CH-47 Chinook helicopter is known as Pinnacle Landing. The helicopter can fly to the edge of a cliff or the roof of a building, land its rear section, containing the ramp, on the cliff or the roof to unload troops or supplies, while the forward section of the helicopter is hovering in the air. This capability may also be applied to rescue missions during floods or other natural disasters, and constitutes an important operational advantage stemming from the absence of a tail rotor. Chinook Block II helicopters include an extended range model offering an increased operational radius. This helicopter will be able to fly all the way to Iraq, for example, and back without refueling. The absence of a tail rotor and the elongated, narrow frame of the helicopter give it another operational advantage – the ability to fly in wooded, rocky terrain. Boeing also offers a Chinook variant known as Fat Cow, fitted with large fuel tanks and serving as an airborne refueling helicopter. Chinook helicopters are among the most widely-used helicopters worldwide: the US Army flies 550 such helicopters and a total of about 850 Chinooks are in use worldwide. This helicopter can carry between 44 and 54 warfighters with their equipment or other equipment and cargo items.

Randy Rotte, Boeing's director of Chinook global sales, told reporters recently that regular deliveries of Block II helicopters will commence in 2026. The CH-47 Block II entered the "engineering manufacturing and development phase" and the new helicopters will be fitted with improved engines and new rotor blades made from composite materials. According to Rotte, Block III of this helicopter will be under development around 2035. The people at Boeing stress that if Israel decides to acquire Chinook helicopters, the helicopters supplied will offer cutting-edge avionics, large fuel tanks, an extended range and a refueling pipe enabling airborne refueling. A special bonus: Israeli-made systems will be fitted to the new helicopters. Elbit Systems USA announced that it manufactures the Head-Up Display system for the new CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

An Armament Monster

And now, let's talk about the F-15I Advanced fighter aircraft. "You in Israel are concerned about what you call 'the war between wars'," said a senior Boeing official recently. "The new model of your old F-15B/C/D 'Baz' and F-15I 'Ra'am' fighters, the F-15I Advanced, is the fighter aircraft specifically conceived for these missions." Offering an increased carrying capacity, a crew of two, two engines and the highest survivability and reliability levels, this aircraft is an armament monster. It has a full fly-by-wire (FBW) control system, a larger antenna (in stealth aircraft, the antennae are concealed so as not to adversely affect their stealth characteristics), two extremely powerful mission computers, an Advanced Display Core Processor (ADCP), a Digital Electronic Warfare System (DEWS) and an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar system, similar to the Radar system of the F-35 stealth fighter. The avionics computers fitted to this aircraft are regarded as the most advanced computers in military aviation. The pilot has a large screen display by Elbit Systems, and the aircraft can carry the same amount of ordnance as a squadron of F-4 Phantom fighters of the old days. "This will be your long-range strategic bomber for the next 40 years," said the senior Boeing official. "The F-15I 'Ra'am' fighters are currently the IAF's most advanced fighters and there is an option of upgrading and improving the 'Ra'am' fighters to the same standard of the F-15I Advanced model in terms of the avionics, Radar and EW systems. The F-15I Advanced fighter is the natural complement to the F-35 stealth fighter and the different variants of the F-16 fighters in the future OrBat of the Israeli Air Force."

Combat Aircraft magazine reported last May that Boeing is currently building F-15SAs for Saudi Arabia and "…is in line for additional orders from both Qatar and Israel." A delegation from Boeing visited Israel in May to discuss the F-15I Advanced and met with IAF representatives at one of the IAF airbases.

Israeli-made bonuses: IAI manufactures some of the systems of the F-15 models: rudders, cockpit panels (CPS), conformal fuel tanks (CFT) and doors. IAI manufactures more than 20% of the frame of every aircraft, including the F-15I Advanced variant being manufactured for the Royal Saudi Air Force. Elbit Systems won tenders for the manufacture of the cockpit large screen display and the helmet-mounted sight system (Elbit's El-Op Division will manufacture the helmet mounted display system and their Elisra Division will manufacture the EW system).

The Boeing platform that is less familiar in Israel is the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like a fixed-wing aircraft. Several V-22 Ospreys on the Boeing production line were already intended for Israel, but pursuant to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF's priorities changed and IMOD decided not to purchase this platform eventually. At Boeing, they are convinced that this unique platform is important to the evolution of the IDF's special operations, the new commando brigade and other specialist units. The V-22 Osprey offers a host of unique features: it flies twice as fast as a helicopter and can deliver a unit of warfighters to its destination very quickly and safely. It can fly both fast and slow, both high and low, and land almost anywhere. This platform was designed for the US Army Special Forces and is intended to land warfighters behind enemy lines. It can also transport large amounts of supplies to forces deployed at the front line. This platform will perform some of the missions currently assigned to the IAF's Blackhawk assault helicopters and can fly VIPs at twice the speed of the Blackhawk.

