The Israeli Air Force is currently estimated to have acquired approximately a dozen Lockheed Martin F-35 fifth generation light fighters, an next generation equivalent to its long serving F-16 Falcon single engine platform with an important role in the country’s military modernisation efforts under its Gideon Doctrine. With Israel perceiving a growing threat on its borders and tensions between Tel Aviv and its adversaries continuing to escalate, sources from the Israeli Air Force have reported that the F-35 has been deployed for its first combat missions to support ongoing airstrikes against Syrian and Iranian targets near the country’s borders. Israeli Air Force Commander Major General Amikam Norkin said at the AF Senior Air Force Conference in late May 2018 regarding the deployment: “We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East. It had become part of our operational capabilities.” He further stressed that Israel had deployed the new fighter over enemy territory offensively, stating: “We are the first to attack using the F-35 in the Middle East and have already attacked twice on different fronts.”
While the targets allegedly struck by the Israeli F-35 were not specified, General Norkin’s claims would if true make Israel the first country in the world to deploy the fighter in combat. The general further stated that Israel was “managing a campaign against Iranian forces, especially on Israel’s northern (Syrian) border,” indicating the theatre where the new fighters were most likely deployed.
While the Israeli Air Force may well field a small contingent of combat ready F-35 fighters, claims that they have been deployed to enemy territory remain highly questionable. The F-35 is one of just two Western fifth generation fighters, alongside the F-22 Raptor twin engine heavy fighter, which the Western bloc is set to rely on in the coming decades to retain a technological advantage over future adversaries. With the F-22’s production having been terminated prematurely, the F-35 remains the only Western fifth generation fighter currently in production, and the importance of its technologies to the Western Bloc’s security interests therefore cannot be overstated. The F-35 program is so critical in fact that over $1.6 trillion are expected to be invested in it over its lifetime – making it by far the most expensive weapons program in world history. Any action which could potentially compromise the F-35, or lead Western military rivals such as Russia or Iran to gain significant intelligence regarding its capabilities, would therefore be strongly opposed by the United States which supplied the fighters to Israel.
To understand why deploying the F-35 to hostile territory, and over Syrian or Lebanese airspace at Israel’s northern border in particular, could undermine its capabilities, one need only look to the consequences of the F-22 Raptor’s deployment to Syrian airspace by the United States Air Force. American Raptors based in the United Arab Emirates have flown a number of sorties into Syrian airspace, both as a show of force in response to the Russian military presence in the country and to strike targets of Islamist insurgent groups. Prominent figures in the U.S. Air Force leadership have noted that deploying the F-22 for combat operations to the country, where Russia has deployed extensive surveillance equipment including some of its most advanced air defence radar systems capable, has seriously undermined the platform’s viability by providing Moscow with valuable intelligence on the aircraft. U.S. Air Force Lt. General VeraLinn Jamieson stated to this effect: “The skies over Iraq and specifically Syria have really just been a treasure trove for them to see how we operate. Our adversaries are watching us, they’re learning from us… Russia has gained invaluable insights and information with operating in a contested airspace alongside of us in Syria.” The secrecy of the elite fifth generation fighter’s manoeuvres, radar evading systems and weapons deployment were lost – a major blow to the effectiveness of the air superiority fighter. Russia was able to test the limits of the Raptor’s stealth, learn how the platform was designed to operate and better develop countermeasures against the F-22. It could potentially even use this information to incorporate successful aspects of the design onto its own next generation fighter.
Considering the magnitude of the loss which resulted from deploying the F-22 for combat operations to Syria, and the ‘treasure trove of information’ provided to America’s adversaries, deployment of the F-35 for combat operations to the very same warzone just months later remains highly unlikely. Radar systems from Russian S-300V and S-400 air defence systems are able to cover all of Israeli and Lebanese airspace and the vast majority of Syria itself. Flying the F-35 on combat missions over this area would inevitably provide Russia with valuable information regarding the fighter’s capabilities. Iranian air defence systems are also reportedly active in the region, and the chance to test anti stealth measures against the F-35 could well prove a major asset for Tehran – arguably outweighing the losses incurred from Israeli airstrikes.
The only way Israel could deny its adversaries information on the fighter’s radar evading systems would be to operate the F-35 without its stealth capabilities, deploying the fighter with Luneburg Lenses and possibly even externally mounted weapons systems and fuel tanks to compromise its stealth profile and thus prevent hostile radars from testing its stealth systems. Doing so however presents its own significant risks, which the Israeli Air Force is unlikely to take, as without stealth the F-35 is by a significant margin the least survivable of all modern fighter aircraft. The platform is slow, unmaneouvehable and restricted to flying at low altitudes making it by far the most vulnerable in the Israeli Air Force – and putting it in serious danger when operating against Syrian air defences in a highly contested combat zone. With Syrian surface to air missile systems having already downed a number of Israeli aircraft, the F-35 would fare poorly in such a combat zone with its stealth systems compromised. Other fighters such as the F-15I strike fighter, with its high speed, altitude and payload and lack of sensitive stealth systems, would be far better suited for such combat missions.
Ultimately it appears highly unlikely that the Israeli Air Force could have deployed the F-35 for combat operations, and had it done so it would have provided an invaluable opportunity for Russia and its allies to study the stealth fighter’s capabilities and risked seriously undermining the entire $1.6 trillion fighter program. The United States for its part has held its F-35 fighters back from combat missions, and while the country’s small F-22 fleet may well be expected to see a sixth generation replacement within the next two decades thousands of F-35 fighters are expected to be deployed and remain in service until 2050 – possibly longer. The risks from deploying a combat ready F-35 to a theatre such as Syria with a heavy Russian military presence therefore, for limited strike missions against relatively poorly defended Iranian assets, remains hardly worth the risk – and a choice the Israeli Air Force would have been unlikely to make.