Final Decision on Acquisition of New Platforms for IAF Imminent

What will replace the old CH-53 Yas'ur helicopters? Which aircraft model will be chosen as the new airborne refueling tanker? When will the decision regarding the future of the IAF's aerial OrBat be made? A current status picture

Aerial Refueiling (Photo: IDF)

Four additional F-35 Adir fighters will arrive in Israel in May, and by the end of this year, the Golden Eagle Squadron at the Nevatim airbase will have 20 stealth fighters. Today they have 14 F-35 fighters, and the new ones are being delivered from the Lockheed Martin plants at the rate of six fighters per year.

According to current estimates, by the end of this year and early next year, after a new government has been established and the next Minister of Defense has been appointed, new decisions will be made that would change the face of the Israeli Air Force and upgrade almost its entire aircraft fleet: additional and/or new fighter aircraft, new heavy-lift helicopters, and a new airborne refueling tanker. The two primary decision makers within the defense establishment – the new Chief of Staff and the IAF Commander – are yet to voice their opinions publicly regarding the aerial issue.

The most pressing decision concerns the heavy-lift helicopters, and the State Comptroller's report of last March contributed to the urgency. In that report, the Comptroller severely criticized the IAF's helicopter layout: "The fleet of Yas'ur helicopters, which are 50 years old, cannot provide a full solution to the operational need. Predating the acquisition of the alternative for the Yas'ur (helicopters) should be considered," states the report. What will replace the old CH-53 Yas'ur helicopters? Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin's CH-53K King Stallion or Boeing's dual overhead rotor CH-47 Chinook?

The IDF Spokesperson's response to an inquiry by IsraelDefense in the matter of the helicopters was brief and to the point: "The IDF is currently engaged in a staff work effort in anticipation of the acquisition of the (new) helicopters, which is currently in the process of being approved." At the IDF/GHQ Planning Directorate they also believe that the resolution of the heavy-lift helicopter issue is a matter of urgency.

The IAF has tested both helicopters in actual flight or on simulators. Senior IAF pilots have flown both helicopters, and in the coming summer will depart for additional flight tests. No final decision has been made yet, but the manufacturers are already extolling the virtues of their respective platforms. The King Stallion is a new platform and will be able to continue flying for decades to come. The Chinook is an older design, but Israel will receive the upgraded, state-of-the-art Block-2 version. The King Stallion has a seven-blade rotor (the rotor of the Yas'ur helicopters has six blades), and is the first military helicopter to utilize the Fly-by-Wire control system. Boeing will replace the blades of the Chinook's rotors and install Israeli avionics. Some IAF authorities favor Boeing's Chinook (which does not have a tail rotor – a safety advantage), but Lockheed Martin's King Stallion has been specifically adapted to operations in mountainous areas (Lebanon?), it is larger (and consequently carries more troops) and more expensive, but will remain in service for 50 more years as it is new, and the IAF is more familiar with it as it is the successor of the time-honored CH-53 Yas'ur helicopters.

The New Airborne Refueling Tanker

The question of the new airborne refueling tanker has reached a more advanced stage. The IAF has been authorized to issue a Letter of Request (LOR) for two Boeing KC-46 refueling tankers, namely – an official request for full details on the aircraft. Having reviewed the aircraft and flown in it, senior IMOD and IAF officials stated that the KC-46 is the world's most advanced refueling tanker. Every system has two backup systems, it has two workstations for a refueling operator and an instructor, a cockpit with the same state-of-the-art avionics as the Boeing 787 and even protection against a nuclear explosion in the vicinity of the aircraft.

A new factor has emerged recently: Lockheed Martin teamed up with the European consortium Airbus to create the new Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft, which is based on the Airbus A330 passenger aircraft. In fact, this aircraft is a direct competitor of Boeing's KC-46.

The new aircraft by Airbus will be introduced at the Paris Air Show next June. The IAF will be able to take delivery within one year. This aircraft is larger than Boeing's tanker (more fuel, fewer sorties, longer range), which is based on the Boeing 767 passenger aircraft. "IAI will be offered a substantial share" in the manufacturing of the aircraft, they say at Lockheed Martin.

On the other hand, it is almost inconceivable that the State of Israel would acquire a French-American aircraft made by the European consortium. To this date, El-Al airlines has not purchased even one passenger aircraft by Airbus, and its entire fleet consists of aircraft by Boeing. Consequently, it is estimated that the IAF's next airborne refueling tanker will be Boeing's KC-46.