Stealth F-35s and the projection of imperial power by Israel

In January 2020, Israel acquired its second squadron of F-35 joint strike fighters from Maryland based aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. This latest purchase brings the total number of planes bought by Israel from Lockheed Martin to fifty (while authorized by the US to purchase up to 75), the latest of which are expected to be delivered through 2024. 

The F-35 has faced years of delays, costing U.S. taxpayers over $1 trillion in sustainment costs. Already in 2011—a year after Yehud Barak approved Israel’s purchase of the planes—a Stratfor analyst described the F-35s in a leaked email as “literally the most expensive military venture since the great wall of China.”

An F-35 Adir. Photo: Israeli Air Force.

In several of its most recent reports, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that Lockheed Martin has still not resolved major issues with the plane. Some of the critical issues include a scarcity of spare parts, malfunctioning helmets and oxygen monitors, and flaws in the plane’s stealth capabilities.

In 2018, the GAO recommended that Congress withhold funding from F-35 development until “critical aircraft deficiencies” were resolved. Still, in November 2019, the GAO stated, “F-35 performance has not met warfighter requirements.”

Lockheed Martin does not typically allow purchasing countries to modify its planes, but a notable exception was made for Israel. Israeli modifications to the F-35—the modified version of which is called F-35 “Adir”—include a specialized helmet display developed by Israeli military contractor Elbit Systems in partnership with Rockwell Collins, a data link modification that would share sensor information with friendly forces, and radar-jamming pods developed by Elbit and Israeli Aerospace Industries. 

The F-35’s stealth capability is reduced when the plane carries missiles on its wings, such as the Python-5 and the SPICE glidebombs developed by Israeli company Rafael Defense Systems. So, Israel Aerospace Industries has been developing wings that would allow the planes to carry missiles and still remain relatively undetectable by radar—though this capability may be made obsolete with the introduction of quantum radar. 

The IDF is also preparing the upgraded F-35 for cyber-conflict—recalling Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2015 on Chinese hacking of the fighter planes. Cybersecurity for the F-35 Adirs was developed under the F-35’s Chief Engineer and Lead Developer, Idan Nadav.

An agreement signed under Obama in 2016 guarantees Israel a ten-year aid package of $3.8 billion per year as part of the U.S. Foreign Military Financing Budget (FMF). Israeli military development makes up over 50 percent of Washington’s FMF budget globally.

“This move is symptomatic of the cozy political and military relationship between Israel and the US. It is a relationship that all too often has provided political cover for the Israeli government’s aggressive foreign policy and the continued oppression of Palestinians,” wrote Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade in an email to Toward Freedom. “It suggests that the military strategies will remain closely integrated going forward—this doesn’t just spell danger for Palestinians, it also increases the likelihood of further instability and regional hostilities with Iran.”

Lobbying for increases in U.S. military aid to Israel, including the F-35 budget, has long been driven by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In March 2019, AIPAC’s CEO Howard Kohr testified to the U.S. House of Representatives, describing Israel as “an anchor of stability” in the Middle East, referring to “Iran’s unceasing aggression.”

Increasing U.S. funding for the Israeli military, according to Kohr, “saves U.S. taxpayer money by helping prevent more costly wars, crises and disasters.” Lockheed Martin in turn stated that the company was “proud to support Israel and the IAF with the F-35, the world’s most advanced aircraft that provides unmatched capabilities to enable allies to secure peace around the world.” 

Regarding strategies for people in the US to oppose the military aid provided to Israel through the FMF, “It’s much easier to convince other Americans to stop getting aid to Israel than it is to convince them to stop selling the product full-price,” said Shir Hever, economic researcher and author of The Privatization of Israeli Security, in an interview with Toward Freedom.

Hever also indicated that Israeli acquisition of the F-35s may act as a “major strategy for the Pentagon for selling to NATO members,” referring to the pressure on Eastern European countries that would have adapt to US military standards should they join NATO. 

