Why Israel May Not Buy More F-35s

by Stephen Bryen

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is reporting that Israel’s Air Force (IDF) is leaning toward buying improved F-15’s instead of another batch of F-35’s.   The IDF has hands on experience with the F-35, and while in public it has highly praised the performance of this massively expensive aircraft, it appears they are having second thoughts.  No matter how well the F-35 performs when it is actually flying, keeping it in the air is very difficult.  Typical availability of the F-35’s in the US inventory hovers around 50%, and this represents many airplanes capable of carrying out part of their mission, but not all of it.  Among the most recent examples, the gun doesn’t work right, it fires off to the right of a target; the tires have to be replaced after 10 flights, meaning that the landing system is stressed and dangerous; the software code is still in a jangle and well behind in being properly updated; there are a host of structural issues with the platform which means, from an Israeli perspective that every airplane they have bought will have to be stripped down and reinforced (if in fact reinforcement is enough).  In the best case Israel, and all the others who have had F-35’s delivered will end up with a heavier and slower aircraft that will consume more fuel and perform less well.

On the opposite side of the ledger, doubts are starting to be raised about the long term wisdom of a stealth platform.  A stealth aircraft is optimized in various ways to absorb rather than reflect emanations from X Band radars.  X Band is the most popular military radar and most air defense systems rely on it.  However there are other radar and non-radar systems that can detect stealth platforms.  One non-radar system is the Czech Vera. Vera is a short range passive triangulation sensor that exploits other radars and radio transmissions.  Then there are ground and airborne based radars operating in L Band.  In the past L Band would provide a general locational picture of a threat but it lacked sufficient accuracy to pinpoint the attacking aircraft.  But progress is being made in augmenting and networking L Band sensors, and the Russians in particular have been building both ground and airborne L Band transmitter-receivers.  


By Bin im Garten – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22036650

Stealth is a very costly technology to support and maintain and it imposes a severe penalty on any fighter or bomber platform.  As is well known, weapons must be kept inside the aircraft because anything hanging off a wing or an aircraft underbelly is a strong reflective surface that defeats stealth.  Internal storage brings with it myriad problems: weapons have to be able to fit inside, significantly reducing weapon’s choice flexibility and imposing many safety issues less dramatic when the weapons are externally mounted.  The release systems must work with precision and reliably, which also imposes costs, maintenance issues and combat risks that non-stealth platforms mostly avoid.  There also is the problem of keeping the radar coatings on the aircraft in good condition.  Radar coatings exposed to the elements and forced into very powerful jet slipstreams deteriorate, and a plane that leaves on a mission with the pilot thinking he has a stealth advantage could arrive near his target fully exposed to even old conventional enemy radars.

Among the many problems of the F-35, one of the looming issues is cost.  The US Air Force has thrown all caution to the winds and invested its entire future as a viable fighting force in one platform that, at least so far is completely unproven.  In US aviation history this is the first time a single platform has been selected to the entire fighter force, and it is a blunder of such magnitude that it is mind boggling.  Even worse, Congress has gone along with the charade.

Israel is a regional power that has to have an air arm that can protect the state and carry out a wide variety of missions, more or less on demand.  These include everything from repelling an air attack, destroying terrorist formations or taking out direct existential threats that may be heavily protected, like nuclear reactors in hostile hands.  A plane with 50% availability that might have to deal with advanced Russian-made air defense systems (e.g., the S-300, S-400 and soon the S-500) in enemy hands, or top Russian fighters (such as the Su-35, a formidable, maneuverable aircraft with significant growth potential) is not the best solution for air dominance for Israel.

In 2015 I published an article about the Boeing development of the F-15 SE (Silent Eagle) and how the US Air Force and the Israeli Air Force should buy it.  In reviewing what I wrote, I stand by every word in it.  


November 5, 2015|

Stephen Bryen 

According to news reports, Israel wants the F-15 Silent Eagle. The F-15 Silent Eagle is a stealthy evolution of the F-15 Strike Eagle, which forms the backbone of Israel’s Air Force. 

Some analysts are surprised Israel would request the Silent Eagle.  But there are good reasons for it: in fact, the reasons are so good that if our Air Force had common sense it would reduce the size of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter buy and get the Silent Eagles for our Air Force too.

There is, of course, both a sort of respect and competition that characterizes relations between the US Air Force and Israel’s Air Force.  And there are differences in mission: Israel is a regional power, not a superpower.  It mostly fights in its own neighborhood; although the Iranian challenge means Israel needs more long range aircraft that can carry a significant load of air to ground weapons. The F-35 is not that airplane.

The F-35 is one of the most controversial and expensive aircraft ever built, rivaled only by the even more costly but canceled F-22.  But the F-22’s are aging and soon need to be upgraded; the F-35’s are stumbling forward, but the program has stimulated massive criticism from aviation experts who fault its value as a front line fighter.

The F-35 program hinges on two highly debatable suppositions.

Betting the Farm

The first supposition is that the F-35 can be the main fighter aircraft in the US inventory even though its capability to perform multirole tasks is far from certain.  The US Air Force has bet the farm on the F-35; in the end it means a smaller air force and one with far less flexibility than the air force now has.

