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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

F-35I: Israel Has Its Very Own Custom Stealth Fighter

F-35I Adir. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Between the dates of November 3rd until November 14th, the "BLUE FLAG" exercise took place at "Uvda" Air Force Base in Southern Israel. This exercise is the first international "Fifth Generation” exercise taking place in Israel involving the F-35 aircraft. The Blue Flag exercise is of paramount strategic importance and will have a significant impact on the Air Force, the IDF and the State of Israel as a whole. The exercise will include over a thousand air crew, technical and administrative personnel from different air forces. IAF Photo by: Amit Agronov

Israel’s air superiority over the Middle East can be attributed to its unique F-35I Adir stealth fighter jet – the only nation on Earth with a custom version of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

F-35I Adir – The History

The origin story of the “Mighty One” begins in 2010, when Israel became the first country outside the aircraft’s nine-nation co-development group to buy the jet. By 2018, Israel became the first country to debut its version of the F-35 as combat operational. The Jewish state’s fleet of fifth-generation stealth jets has been an instrumental tool in its shadow war against the Islamic Republic of Iran and overall deterrence in the region.

While the American F-35 Lightning II is arguably the most advanced fighter jet in rotation, Israel acquired them with their own unique specifications. In the last decade, custom variants of fourth-generation jets to client states have become a typical practice. For instance, the Su-30MKI is India’s version of the Su-30, and the CF-18 Hornet is Canada’s version of the F-18 Hornet. However, Lockheed-Martin has refused to undergo major client state-specific modifications to the F-35. Israel was able to maneuver around this barrier and involve its local defense contractors in acquiring the jets. This deal allowed sophisticated helmet sets and wings to be manufactured in Israel by its own defense industry, paid for with U.S. military aid. 

F-35I -A Special Stealth Fighter 

The F-35I variant can be externally modified by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which also has access to the jet’s advanced digital architecture, including its communication systems, electronic warfare and surveillance suite, and mission control hardware. Included in the “Mighty One’s” Israeli-made hardware is an electronic warfare system that has a “plug-and-play” function for add-on systems like air-to-air missiles and external electronic warfare pods. 

Additionally, extending the F-35I’s range has remained a top priority for Israel. Due to distance, Israel’s ability to carry out an airstrike inside Iran while ensuring enough fuel remains for the return trip has been a significant issue. As a result of this challenge, Israel has been the first country to ask for external fuel tanks for the F-35I Adir. According to the Israeli news website Walla, the IAF is developing external drop tanks that would allow the fighter jets to complete long-range missions without having to refuel midair (aerial refueling). 

Since the external drop tank capability is still in the works, American lawmakers are urging the White House to expedite the process of delivering KC-46 refueling tanker aircraft to Israel. The new Boeing KC-46 tankers would allow a dozen Israeli jets to stay aloft for 12 hours with a range of over 11,000 kilometers. This range would enable Israel to launch airstrikes on Iran. In 2018, Israel became the first country to carry out an operational attack using the F-35 when the IAF used the jets to strike Iranian missile launch sites in Syria. 

Isreali Air Force

AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates – Israeli Air Force F-35I Lightning II “Aldir” and U.S. Air Force 421st Fighter Squadron F-35A Lightning II fly together after refueling from a 908th Expeditionary Refueling Squadron KC-10 Extender during exercise “Enduring Lightning II” over Israel Aug. 2, 2020. While forging a resolute partnership, the allies train to maintain a ready posture to deter against regional aggressors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Patrick OReilly)

Israel's F-35I Adir

F-35I Adir. Lockheed Martin Photo

F-35I Adir

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Photo by Liz Lutz Job Reference Number: FP161047 Murray WMJ Reference Number: 16-03883 Customer: Allie Murray, Communications Event: AS-1 First Flight, CO-2 Flight Aerials Aircraft: F-35, Israel Pilot: Alan Norman Location: Fort Worth, TX Date: 07-27-2016 Time: 1100-1300 This image is Public Release Approved per Allie Murray, F-35 Communications

In a public letter, 11 Senators pressured the Biden administration to “take immediate action to provide Israel with the military capabilities it needs to defend itself from Iran,” in part by finalizing the contract for the KC-46 aircraft. According to experts, Iran’s nuclear breakout time is imminent, exasperating Israel’s need to be able to perform long-range missions against its hostile neighbor. 

Maya Carlin is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.