TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Israel is pressing the U.S. administration to clinch a deal for up to 75 F-35 Stealth fighters but Lockheed Martin wants to sell the fifth-generation fighter to Arabs as well.
Lockheed Vice President Patrick Dewar was even at the Bahrain air show in January touting the Joint Strike Fighter that is being developed with foreign partners Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey.
The Americans may find that something of an uphill struggle because it's not likely that the version offered to Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies will include the state-of-the art weapons systems the Israelis will get. That's how it's always been.
The Israelis are complaining to Washington that advanced weaponry pledged to the Gulf Arab states by the Bush administration in mid-2007 to bolster the alliance against Iran will erode the Jewish state's qualitative edge over its Arab adversaries to an unacceptable degree.
U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, recently observed that the United Arab Emirates' air force, probably the strongest in the Gulf, is capable of defeating Iran's air force all on its own.
Given the perilous state of Iran's air power, saddled with obsolete American jets purchased by the shah in the 1970s and weakened by international arms embargoes, that wouldn't be much of an achievement.
However, that kind of Arab firepower makes the Israelis uneasy, particularly at a time when the Jewish state is facing stern international security because of its military actions and when it is facing Iranian ballistic missiles that it fears may soon have nuclear warheads.
Indeed, it is because of the deepening concern in Israel over Iran's lengthening reach that it is so determined to get its hands on the F-35.
The strike jet would be the best available to carry out long-range pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
Israeli intelligence officials say they believe Iran will be able to manufacture nuclear weapons between 2012 and 2014, unless U.S.-led economic sanctions prevent that.
Given that sanctions usually take a long time to have any effect, the Israelis aren't putting too much faith in such measures to curb Iranian ambitions anytime soon.
The F-35 is far superior to the Boeing F-15I and Lockheed Martin F-16I strike aircraft that are the Israeli air force's top-of-the-line combat jets. So the sooner they have the F-35, in sufficient numbers to be able to deliver powerful attacks on Iran's nuclear installations, the better.
The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin are keen to finalize a deal. Dewar said in Bahrain that Israel was looking for "somewhere between 75 and 100 jets."
Israeli officials have said the air force wants to acquire an initial batch of 25 of the single-engine aircraft -- enough for one squadron -- in fiscal 2012, with an option on 50 more.
Last year, four of the Israeli air force's top pilots visited the F-35 simulator in Fort Worth, Texas, and, according to the daily Haaretz, "returned singing the aircraft's praises."
There are two sticking points. First, the Israelis want to pack the F-35 with their own electronic warfare systems, as they did with the custom-built F-15I and F-16I aircraft they bought from Boeing and Lockheed Martin years ago.
The Americans have balked at this but, in November, offered to cut the Israelis slack if they concluded a deal within a few months.
So far that has not happened, in part because of the second sticking point: the price.
In 2008, the price tag per plane was around $200 million. Lockheed Martin says the final price will likely be considerably lower. Israel is looking at around $100 million per jet. A compromise of $130 million is possible.
The Americans want Israel to make a deal by March and sign a contract within the year to begin taking delivery of the first F-35s in 2015.
However, in recent months a new player has come on the scene: Boeing is touting an upgraded version of its F-15 Eagle with enhanced stealth capabilities. It says it can start delivering in 2011 at a cost of $100 million per jet, significantly undercutting Lockheed Martin.
As far as is known, the Israelis have not formally responded on that. But the price and delivery dates fit in with their operational needs more than the F-35 and that might swing a deal Boeing's way.
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