Sunday, May 10, 2009

F-35: Should Israel develop an independent air superiority alternative?


by Ami Isseroff


When Israel was forced to abandon the Lavi fighter aircraft program in the 1980s, it did so on the promise that the United States would always provide attractive alternatives that Israel could adapt to suit its own needs and that would be cheaper to manufacture and maintain than Israeli aircraft.

This was very probably true of the F-16 and F-15. Of course, the fact that these aircraft must be serviced by spare parts that come from the United States, and use armaments that are supplied or not supplied at the whim of the United States, provides the American government with a very important political control lever.

It certainly was not true of the F-22 Raptor stealth technology aircraft, which Israel was not allowed to purchase at all. The F-35, which will not be available to Israel until 2012, is a dubious case. It is supposed to be a fifth generation aircraft, due to superior radar, armament, a Star-Wars type helmet mounted heads up display driven by an Israeli display management computer and stealth coating that makes it difficult for radar to detect. In other respects, this aircraft is less attractive. It weighs nearly 30 tons and had to be stripped down by Lockheed Martin to meet weight requirements. It has a single P&W F 135 engine of 25,000 pounds thrust (40,000 with afterburners) and can reach a speed of Mach 1.6. The F-15 Eagle that it replaces has a longer range. It is a twin engine aircraft (Two P&W F 100 engines with a combined thrust of 36,000 lb, 58,000 with afterburner) and attains a speed of Mach 2.5. The all-important climb rate of the F-35 is "classified," but it probably cannot be better than that of the F-15. A new "Silent Eagle" version of the F-15E (F-15SE) is being offered that is stealth coated, but it is still 30 year old airframe technology even with its new combat electronics and will evidently be almost as expensive to purchase as the F-35. An attractive feature of the F-15 SE is the openness of the Boeing corporation to international collaboration.

When the Lavi was canceled, it was said that Israel could not afford to continue the development program, which would cost $300 million a year. A single F-35 costs over $100 million, and will cost another $200 million in maintenance over the life of the aircraft. The exorbitant price of the aircraft no doubt reflects in part, the need to make it adaptable to aircraft carrier and VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) uses that Israel does not need at present, and the fact that it is a Joint Strike Fighter that must be suited to the needs and standards and commercial imperatives of several countries. At least one analyst sees no particular advantage to this apparently mediocre aircraft, but it is truly difficult to judge without a full set of specifications, and many of the critical ones such as rate of climb and turn radius are classified or just not available.

The biggest drawback of the F-35 is that it will not be possible to modify it in any way to suit any specific Israeli requirements, nor will it be possible to introduce any modifications based on future battle experience unless they are made in USA. For the probably lifetime of the aircraft, 30 or 40 years (F-15 was introduced to Israel in the 70s) it will remain functionally the same unless the United States decides to change it. If a flight computer is damaged, it cannot even be repaired in Israel. It must be shipped back to the United States. If Israel "behaves" and follows American political diktats, it will be supplied with a sufficient number of spare computers to allow immediate replacement. Supposedly, this is done to protect the security of the aircraft. However, the United States has allowed access to the flight computer software to the notoriously leaky British military. The British paid more to be part of the F-35 program than did Israel, and of course, the British are the British. Additionally, a computer security leak evidently compromised most of the information about the F-35 in any case. Israel, however, cannot be privy to its secrets.

Nobody knows what the next the next USA candidate for air dominance aircraft will be like, twenty or thirty years hence. If the US went from a Mach 2.5 aircraft to a Mach 1.6 aircraft, anything is possible in the future, and the sky is the limit as far as price is concerned. What is certain is that Israel would remain dependent on the good will of the United States for supply of the aircraft and spare parts, and apparently will no longer be able to modify the aircraft in any way. Purchase of the aircraft commits Israel to a costly maintenance program, and spare parts cannot be manufactured in Israel. This is not the deal that was envisioned when Israel abandoned development of the Lavi. There are certainly advantages to maintaining a uniform air fleet, and there may be things that an F-35 can do that cannot be done by any other aircraft (except perhaps the F-15 Silent Eagle, which seems to be faster at least and has a longer range), While it may be necessary to purchase a number of these aircraft, it is doubtful that air support missions over Gaza or Lebanon, for example, require hundreds of aircraft that cannot be detected by radar and have elaborate countermeasures designed to provide superiority in dogfights with MiG fighters. Moreover, in dogfights, Israeli pilots flying technically inferior, older generation French aircraft, consistently beat out enemies flying any other sort of aircraft, even on some occasions when the pilots on the other side were Russian. The man seems to be more important than the machine.

Israel has acquired considerable expertise in embedded avionics software - the control systems at the heart of modern aircraft. But if the primary Israeli combat aircraft will have "no user serviceable parts," this branch of Israeli expertise will find no applicability and will eventually atrophy. If the United States should stop supplying Israel with aircraft for any reason, or if the aircraft they offer is expensive or unsuitable, Israel will have no recourse.

Isn't it time for Israel to try to diversify its suppliers of combat aircraft, and also to begin a major air craft development project of its own, that will build domestic airframe and even power plant technology? The foreign or home built alternatives to American aircraft may not always be as good, but they are better than nothing or than aircraft that are politically and technically controlled from across the sea, or are so expensive that we cannot afford them.

Ami Isseroff

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