Beyond Visual Range (BVR)

The second supposition is that it’s beyond visual range capability is the essential trump card that makes the F-35 superior to the competition.  BVR capability is important, but BVR is not a technology solely under US control –our main competitor, Russia, has BVR and is getting better and better at enhancing all its onboard electronic capabilities.

 (Above)Russia’s Vympel BVR Air to Air Missile Seeker Head (2009)

The idea behind BVR was born out of the famous air battle in June 1982 over the Bekaa Valley, where Israel, using mainly US aircraft (plus its home-grown Kfir) decimated the Syrian Air Force. The reason for the success was that the US F-15’s that were used in that battle had look-down shoot-down radars, a technology the Russians would not have for another ten years. This meant that high-flying Israeli fighters could pick out Syrian MiGs and Sukhoi’s and hit them before they saw the Israeli planes.

But, while look-down shoot-down was really important, it is only a part of the story.  The Israelis also had command and control and radar planes in the area giving them excellent coverage -they saw the Syrian planes from the moment they lifted off from their bases. And, even more importantly, Israel using brilliant home-grown tactics, were able to shut down and destroy most of Syria’s ground-based air defense missile systems.  The elimination of Syria’s SAMs (surface to air missiles) meant that the Syrian Air Force was left on its own. Consequently, 86 Syrian fighter planes, including the Mach-3 MiG 25, were shot down.  Israel lost no planes in air to air combat; it had four combat losses to ground fire.

Superior Technology?

Thus, the translation of what happened in 1982 to 2015 is not so simple.  In 1982, the US had superior technology.  In 2015, the US has excellent technology, but potential adversaries are gaining ground.  Russia, for example, now has stealth in its forthcoming PAK FA-T50 (made by Sukhoi, an important evolution of the Su-35 4th++ generation fighter).  It has Active Electronic Scanned Array radar (just like the F-35 and F-15 SE); it has infrared tracking capability; it has BVR weapons; and most of the other features of the F-35.  But, unlike the F-35, the Su-35 and T-50 are excellent maneuverable fighter planes. For whatever reason, once the F-35 exhausts its air defense missiles, it is a sitting duck unless it can run away in a hurry. Here the Su-35 and T-50 are exceptional because they have supercruise capability that the F-35 lacks.  Supercruise is the ability to operate supersonically without using engine afterburners.  This means far greater range (because afterburners are fuel hogs), and it means weapons launched under supercruise have greater range too.  Can the F-35 escape against a supercruising F-35 or T-50?  Most experts think the F-35 cannot.

This brings us back to the reasons why the Israelis are seeking the F-15SE.  They need a fighter-bomber that can fight.   They understand that if the Russian relationship with Iran continues, that the Iranians will want top of the line aircraft and will pressure the Russians to give them.  Iran is already getting the best air defense missiles the Russians have (violating current arms agreements set by the United Nations).  It won’t be long before the Russians agree to sell modern fighters to Iran, and Israel must plan on that relatively near-term eventuality.

For Israel, there are other considerable gains in buying the F-15SE.  It is an evolution of an aircraft already in inventory, which means all the logistics and support systems are already in place.  Pilots are already well trained on the platform and have experience in combat, meaning that the capabilities of the plane are well known. And the F-15SE costs less than half of what the F-35 costs, meaning that Israel can get much more punch for the buck than the F-35 offers.  Indeed, the F-35’s main contribution to air forces around the world is that it is so unaffordable it will shrink every air force that buys it. This must cause delight in Moscow as well as Beijing.

Mitigating Risk

But even more concerning is why the US Air Force isn’t mitigating the risk of the F-35 by buying an equal number of F-15 Silent Eagles?  It does not take a supercomputer or even an abacus to understand that putting the entire US Air Force at risk with only one fighter plane in the inventory is a danger to national security.  If the platform fails to perform, America will not only risk its credibility, but our allies who are buying the F-35 are going to be left in the lurch.

Indeed, there are even more risks.  The US cannot afford to keep its older planes flying once the F-35’s enter the inventory.  The F-15’s and F-16’s are unlikely to be further modernized or even properly maintained.

Even worse, the soaring cost of the F-35 and the difficulty of maintaining it in any power projection scenario (and the huge support costs) means that even fewer will be purchased and even less will be available in the field when needed.  This is not a scenario that should be welcomed, and it is likely the Israelis understand the problem all too well.  The F-35 was pushed at them; they did not jump up and down wanting it. Now, for all practical purposes, they really want to hedge their bets or get out from under the f-35 albatross.

So what should we expect?  Any suggestion the US Air Force should buy the Silent Eagle will be met by extreme hostility for sure.  In fact, it is likely the Pentagon will try and block Israel’s request, or try and unload some more F-35’s to shut the Israelis up.  That’s the reality of power-Pentagon politics these days.  What the Silent Eagle needs is some Congressional champions to head off the usual bone-headed Pentagon argument to spend more, get less, and risk our security.