Maj Gen Eitan Ben-Eliahu, Commander of the Israeli air force, sees the "main goal" of his tenure as shepherding through critical modernisation programmes.

For Ben-Eliahu, a fast jet pilot by trade, the obvious priority is the fighter fleet, although he adds that the air force's transport and helicopter fleets also need attention.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing are vying for a 25-40 aircraft procurement programme, with the F-16 Block 60 and the F-15I respectively on offer. The service is looking for additional multirole strike aircraft to bolster in part the 25 F-15I Baz strike aircraft, deliveries of which have recently begun.

Ben-Eliahu believes that the process under way effectively marks the last Israeli combat aircraft procurement before next generation aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-22ARaptor and the Joint Strike Fighter programme, enter the fray.

"We've got one window of opportunity before the next generation of fighters become available beyond 2005," admits Ben-eliahu. The air force will lose its Douglas A-4 Skyhawks and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms and Phantom 2000s, totalling over 100 aircraft, which will be phased out in the next few years.

The latest procurement reflects Israel's changing geo-strategic perceptions. "The centre of threat has changed," Ben-Eliahu notes. "There has been a certain shift. There remains a need for short range close air support, but there is also a need for a longer range capability."

The "centre of threat", as Ben-Eliahu describes it, has moved from Israel's inner circle of neighbours, as peace treaties have been agreed, to the outer circle. Both Iran and Iraq are liable to figure strongly in threat analyses, although Ben-Eliahu will not be drawn in identifying specific states. Syria, too, has also yet to normalise its relations with Israel.

Besides bolstering its strike fighter fleet Ben-Eliahu says that the air force is also looking to overhaul its approach to training. "We're looking to changes in the training system, to modernise it. We're looking to ensure that our basic and our advanced training approach fits into our mission roles and the type of equipment we deploy," he states.

The service uses the Zukit, basically the venerable Fouga CM.170 Magister, as its jet trainer. Despite a fleet-wide upgrade programme in the early 1980s, the aircraft is fast approaching its final sell-by date. Ben-Eliahu believes that "-we need to replace the Zukit by around 2005, although the aircraft could go on for just a little bit longer".

He admits that part of the problem in terms of procuring a successor aircraft is that training aircraft inevitably "-fall down to the bottom of the replacement list" when it comes to funding battles.

In planning to replace the Zukit, Israel had been watching the US Air Force's Joint Primary Air Training System programme. The selection of the Beech T-6A Texan II, however, left the Israeli air force with a problem, since it had little interest in replacing the Zukit with a turboprop.

There are contender airframes to fill the hole in the inventory which will inevitably be left when the Zukit retires, including aircraft such as the British Aerospace Hawk and the Aero Vodochody L-159.

Ben-Eliahu also believes that the Israeli air force will move to a greater exploitation of space in meeting emerging requirements, such as countering the regional intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) threat.

"We will move toward relying on assets in space. In terms of reconnaissance, once you are beyond a few hundred kilometres then really you have to rely on space," he says.

Israel already operates the Offeq 3 reconnaissance satellite, although the Israeli commander says that it has yet to be determined whether, in the future, "-we will lean on others, or have our own".

In countering the argument that space-based sensor platforms are prohibitively expensive, Ben-Eliahu argues that, beyond the initial costs, "-such systems can save assets if you use space". A reconnaissance satellite is in general terms going to provide the equivalent amount of intelligence imagery far more efficiently than tactical reconnaissance aircraft.

Addressing the IRBM threat, he believes that, alongside the Israeli Aircraft Industries Arrow (Chetz) anti-tactical ballistic missile system, other complementary systems will be introduced. He does not doubt, however, that a credible ballistic missile defence is achievable.

"Ballistic missile defence will be a combination of a several systems," as well as the Arrow offensive air operations, and loitering unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) armed with long range intercept missiles are under active consideration.

Ben-Eliahu believes that UAVs will play an ever greater role within the air force. The Israeli Defence Force is already highly experienced in the utilisation of UAVs, and the air force commander sees this trend continuing apace. "As far as UAVs are concerned more and more missions are going to go this way," he asserts.

Source: Flight International