For the first time, the Israeli Air Force’s specialized F-35 “Adir” variant flew in the U.S. military’s latest iteration of the exercise alongside its American counterparts at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
The joint military drills highlight the robust Israeli-American defense partnership amidst rising tensions in the Middle East.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is inching towards procuring a nuclear weapon and has carried out dozens of rocket and drone barrages targeting American and Israeli assets in the region in 2023 alone.
Israel’s fleet of Adir fighters is arguably the most advanced version of the Lockheed Martin fighter platform across the globe. In fact, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were the first military to actually use the platform in combat.
When Did the IDF Use the F-35I Adir in Combat?
The F-35I Adir got its first taste of combat back in 2018, when the IDF revealed that the fighters carried out scores of airstrikes over Syria at the time. Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin claimed that the IAF had been “flying the F-35 all over the Middle East and had already attacked twice on two different fronts.”
While Israel is believed to have launched dozens of airstrikes targeting Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria since the onset of the civil war in 2011, it rarely admits to operations publicly. In becoming the first nation to use the F-35 platform in combat, the IDF was displaying its aerial strength to Iran and its other regional allies.
Last spring, Israel revealed that its F-35 fleet took part in another “first” for the platform. The Adir fighters shot down at least two Iranian drones headed toward Israeli territory in 2021, according to the IDF. This was the first incident where F-35s were used by any country to take out airborne threats. A widely circulated video accompanied the IDF’s announcement, which depicted one of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) being engaged from the perspective of the jet cockpit.
Although the exact location of where the drones were destroyed are unknown to the public, the IDF stated that the interception was “carried out in coordination with neighboring countries, thus preventing the intrusion of the drones into Israel,” according to The Drive.
What Makes Israel’s F-35I Adir Variant Special?
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is arguably the most sophisticated fifth-generation fighter to fly the skies. Back in 2010, Israel became the first foreign client to procure the fighter from its nine-nation co-development group.
Also, at first, Lockheed Martin agreed to produce a specialized version of the fighter to adhere to Israel’s distinct security needs. Originally, the Adir was fitted with a homegrown electronic warfare system (EWS). The incorporation of domestic sensors and countermeasures to the airframe were also included into the modified variant, in addition to helmet-mounted displays and other data gathering and processing capabilities.
An advanced electronics suite has allowed the IAF to effectively jam the guidance systems and electronics of enemy ground-fired anti-aircraft weapons, a critical component for a country surrounded by hostile actors. The IAF also possesses access to various parts of the JSF’s digitized architecture, including mission control hardware and communications systems.
Perhaps the Adir’s singular flaw is its lack of range. Unlike some of its more dated counterparts, the F-35 does not have the ability to fly as far without being refueled. Considering the ramp of tensions between the Jewish state and Iran, obtaining a robust airframe that could reach Iranian territory if needed is paramount to Israel’s security.
American-made KC-46 refueling tankers are set to be delivered to the IAF in the upcoming years.
While the airframe’s trajectory has been stymied by delays and other roadblocks, its ultimate inclusion in Israel’s aerial arsenal remains a priority as they can refuel Adir fighters mid-flight.
If Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon, Israel’s Begin Doctrine instructs the country to take offensive action to remove this existential threat.
Israel’s fleet of F-35I Adir fighters would certainly lead the way in any future Iranian nuclear facility strike.
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. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.