The V-22 Osprey contains Israeli contributions. Elbit Systems USA developed several systems for the Ospreys of the USMC and USAF: a digital map system, four malfunction displays, a Helmet-Mounted Display System (HMDS) and video recording equipment.

The KC-46 refueling tanker: this aircraft project is currently in the "under discussion and consideration" stage. This platform by Boeing is based on the popular B767-200 passenger aircraft. Five refueling tankers of this type are already flying and currently undergoing certification by the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and USAF.

The primary feature of this aircraft is versatility. It can serve as a refueling tanker, a cargo aircraft, a passenger aircraft, a combined cargo (half cargo, half passengers) aircraft and may even be used for VIP transport. Boeing specialists did their calculations and determined that a refueling tanker of this type can serve in the IAF for 40 to 50 years. It may be delivered to the IAF by late 2020 or early 2021. The refueling tankers are manufactured in Seattle, where the Boeing 767 passenger aircraft are manufactured. A partnership where this aircraft will be manufactured at IAI's facilities is a definite possibility.

A Nod to the IDF Navy

Heading Boeing Israel is Maj. Gen. (ret.) David Ivry, formerly the commandant of the IAF, who carries the title of Vice President of Boeing International. His deputy, Avi Barber, is in charge of Boeing Israel's defense and space activities. Barber is a veteran IAF fighter pilot who commanded F-4 and F-16 squadrons and served as commandant of the IAF Nevatim and Hatzerim airbases and as Israeli Air Attaché to Washington. Boeing is deeply rooted in Israeli defense and civilian affairs, and its senior executives are undoubtedly influential and well-connected with all decision makers in the State of Israel, both military and civilian. Years ago, a futile attempt was made to sell El-Al airlines passenger aircraft manufactured by the European consortium Airbus. The highly successful European manufacturer made every effort to enter the Israeli market, but in vain. Strong pressure by senior US government officials and Boeing International convinced the government of Israel to remain with Boeing, and El-Al continues to fly Boeing passenger aircraft exclusively to this day.

The people at Boeing make no secret of their intentions to invest their best marketing efforts and use their connections so that Israel would acquire the aircraft platforms reviewed above. The path is not expected to be rosy. The IAF, IMOD and the Israeli government face some difficult decisions and fierce competition can be expected with regard to the heavy-lift helicopter selection between Boeing and the other US giant, Lockheed Martin, which currently owns Sikorsky Helicopters – the manufacturer of the CH-53K King Stallion helicopter. So, a fierce battle may be expected between the Chinook and the King Stallion.

Boeing's management includes some veteran executives who are thoroughly familiar with the theater, with the IDF and with the IAF and possess extensive experience in sales to the IDF. As they are thoroughly familiar with the IAF, they have tried to draw for Israel Defense a theoretical outline of the future structure of the IAF aircraft fleet in about ten years' time.

Fighter aircraft: a mix of F-15I Advanced strategic bombers, F-15I 'Ra'am' fighters, F-16I 'Sufa' fighters and 75-100 F-35 'Adir' stealth fighters.

Rotary wing & tiltrotor platforms: a squadron of CH-47 Chinook helicopters, about 6 V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, dozens AH-64A Apache 'Peten' and AH-64D Apache Longbow 'Saraf' attack helicopters.

Transport aircraft and refueling tankers: C-130J Super Hercules 'Samson' transporters and several new KC-46 refueling tankers possessing autonomous refueling capabilities.

A chemical/biological warfare protected command aircraft that may also serve as a VIP transporter.

From the air to the sea

Admittedly, Boeing is a global leader in the manufacture of various civilian and military aircraft, but they are also involved in systems for the depths of the ocean. Boeing's specialists do not exclude the possibility that one day, Israel may show interest in Boeing's Echo Voyager – an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV). The Echo Voyager is a fairly large (more than 15m long) platform. Its primary advantage – it can operate under the sea for months. This metal whale is suitable for covert underwater reconnaissance operations, for maintaining a secret presence in specific areas and when necessary – it can launch munitions. This is a significant nod by Boeing to the IDF Navy. 


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