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Funding woes hamper Israeli air upgrades

Sept. 13, 2010 at 1:40 PM   |   Comments

TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Budgetary constraints and the planned purchase of 20 Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters for $2.75 billion are making it difficult for the Israeli air force to upgrade its older aircraft, although an unusual solution has been proposed.

In particular, these concerns are hampering plans to phase out Israel's venerable A-4 Skyhawks acquired in 1967 and which were flown in several wars. The small jet's agility and versatility, along with its ability to take heavy damage in combat made it a much-loved aircraft among Israeli pilots.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the air force is in the final stages of submitting an Official Request for Information for two training aircraft -- the supersonic T-50 Golden Eagle built by South Korea's Korean Aerospace Industries and Lockheed Martin, and the transonic M-346 produced by Alenia Aermacchi of Italy.

The initial order of 20-30 training jets marks the first time in 40 years that the Israeli air force is considering buying jet aircraft not manufactured in the United States.

The T-50 offers the highest potential performance of the two as it can function as an "F-16 Lite." A T-50 with a light ground attack capabilities would be an added bonus for the Israelis.

The South Korean single-engine jet is considered to be one of the best training aircraft in the world. The Israeli air force sent a team to KAI headquarters in Sacheon in 2009 to test-fly and evaluate the T-50 but hasn't disclosed the results.

The performance profile and ordnance-carry capability of the M-346, similar to the Russian Yak-130, "in a pinch is probably the closest to the Skyhawk's," Defense Industry Daily noted.

The Jerusalem Post reported that closure of the trainer deal has been delayed because of budgetary problems, particularly the pending F-35 deal approved by Defense Minister Ehud Barak in August.

"Therefore, instead of paying for the aircraft, the defense ministry has decided to go with a proposal from Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries which will purchase the trainers and subsequently lease flight hours to the (air force)," the newspaper noted.

The air force decided in October 2008 to retire its 200-plus A-4s. A senior officer explained: "The plane's old and we're discovering problems.

"Because of its age we're finding ourselves investing a lot of attention and resources and therefore we've started the process of searching for a new plane to replace the Skyhawk."

Many of the jets were already in storage, and some have been sold to private operators. The air force maintains 102 Squadron, known as the "Flying Tigers," at Hatzerim airbase equipped with A-4Ns and two-seat TA-4Js for advanced fighter training.

The A-4 was superseded as a front-line ground attack fighter with the advent of Lockheed Martin's F-16 Fighting Falcon, a multirole aircraft originally developed by General Dynamics in the 1980s.

In the late 1960s and 'srael70s, the Skyhawk was the Israeli air force's primary ground-attack jet. It saw heavy combat in the 1967-70 War of Attrition with Egypt, a limited conflict that was spawned by the Israeli victory in the Six Day War of June 1967.

Skyhawks were heavily used in the October 1973 war when Israel fought off surprise attacks by Egypt and Syria and were nearly overwhelmed. The air force suffered heavy losses: of 102 aircraft lost, mainly to surface-to-air missiles, 53 were A-4s.

In one dogfight, an Israeli Skyhawk found itself fighting three Egyptian MiG-21s. The highly maneuverable A-4 downed two of them, even though it wasn't designed for air-to-air combat, while an Israeli Mirage III blasted the remaining MiG.

The Skyhawks were being phased out when Israel invaded Lebanon June 6, 1982, while the F-16 was entering service in sizable numbers. But some A-4s were sent into combat.

Skyhawks were engaged in one of the biggest air battles of modern times between the Israelis and the Syrian air force June 6-11, 1982, in which 150 aircraft took part. Israeli pilots shot down 44 Syrian jets, mostly MiG-21s and MiG-23s, and destroyed 17 Syrian air-defense missile batteries for the loss of two of their own fixed-wing aircraft.

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