Israel's air force prefers to create a unique version of its frontline aircraft by adding locally made systems, but this may prove more difficult with the Joint Strike Fighter

Already impressive, the Israeli air force's combat capabilities were further enhanced earlier this year when it received the first of 102 new F-16I multirole fighters from Lockheed Martin. Joining an extensive fleet of F-16A/B/C/D fighters in use for over 20 years, the new aircraft embody many enhancements to the basic F-16 design that have been created by Israeli industry to meet national requirements.

The F-16I's operational capabilities have already impressed the air force. Acquired under a $4.5 billion deal - Israel's largest ever defence procurement - the aircraft follow the air force's purchase of 25 BoeingF-15I strike fighters. The air force's future is already being mapped out, with a furtherF-16 purchase considered a possibility. But Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is at the top of Israel's wish list.

The country's first two F-16Is - dubbed Sufa in air force service - were delivered to Ramon air base in February. Acquired in two batches under the Peace Marble V programme, the purchase included an industrial offset package worth $1.5 billion, and Lockheed Martin recently completed its commitments within five years of contract signature, having awarded subcontracts to more than 40 Israeli firms.

Offset benefits

The main beneficiaries of this offset package are Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems, which between them have received work worth almost $1.2 billion. IAI has received $624 million to design and manufacture the F-16I's long-range conformal fuel tanks and produce its wing, vertical stabiliser, servo-hydraulic actuators and landing gear. The contracts also cover work related to the Gulfstream G200 business jet - formerly IAI's Galaxy. Elbit has received $577 million to supply the F-16I's avionics, cockpit and helmet-mounted display, rudder, vertical and horizontal stabilisers, leading-edge flaps, engine access doors and nosewheel doors. Multi-million-dollar deals were also awarded to Astronautics, BVR, Elisra, Gilat Satellite Networks, Israel Military Industries, Rada Electronic Industries, Rafael and TAT.

Israel has long been interested in the US-led JSF project, but faced an early quandary - whether to invest upfront in the effort, securing work for its national industry, but consuming much-needed procurement dollars at a time of high operational activity; or to bide its time and buy the aircraft via a foreign military sale. In the end, it went for a halfway-house solution by signing up as a security co-operation participant in the JSF project, committing a small level of funding in return for limited access to the programme office. This limited participation means it will be much harder for Israel to place its equipment on board the JSF in the way it did with the F-16I.

"The fact we came on the programme a bit late hurt the prospects of our industry to sell some of our systems," says Brig Gen Zeev Snir, head of the air force's materiel directorate. "Our quality edge is based on the ability to use the products of the Israeli industry and to integrate them with the platform outside of Israel." But, he adds: "There is an inherent challenge in integrating our own systems on the JSF because the avionics architecture is different to that of the F-16." It will also be more difficult for the Israeli air force to write and change the mission software for the JSF in the way it could with the F-16I, he says. The ability to control the configuration of the new aircraft is an absolute prerequisite to any deal, says Snir: "We believe strongly that we need an Israeli version of the JSF, the same way that we had with the F-16I."

Early thinking was that the air force's JSFs should be acquired as two-seaters -a configuration not planned for the multinational design - but Snir says this is no longer a requirement. The only reason the service bought all its F-16Is as two-seaters was to maximise commonality and reduce production costs, he says. The latestprocurement changed the air force'soperational mix, with existing units such as the 101st Fighter Squadron at Hatzor air base flying a 50:50 mix of single-seatF-16Cs and two-seat D-models for multirole operations.

A further change of thinking has opened the air force's mind to the possible acquisition of the short take-off and vertical landing F-35B, or even the US Navy's F-35C carrier variant, says Snir (Flight International, 26 October-1 November). However, the air force still has several years to decide which version of the aircraft it will buy - if it places an order at all.

Beyond the current and planned activity in the fighter aircraft arena, the Israeli air force is also in the midst of another major defence acquisition - to expand its attack helicopter inventory with a fleet of 13 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbows. Already a long-established user of the A-model Apache, the service is acquiring nine new-build Ds and is upgrading four of its AH-64Ds to the enhanced configuration. First deliveries will take place in 2005. As with its purchase of the F-16I, Israel's new Apaches are of a unique standard, featuring nationally developed countermeasures systems, communications equipment and armament.

The armament is expected to include a new version of Rafael's Spike ER anti-tank missile equipped with a penetration, blast and fragmentation warhead, which will expand the weapon's target set to include threats such as command and control facilities. Development and testing of the new warhead is "practically finished", says Rafael's helicopter systems consultant, Moshe Cohen, himself a reservist colonel and attack helicopter pilot. This is another example of a unique strand of the Israeli defence industry, where company engineers gain exposure to the needs of frontline units by serving with them through reserve duties.

Beating the budget crunch

The Israeli air force receives most of the country's annual defence spending, but with its allocation declining as Israel's foreign military funding from the USA reduces, the service is having to find new ways to make its budget stretch further.

As head of the air force's materiel directorate, Brig Gen Zeev Snir is responsible for managing the budget, and has an open mind as to how services are delivered. "Within the last two to three years, we have become much more flexible in outsourcing things that the air force used to do and at insourcing where we think we have the advantage," he says. The need to get this balance right is vital because the recently rebranded Israeli air force and space force is trying to trade future acquisitions, such as precision-guided weapons and the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, against the need to fund day-to-day combat operations, says Snir.

An early example of contracting out has seen the air force turn to the private sector for its primary pilot training, leasing services from Elbit Systems' subsidiary Cyclone Aviation. Earlier this year the service also decided to outsource maintenance of its training helicopters, and Snir says maintenance of its simulator systems is likely to follow suit. The air force also contracts services from unmanned air vehicle builders Elbit and Israel Aircraft Industries for the Hermes 450 and Heron systems, respectively, and could in time also assess the Javelin military trainer now in development under a partnership between IAI and the USA's Aviation Technology Group.

"We are looking at each thing we are doing in a case-by-case way without any prejudice," says Snir. "We have transformed, and today it is very easy for us to persuade our own people that an operation should be outsourced because it is cheaper." However, Snir says this culture has also encouraged the air force to improve its procedures to protect capabilities in some maintenance areas, and has even enabled it to regain some work from industry.

The air force has yet to outsource capabilities such as providing support for its frontline fighters, but Snir says a future step could be to place some avionics maintenance work with industry. But, he adds: "We think this is a thing we [the air force] do very well."

The air force's rebranding to encompass the space sector is more than a cosmetic change, says Snir. The service already makes use of space-based systems, and "as time goes by, it will be more and more important, for all types of imaging and communications", he says. With massive costs associated with owning such assets, the air force is likely to expand its use of contractor-owned systems, mirroring a trend among Western militaries.

Craig Hoyle / Tel Aviv

Source: Flight International