New Aerial Mix for the IAF

The IDF is yet to make the final decision regarding the future aerial OrBat of the IAF. Which platforms have reached the final stretch? What will the decision be? Dan Arkin attempts to put everything into order

IAF pilot during flight (Photo: IDF)

Everything described in the following paragraphs is already on the agenda, a part of the chores of the IDF General Staff and IAF Staff. Israeli pilots have already flown the aircraft and helicopters under discussion in order to "obtain a first-hand impression and form an opinion." The decisions are yet to be made, but they will be made, placed on the desks of the reviewers and testers, the recommending experts and the decision makers: the officers of the IAF Equipment Group, the IAF Commandant, the IDF Chief of Staff, the Minister of Defense, and the Israeli Government, charged with the final decision. It is safe to assume that the final decisions will be made after the next elections, sometime next year. By that time, the IDF will have a new Chief of Staff.

On the agenda: the Israeli Air Force. It must regenerate. The world's armies call it modernization. A new fighter aircraft, a new heavy-lift helicopter, a new refueling tanker, possibly a new tiltrotor aircraft – which we do not have yet, but stirs much curiosity. Which fighter aircraft and how many? Which helicopters and how many? Which refueling tanker – one manufactured overseas or one converted locally? Tiltrotor aircraft – yes or no, and how many? Billions of dollars are at stake.

The potential suppliers are already hard at work. They are powerful international giants who maintain formidable lobbies within the State of Israel: Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky, Boeing, IAI, Elbit Systems, and other Israeli defense industries – all are scrambling for a piece of the action.

The regeneration of the IAF is vital not only because of the obsolescence of the various platforms currently in use, but also because of the worsening threats. In the IDF, which, by definition, should prepare for every eventuality, they are currently expanding the scope of the potential threats.

Israel should regard Turkey as a potential enemy. The Turkish Air Force can fly over Syria, and the real threat will materialize if Ankara receives F-35 stealth fighters. This could compromise the advantage and unique performance characteristics of the IAF's F-35 Adir fighters. Additionally, the IDF must maintain a military capability vis-à-vis Egypt, which, among other things, employs F-16 fighters armed with AMRAAM missiles.

The Iranian threat is well known, but Israel should pay special attention to the danger of a blockade imposed on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which could have a severe effect on Israeli shipping. At the same time, Iran continues to spread its influence throughout Iraq. Qatar, another hostile country, is currently taking delivery of advanced/improved F-15Q fighters. Jordan has a peace agreement with Israel, but the Jordanian regime is fragile and the government may undergo changes – and not for the better.

Such a range of threats, they say in the IAF, dictates two elementary activities: increasing the OrBat (the number of aircraft) and renewing the aircraft fleet.

The Future Refueling Tanker

Let us begin with the refueling tanker, as refueling tankers extend and expand the strategic range of the IAF and the IDF. Fighter aircraft cannot reach distant targets and objectives without airborne refueling, and the current refueling tankers of the IAF, the Re'em aircraft, are converted Boeing-707 passenger aircraft, some of which are almost 60 years old. Boeing offers their new refueling tanker, KC-46 – a modification of their Boeing-767 passenger aircraft. The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has recently certified the KC-46 and the Pentagon has placed another substantial order for these tankers.

"The IDF wants a real refueling tanker as soon as possible, and the IAF exerts pressure on Boeing to obtain this aircraft," they say at Boeing Israel. The company promises they will be able to make the modifications the IAF wants, like specialized communication systems, and promise a dedicated refueling tanker that would serve the IAF for sixty years. In this aircraft, the fuel tanks are located under the fuselage, where the cargo hold is normally located, so the user may take advantage of the passenger cabin to fly passengers or cargoes or for medical evacuation – a sizable flying ambulance. The KC-46 is a versatile aircraft.

The local competition comes from the Bedek Division of IAI, which has supplied the IAF with refueling tankers (IAF designation Salat Yarok) since the 1970s. In other words, IAI has experience in converting passenger aircraft into refueling tankers and can provide the IAF with modern refueling tankers, also based on converted Boeing-767 passenger aircraft.

