There have been rumors circulating for a few years that an Israeli F-35 was hit by a Russian-made missile. Is there any truth in the talk? The F-35 is one of the world’s most advanced fifth-generation fighter multirole fighter aircraft, and it is now in service with several different air and naval services around the world.
F-35 Hit By a Missile?
One such operator is Israel, and in 2017 rumors emerged that an Israeli F-35 had been hit by a Russian-made air defense missile while conducting an airstrike in Syria. The rumors are shaky at best, and while the Israeli military did reveal that one of its F-35s had been damaged around the time of the rumored missile hit, it reported that the damage was from an unrelated incident involving a bird strike. It is also not clear that any F-35s – which at the time had not yet achieved operational status with the Israeli Air Force – actually took part in the mission during which an aircraft was rumored to have been hit with the missile.
The F-35 in Israel, Explained
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is a joint program undertaken cooperatively by the United States alongside a group of seven U.S. allies and partners, while Foreign Military Sales have subsequently made the F-35 available to a further six countries.
One of the most prominent F-35 customers is Israel, which in 2010 became the first country to select the F-35 through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales process. Israel has signed on to purchase a total of 50 F-35As, the F-35 variant designed to be operated from traditional runaways and which is also in service with the U.S. Air Force. The first F-35 was delivered to Israel in 2016.
The Israeli Air Force’s F-35 fleet is unique in that Israel has been allowed to make modifications to its F-35s. The Israeli Air Force has a history of incorporating and making use of its own weapons and systems even of foreign-built aircraft, citing its unique operating requirements as justification. That has continued with the F-35, with the Israeli Air Force adding additional electronic warfare upgrades onto the F-35 while also equipping pilots with its own version of the helmets worn by F-35 pilots elsewhere, which utilizes a unique heads-up display. Israel’s F-35s are also equipped with their own weapon options including the Rafael Spice EO/GPS guided bomb and an Israeli-designed cruise missile. In addition, Israeli F-35s have been fitted with unspecified sensors and recorders designed to gather test data that can be analyzed on the ground.
Israeli F-35s have also been given the unique designation of F-35I Adir, which translates as “mighty one” from Hebrew. The F-35I made its official combat debut for Israel in 2018, and two F-35I squadrons are now operational with the Israeli Air Force. Israeli F-35s have also taken part in exercises alongside of F-35s operated by other countries.
What May Have Happened
The incident about which rumors emerged regarding a possible hit on an Israeli F-35I took place in October 2017 and involved an Israeli attack on a Syrian surface-to-air (SAM) site. An unspecified assortment of Israeli military aircraft, on what was likely a reconnaissance mission, flew within the effective range of a Syrian SAM system, which reportedly fired on the aircraft. The contingent of Israeli aircraft was likely made up of either all F-16s or a mix of aircraft that included at least one F-15C outfitted for a photo reconnaissance mission. The Israeli military reported that all of the aircraft safely returned to base.
In response, the Israeli Air Force launched a follow-up attack targeting the SAM site’s fire control radar/emitter. According to Israeli Air Force damage assessments, the target was sufficiently damaged to the point that it was no longer operational.
Why the Rumor?
In the aftermath of the incident, unverified rumors emerged that an Israeli F-35I involved in the operation had been hit by a missile fired from the S-200 system. Reports had emerged that one of Israel’s F-35Is had been damaged, which may have helped fuel the rumors. It was revealed, however, that the F-35 in question had been damaged as a result of hitting a bird, and that collision looks as though it took place prior to the incident with the S-200.
Also calling into question the validity of the rumor is the fact that at the time of the incident, Israel had only taken possession of seven F-35s, and while the F-35I would achieve initial operational capability with the Israeli Air Force in 2017, it would not do so until December of that year. That Israel would choose to deploy an F-35, of which it had so few and which had not been declared operational, on a mission that close to the Syrian border is questionable.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.