Beating the War Drum  

According to the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture report, the F-35 was designed to play an essential role in NATO air-forces, setting the standard with its nuclear capability for NATO’s “deterrence strategy.” The report also emphasized the ongoing upgrades to the B61 nuclear bomb, which would be carried by the F-35s. 

At least symbolically, the F-35s serve the perception of a continued “existential threat” against Israel. The F-35 Adirs are considered part of Israel’s Momentum missile defense plan, which was announced in October 2019. Referring to the Momentum Plan, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi stated Israel “has been in an accelerated process of preparation”. 

In January of this year, shortly after his re-election, Netanyahu inadvertently called Israel a “nuclear power,” breaking the Israeli administration’s stringent policy of ambiguity around the IDF’s nuclear capacity that it has historically maintained. Israel has continuously deflected the UN’s attention to its nuclear capacity through its Ambassador to the Israel Atomic Energy Agency, and is still one of the few countries that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), alongside India, Pakistan, and South Sudan (North Korea withdrew in 2003). 

The U.S. Congress and the CIA have known about Israeli nuclear weapons development for decades, which was heavily aided in its early years by the French Atomic Energy Commission and the French government who, according to Shimon Peres, were “already taking a great risk violating the Western arms embargo to sell us weapons in secret.” 

In partnership with Lockheed Martin, Israel has been developing a maintenance centre and training base for the F-35s in its Nevatim Air Base in the Negev, one of the airbases and storage facilities that have been suggested by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to be part of Israel’s military nuclear infrastructure. Other suspected infrastructure for Israel’s nuclear arsenal includes the Sdot Micha airbase, which stores the ground-based Jericho nuclear missiles, as well as the Tirosh storage facility near the Tel Nof military airbase at Rehovot, and the Eilabun storage facility. 

When the IDF acquired its first F-35s in December 2016, it seemed unlikely that the jets would immediately be used against Iran as there was no way for the IAF to fly to Iran and back without refueling. However, the U.S. State Department approved in early March Israel’s potential purchase of up to eight of Boeing’s Pegasus refueling tankers, which technically makes a roundtrip possible. According to a March 3 statement by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the sale would allow “Israel to provide a redundant capability to U.S. assets within the region, potentially freeing U.S. assets for use elsewhere during times of war.”

Contradictory rhetoric around Israeli militarism and one-sided “peace initiatives” are tightly woven into Israel’s posturing against Iran. Iran has been under growing pressure by the International Atomic Energy Association to access three presumed nuclear development sites.

Following Israel’s Blue Flag military exercises with the F-15, F-16 and F-35 jets in November 2019, The Atlantic claimed in a headline that “Israel is preparing for open war with Iran.” The New York Times reported that Iran’s “growing stockpile of nuclear fuel recently crossed a critical threshold.” 

This pressure is part of a long continuity between US and Israeli rhetoric. In a keynote address at the Saban Forum in 2015, in the months following the Iran Nuclear Deal, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton described “Israel’s pursuit of peace as inspiring as its prowess in war.” In response to an audience question on the potential for Iran to “violate the deal”, Clinton claimed “the nuclear option should not at all be taken off the table.” She was immediately corrected by the audience to say “the military option,” not the nuclear option.

In a 2017 meeting with Trump, Netanyahu referred to “Iran’s terrorist regime” and called for an end to “militant Islam”, while promoting a militant Jewish state. And while the “unbreakable partnership” of Israel and the U.S. incites war and regime change in Iran under the pretext of Iran’s nuclear weapons development, Israel maintains impunity and a lack of binding accountability to the IAEA as the only country in the Middle East to avoid serious accountability for its own nuclear proliferation.  

In an email to Toward Freedom, Boycott from Within—an association of Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens supporting BDS—stated that the U.S. Arms Export Control Act prohibits U.S. weapons from being used for non-defensive purposes. “Israel’s acquisition of F-35s and other hi-tech weapons serves for the projection of power in the Middle East, and certainly not for the cause of democracy and human rights.”

This article is the first in a series on the impacts of the F-35 fighter jets in the US and around the world.

Author Bio

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal, Canada). Her journalism has been published in Canadian Dimension, Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op. She has also published poetry and prose in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal.