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Israeli F-35Is make combat debut with two air strikes

Israeli Air Force F-35I Adirs have participated in two air strikes in the Middle East, making the country’s recently-deployed, Lockheed Martin-made fighters the first in the global fleet to see combat, says IAF commander Maj Gen Amikam Norkin.

"The 'Adir' (F-35I) aircraft are already operational and flying combat missions. In fact, we have performed the first operational F-35 strike in the world. We attacked twice in the Middle East using the F-35 – we are the first in the world to do so,” Norkin told a convention of air force commanders in Tel Aviv on 22 March, according to an IAF press release.

The IAF declared the 140 squadron with nine F-35Is at Nevatim Air Base initially ready for combat operations last December.

Lockheed delivered the first two F-35Is to Israel in 2016 as part of the eighth lot of low-rate initial production, which featured Block 3i software. The IAF’s remaining F-35Is were delivered in Lot 9 with Block 3F software, allowing a broader set of weapons options and a wider flight envelope. Israel also has disclosed plans to integrate home-made weapons, including the Rafael Spice precision guided bomb. In February, the Department of Defense awarded Lockheed Martin a $147 million contract to integrate Israeli-made weapons into the F-35I, but did not disclose any details.

The F-35I’s combat debut in Israeli hands recalls the early years of the Boeing F-15 programme. In 1979, IAF pilot Moshe Marom-Melnik executed the first air-to-air kill with an Eagle, shooting down a Syrian air force Mikoyan MiG-21.

Norkin’s disclosure about the F-35I’s combat debut came at a convention held partly to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the IAF. The event includes a series of lectures on airpower, including a speech on fifth-generation fighter capabilities delivered by Lockheed chief executive Marillyn Hewson, according to the IAF press release.

In addition to the F-35I details, Norkin described a significant operation over the past several weeks to counter what the IAF claims are attacks by Iran’s Quds special forces unit from the T-4 airbase about 135nm (250km) from Israel.

“They attempted to attack us using a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) which infiltrated Israel a number of months ago. After this event, we saw that they continued to store munitions in this base, including aerial defence capabilities which we attacked this month," Norkin says.

"Over the past weeks, we understood that Iran was transporting long-range missiles and rockets to Syria, among which are 'Uragan' missile launchers which we attacked, just north of Damascus", he adds. "The Iranians fired 32 rockets towards Israel. We intercepted four of them, while the rest fell outside of Israel's territory. Afterwards, we attacked dozens of Iranian targets in Syria. Sadly, the Syrian aerial defense systems fired over 100 SAM (surface-to-air missiles) at our aircraft using SA-5, SA-17 and SA-22 missile batteries. In response, we destroyed their SAM batteries. A short time later, we destroyed a 20m-deep Hamas tunnel."

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