Dec. 12, Israel received its first two Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, becoming the first country in the Middle East to operate the plane. The delivery of the fifth-generation stealth fighters to Nevatim Air Base represents an important step in maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and air superiority in the region. According to Lt. Col. Yotam, who will lead Israel’s first F-35 squadron: “The F-35's stealth capabilities widen our operational theater. It allows us to bring into action many abilities that are needed from the air force for superiority.” On Nov. 27, Israel’s security cabinet unanimously approved the purchase of an additional 17 F-35s, bringing the total number of the aircraft on order to 50. Israel’s decision to acquire additional F-35s was made possible through annual U.S. security assistance, which in turn is largely spent in the United States.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter traveled to Israel on Dec. 12 to meet with Israeli leaders and celebrate the arrival of Israel’s first two F-35 aircraft. At the ceremony, Carter praised the delivery of the fifth-generation fighter jets as an important symbol of America’s commitment to Israel’s security: “This evening we’re celebrating the remarkable progress of the U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and also of an [Israeli] air force that began by flying leftover World War II planes and is now flying the most advanced aircraft in history…Israel is our first and only friend in the region that’s flying F-35s. And it’s my honor to be here marking the delivery of these planes…to America’s closest friend and ally in the region.” Earlier in the day, Carter met with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to discuss growing U.S.-Israel defense cooperation on missile defense,
counter-tunneling, cybersecurity and intelligence sharing.
U.S. Air National Guard played a critical role in providing aerial refueling support for Israel’s first two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as they made their way from the United States to Israel. The 618th Air Operations Center in Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, planned and directed the delivery, providing command and control for the KC-135 tanker aircraft—piloted by Air National Guardsmen from Tennessee, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania—that refueled the F-35 planes. “It is an honor to help ensure the delivery of F-35s to a valued ally,” said Gen. Carlton Everhart, the Air Mobility Command commander. “Aerial refueling missions enable global reach for the United States and partner nations. Air Mobility Command Airmen and aircraft enable global effects and create bridges of support for partner nations on a daily basis.”
30 Lockheed Martin specialists and three U.S. Air Force representatives will remain indefinitely at Israel’s Nevatim Air Force Base to assist the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) acquisition of the F-35 aircraft. The U.S. personnel will help with routine operations, maintenance and adaption to new software updates as they come online. Mike Rein, Lockheed Martin F-35 communications director, noted the unprecedented cooperation with Israel: “We’re working very closely with them…Over time, as they go through the process and learn more about this fifth-generation fighter, they will get to a point where we will downsize our in-country representation. But even once they’ve reached that point, we won’t go away. We’re contracted to provide back-shop support for the long term.”
On Dec. 13, Israeli pilots flew their country’s first two F-35 fighter jets for a test flight over Nevatim Air Base. The state-of-the-art plane is poised to become a central pillar of Israel’s air strategy, a senior air force official told reporters last month. The F-35 program incorporates multiple Israeli technologies and contributions, including wing production, the helmet-mounted display and fuselage components.