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Israel Seeks Changes To Its F-35 Version

The F-35I will come with its own unique maintenance hub, weapons, communications systems and even cyberdefenses.

At the core of the Joint Strike Fighter program is the idea of a common airframe, built and developed jointly by the U.S. and eight partner nations, and operated by 12 militaries around the globe.

But if Tel Aviv gets its way, Israel’s F-35 will be one of a kind. The Israeli air force is seeking greater customization for its F-35I “Adir” than are other partners or international customers.

The F-35Is will employ unique communications and navigation systems, weapons and even cyberdefenses built indigenously by Israeli companies. Top Israeli officials also say it will leave the country only for combat missions—all maintenance will be done in country, rather than in predetermined regional overhaul facilities.

Officials say the push to maximize the new fleet’s autonomy is driven by the country’s geopolitical situation, which requires independence in operating and maintaining its fighter jets. In wartime, when access to seaports and airports may be cut off, Israel needs to keep its F-35s flying independently, says air force Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Tal Kelman.

“Israel is in the middle of the Middle East, and we are in daily conflict. Conflict is not a theory. We are not getting ready for a war in two or three years. We have daily operational activities with our fighter aircraft,” Kelman says. 

But customization will come at a high price for Tel Aviv. Developing and installing additional capabilities on the jets, as well as the infrastructure to maintain them, will require significant investment by the Israeli government. Ultimately, each F-35I could cost significantly more per jet than the estimated $100 million for the U.S. Air Force F-35A. The final decisions will likely hinge on negotiations over a new 10-year aid package between the U.S. and Israel, expected to conclude later this year.

Lockheed Martin is on tap to deliver 33 tailor-made aircraft to Israel, with the first two scheduled to arrive at Nevatim air base in December. The design uses Israeli-developed systems and aims for interoperability with the country’s existing defensive systems, according to Karl Sapienza, Lockheed’s director for F-35 Israel program management. The modifications focus on three initial areas: command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I); electronic warfare (EW) and weapons integration.

By customizing software for the F-35, the country is leveraging the jet’s built-in open-architecture software design, long touted by the Pentagon and Lockheed as a key capability that will keep the aircraft relevant far into the future. In effect, Israeli industry is writing “apps” for the F-35 (AW&ST April 25-May 8, p. 22). 

Once the first F-35Is arrive at Nevatim, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) will begin installing a bespoke C4I system—designed by IAI’s Lahav Division and ELTA Systems Ltd.—that will augment Lockheed’s central avionics system. This will provide the Israelis with an autonomous communications protocol interface compatible with its air and defense force legacy communications devices, says Sapienza.

EW is another potential area for customization. The F-35 is currently equipped with an active, electronically scanned array radar, as well BAE Systems’ AN/ASQ-239 EW suite, which allow the jet to suppress enemy radars and defeat surface and air threats. But Lockheed has modified the design of the jet’s installations, power and cooling to enable Israel’s air force to potentially expand spectral coverage with some kind of podded system, says Sapienza.

Israel’s Elisra, an Elbit subsidiary, is eyeing the additional F-35I EW requirement, according to Elbit Systems of America President and CEO Raanan Horowitz.

As for arms, the Israeli air force and state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems have been working with Lockheed to adapt the Spice 1000 Electro-Optical/GPS-guided air-to-ground weapon, installed on the service’s F-16s, for the new jets.

Lockheed is also working with Cyclone Ltd., a wholly owned Elbit subsidiary, on potentially outfitting the F-35I with external fuel tanks to extend its range beyond the 18,500 lb. of fuel carried internally. 

In a recent development, Israeli industry will also install custom cyberdefenses to protect the F-35I’s networks and systems from would-be hackers, Joint Program Office (JPO) Chief Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan confirms. 

Israel and F-35 manufacturer Lockheed will work to set up a firewall to make sure privileged information does not pass between the U.S. and Israeli F-35 fleets via external systems such as the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) or the offboard mission planning system, Bogdan says.

“We have got to protect our side of that, and they have to protect their side of that, to ensure that nothing we do gets into their systems and nothing they do can get into our systems,” Bogdan says.

mThe Israelis will be the first service to fully operate the F-35 outside the U.S., which will set the stage for navigating the logistics for a multiservice, international aircraft. But so far the country is alone among F-35 international partners and customers in seeking to perform heavy maintenance—work involving changes or repair to the body of the aircraft, such as replacement of a bulkhead or fixing a wing—in-country. Kelman says the air force will establish an F-35 logistics center at the Nevatim squadron headquarters.

The Israelis will have full access to Lockheed’s ALIS as well as the global sustainment enterprise’s pool of spare parts. But Israel cannot afford to lose its jets for months at a time to depot maintenance, Kelman says. The force plans to keep a minimum number of spare parts in Israel at all times for maintenance purposes, he notes.

From the get-go, the service will have all the necessary tools, training and technical data to perform lighter maintenance tasks locally, Bogdan says. But the Israeli government must invest significant resources in tooling, training and deep infrastructure to be able to perform heavy maintenance autonomously. And the process will not happen overnight—it could take as many as 15 years, he says.

The good news is that a brand-new aircraft should not need heavy maintenance for many years. And the investments will be worth the price, Kelman says. “We want to build it gradually, but we think independence is a strategic issue,” he adds.

Other F-35 customers likely will not choose to perform heavy maintenance in-country, instead opting for a Lockheed-established facility. The JPO is still determining where the hubs for each piece of the F-35 sustainment operation will be, but some decisions have already been made. For instance, Italy’s existing final assembly and checkout facility at Cameri air base in northern Italy will provide heavy airframe maintenance for Europe. Meanwhile, Turkey, Norway and the Netherlands provide Europe’s heavy engine maintenance facilities.

The JPO set up the global sustainment enterprise this way to save money across the partners and international customers, Bogdan says.

“Most of the other customers recognize that there is a synergy when they all combine together to do things and stay in one place ,that there are economies of scale,” he says. “Israel would like to be able to tap into that economy of scale, but their geopolitical situation is such that they may have to do things on their own.”

Recent press reports suggested the JPO granted Israel a formal exemption from participating in the global sustainment enterprise for heavy maintenance. But Bogdan says that characterization is a stretch, arguing that the F-35 program office aims to tailor systems to meet each customer’s individual needs.

“The F-35 is a different airplane. It is a different partnership with 14 customers for us—we are making up the rules,” Bogdan says. “Israel just happens to be a more extreme case because of where they are located in the world and what they have to do.” 

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