"We convert passenger aircraft into refueling tankers and have already supplied (tankers) to a foreign country," a senior source at IAI told IsraelDefense. "Our refueling tankers are capable of refueling aircraft in both methods, using a flying boom or 'trunk' and using the probe-and-drogue (basket) method. The IAF uses the flying boom method to refuel all of its fighters. In other words, fighter aircraft have a refueling port into which the boom connects to transfer fuel. In the past, the IAF refueled such helicopters as the CH-53 Yas'ur or transporters such as the C-130 Karnaf using a drogue (basket) that attaches to the refueling probe of the aircraft. The B-767 refueling tankers can refuel aircraft in the air using both methods. We offer the IAF a cutting-edge flying boom system. The aircraft utilizes the fly-by-wire method and carries state-of-the-art avionics, in cooperation with Rockwell Collins. The price for our refueling tanker will be 50% to 60% lower than the price of the Boeing KC-46, and our aircraft will be custom built for the IAF. If we receive an order, the first aircraft will be ready in about three years, as we need to invest in development. After that, the rate of production can be one aircraft every six to seven months."

There is some controversy about how the Boeing Corporation (the manufacturer of the converted passenger aircraft) views the project where IAI will convert passenger aircraft by Boeing into a military refueling tanker. At Boeing, they insisted that IAI must obtain Boeing's authorization to convert a civilian aircraft into a military platform. IAI responded by saying that they do not require Boeing's authorization for the conversion and that IAI has competed in the past against Boeing and Airbus of Europe over conversion projects for two countries, and "Boeing did not have any claims or demands in this regard."

The Tiltrotor Aircraft

This platform has ignited the imagination of the IAF and the IDF's special operations units. Boeing's V-22 Osprey takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter and flies straight and level, like a fixed-wing aircraft. This unique aircraft has visited Israel in the context of a USAF exercise. At Boeing Israel, they are convinced that the IDF and the IAF believe they need about ten platforms of this model. A long-range tiltrotor aircraft with an airborne refueling capability that flies at twice the speed of any helicopter and to impressive ranges will be ideal for transporting detachments of specialist commando units for special operations.

Israeli pilots have already flown the V-22, and their opinion was that such a platform is an essential operational need for the specialist units, for the IDF Depth Corps, for special operations and for other operational users. In the IAF, they are talking about the option of a mix: purchasing some new heavy-lift helicopters (to replace the aging CH-53 Yas'ur helicopters) and some V-22 tiltrotor aircraft, which offer the option of prompt response and operational flexibility – the classic 'Special Ops' platform for the modern battlefield. Thus far, Boeing has signed deals for the manufacture of 58 V-22 aircraft, of which 38 will be manufactured for the US Navy, 14 for USMC, two for USAF and four for Japan. The abundance of orders has provided an option for "a good deal," they say at Boeing.

Heavy Lift Helicopters

The glorious time-honored operational service of the CH-53 Yas'ur heavy-lift helicopters in the IAF is priceless, but they are aging. Which platform will replace them? Two giants are currently competing for the title: the CH-53K King Stallion by Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky and the CH-47 Chinook by Boeing. The CH-53K is a new platform, a sort of follow-up on the old and familiar CH-53 Yas'ur, while the Chinook with the dual overhead rotor has never served in the IDF, but gained extensive operational and combat experience serving in numerous armies worldwide.

According to the Boeing Corporation, the overwhelming experience the Chinook gained in the world's armies is an advantage, compared to Sikorsky's helicopter, which is brand new. "The Chinook will remain in service until 2060. The production line will operate until 2035," they explain at Boeing, adding, "The fact that this helicopter has two overhead rotors and no tail rotor provides it with 100% lift power and there are no side wind limitations. The Chinook can lower its rear end onto the tip of a rock or cliff to dismount or load troopers. No other helicopter has these capabilities."

At Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the CH-53K King Stallion, they said that many in the IAF would like to see the "Super-Yas'ur" (K) helicopters as the successors of the old familiar Yas'ur helicopters. "The party of K proponents is stronger within the IAF," they say at Lockheed Martin. Purchasing the Chinook helicopter will necessitate the establishment of new maintenance bases and the introduction of methods that are different from those the present helicopter squadrons are accustomed to, while the new helicopter by Sikorsky is the natural follow-up on the familiar Yas'ur. The price of Lockheed Martin's new helicopter is about $87 million.

Fighter Aircraft: F-35, Improved F-15 or Both

Two F-35 Adir fighters have recently arrived in Israel while the third aircraft, which will serve as a test platform, remained in the USA in order to have various specialized systems, including Israeli-made systems, fitted to it. Next year, six more F-35 aircraft will arrive, and the rate of delivery would reach six stealth fighters per year. By 2020, the IAF will have three squadrons of F-35 Adir stealth fighters – about 50 aircraft in all. The aircraft of the third squadron will cost about $80 million each. Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman openly expressed his hope that the IAF would eventually have 75 stealth fighters. Will that actually happen? The Boeing Corporation made several offers to supply an advanced model of the F-15 fighter – F-15IA – a special variant for Israel. Some observers can identify three "parties" within the IAF: one – the improved Ra'am party, two – the Adir party, and three – the mix party, whose members favor a mixed OrBat of both fighter models.

The proponents of the F-35 Adir list some of the fighter's comparative advantages: the F-15, which is a sizable platform, has a particularly large radar signature, while the Adir is a stealth fighter with a nearly zero signature. Even when it carries external ordnance in the "Beast" mode, it is still a smaller platform with a smaller radar signature. Boeing offers Israel 25 upgraded F-15 fighters, carrying a price tag of $110-120 million each – more than the price of an F-35 fighter. In addition, the Adir is intended to play a dual role: initially infiltrate enemy territory in the stealth mode, and take the enemy by surprise while carrying its ordnance internally. Subsequently, in the "Beast" (non-stealth) mode, it can carry more than eight tons of ordnance on its wings, thereby converting into a strike fighter with a substantial destructive potential. Lockheed Martin has published a chart listing the armament the F-35 can carry in the stealth mode, compared to the "beast mode" – when the fighter waives its stealth capabilities, thereby becoming a lethal strike fighter capable of carrying dozens of missiles and bombs.

At Boeing, they extoll the virtues of the new F-15IA model offered to Israel. It looks like an ordinary F-15, but everything about it is new: a state-of-the-art ESA radar system, a new computer system, more advanced than the one fitted to the F-22 fighters – the world's most advanced fighter aircraft, and improved payload capacity. Boeing promises that the new aircraft will retain the features of the operating systems of the F-15I Ra'am fighter currently serving with the IAF. Israeli industries will manufacture some of the weapons delivery and ordnance systems of the new fighter. At Boeing, they refer to it as sovereignty – the authorization to incorporate Israeli-made weapon system in the US-made fighter. They also offer a new cockpit including a cockpit display system by Elbit Systems. The people at Boeing claim that the acquisition of advanced F-15 fighters will be an investment in Israeli R&D owing to the numerous "Blue and White" systems like the computers, the pilot's display system and the ordnance. The F-15IA fighter will be based on the advanced model Qatar has acquired, designated F-15Q.

A remark in parenthesis: trade magazines have recently described another advanced variant of the F-15 Eagle fighter, designated F-15X. This is not the variant offered to Qatar and Israel. The F-15X is a response to US concerns regarding the potential lethality of cruise missiles. Those concerns led Boeing to develop a special variant of the F-15 that will serve as an airborne missile battery designed to deal specifically with cruise missiles. The new fighter should carry sixteen specialized missiles and potential clients include such major global air forces as those of the USA, Canada, Japan, and Europe.

Based on conversations with IAF sources, the major US aircraft manufacturers, and the Israeli defense industries, the prevailing estimate maintains that the magic word is "mix". In other words, the future air force of the State of Israel will include F-35 stealth fighters, the advanced F-15IA variant, F-15I Ra'am and F-16I Sufa fighters, the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft, an advanced refueling tanker, and a new, modern heavy lift helicopter. Which aircraft models will fill the roles of the IAF's new refueling tanker and heavy lift helicopter? Guessing the answer would be pointless. When the Israeli Government comes to making the decisions, it will face a multitude of contributing factors, with each one exerting pressure. The competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two giant corporations having considerable influence within Israel and investing substantial resources in this country; IAI, craving new R&D and manufacturing projects; the threat-dependent operational requirements of the IDF. The IAF is a highly influential element, which aspires, justly, to always be at the cutting edge of technology and to employ the very best aircraft.

On the other hand, the IDF is not just the IAF. The ground and naval arms have their own empowerment and strength build-up demands and aspirations.