Here Comes the F-35I Adir: Over the weekend, Israel and Italy’s air forces launched a joint fighter-jet drill. During the exercise, dubbed “Lightning Shield,” Israel’s fleet of F-35I Adir airframes flew alongside four of Italy’s F-35s in Italy. The Israeli Defense Forces said on Twitter that, “This exercise is a major milestone in the continuous collaboration between our militaries, while strengthening the unique bond between our nations.” The IDF added that, “This exercise will contribute towards the operational competence of the Adir array and will assist in expanding its capabilities.” The custom F-35I airframe is arguably the most sophisticated and advanced stealth fighter in Israel’s arsenal. The IDF uses international drills like Lightning Shield to better prepare its fleet of fifth-generation fighters for real-time evolving threats.
Growing International Collaboration
In June 2021, Israel’s F-35I Adir jets participated in their first series of military drills outside of the Jewish state. Alongside Italy, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, Israel’s fighters carried out a two-week-long exercise called Falcon Strike 2021. Similar to the ongoing Lightning Shield drills, Falcon Strike aimed to improve the Adir’s operational capabilities while simultaneously strengthening joint cooperation with Israel’s allies. The collaborative exercise was held at Italy’s Amendola Air Base and included Israel’s fleet of F-16A/Bs, G550s, and refuelers, in addition to the F-35s.
In 2020, Israel’s F-35I fighters flew with America’s F-35 Lightning II fighters in a joint drill dubbed Enduring Lightning. Israel’s air force similarly described the military exercise as a way to instill in its pilots a knowledge of “a wide variety of operational theaters while strengthening the cooperation between the forces, as well as facing various aerial and ground threats.”
F-35I Adir: A Striking Variant
Israel’s F-35I Adir, or “The Mighty One,” is perhaps the most uniquely capable fifth-generation stealth fighter in the world. In 2010, Israel became the first country outside the F-35’s nine-nation co-development group that was allowed to purchase a unique variant of the airframe. While the U.S. F-35 Lightning II already holds the reputation as the globe’s most formidable airframe, Israel’s air force added its own specifications.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has been forced to contend with a slew of hostile powers set on eradicating the Jewish state. Due to the constantly high level of threats Israel has contended with, its government has prioritized the development and production of cutting-edge indigenous weapons systems meant to defend the country’s borders – and indeed, its existence. The IAF’s unique modifications to the F-35 are another example of this.
As explained in a previous article published by 1945, the IDF reached a special deal with Lockheed-Martin, which had previously refused to produce major, client state-specific variations of the Lightning II:
“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…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.”
To date, Israel remains the only nation to actually fly the Lightning II in combat operations – in 2018, the IAF’s fleet of F-35I Adir airframes carried out a series of airstrikes in Syria. According to a BBC article, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin declared that the IAF is “flying the F-35 all over the Middle East and have already attacked twice on two different fronts,” without detailing the targets.
Although the IDF did not say that the ongoing Lightning Shield exercise is directed at the threat from Iran, the IAF is certainly fine-tuning the capabilities needed for potential combat situations with the country’s top adversary. In recent years, Israel’s leaders have expressed growing concerns about Iran’s malign behavior in the region and its build-up in arms. In May, the IDF conducted a month-long military drill simulating a large attack on Iran and its nuclear assets. The “Chariots of Fire” exercise marked the largest series of military drills in Israel’s history. It encompassed all commands, branches, and directorates in the country. The joint Israeli-Italian Lightning Shield drill will further develop and perfect the IAF’s fighter capabilities.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also 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.