TEL AVIV, Israel, Aug. 9 (UPI) -- The Israeli air force reportedly plans to buy another 20 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters under a multiyear procurement plan under review by military chiefs.
Last October, Israel purchased 20 of the stealth jets, considered the most advanced combat aircraft in existence, for $2.75 billion.
If the second tranche is approved, amid competing demands for such big-ticket weapons as more warships and missile defense systems, Israel could have 40 F-35s operational by the end of the decade, depending on when contract for the second batch is signed.
That would allow Israel's air force, the most powerful in the region, to maintain its supremacy at a time when Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are upgrading their air power with massive arms deals with the United States, largely to counter an expansionist Iran.
Even Iraq, striving to rebuild its military forces as U.S. troops withdraw from the country eight years after invading, announced July 30 it plans to buy 36 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 52 interceptor jets.
That deal, double the number of aircraft that Baghdad had initially planned to order, is worth around $4.3 billion, with deliveries expected to begin 2013.
The Jerusalem Post, reporting the anticipated F-35 order by the Israel air force, observed that the Iraqi F-16 program "raised some eyebrows in Israel."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared that Baghdad's acquisition of the F-16s is purely for self-defense, although how far that goes to easing the concerns of Iraq's neighbors who were twice invaded by Saddam Hussein's forces between 1980 and 1990 is questionable.
Israel appears determined to acquire as many F-35s as it can, as quickly as it can, amid unremitting hostility with Iran as it allegedly seeks to acquire nuclear weapons while building the ballistic missiles to carry them.
The Israeli air force's strike capability as it is currently constituted consists of 324 F-16s and 87 Boeing F-15s, spearheaded by 25 F-15I Ra'am and 101 F-16I Sufa models custom-built to Israeli specifications.
Apart from the F-35's radar-evading capabilities, the uniqueness of the fifth-generation fighter lies in its integrated sensor suite that gives pilots unprecedented situational awareness and information-sharing between aircraft.
The air force plans to send pilots to the United States for F-35 training in 2016, about the time that the U.S. Air Force will be receiving the stealth fighter.
"This way, when the planes are delivered to Israel later that year or at the beginning of 2017, the (Israeli air force) will be able to use them fairly quickly in operations," Post military correspondent Yaakov Katz reported.
Two Israeli air force officers have been sent to the United States to work with the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin on integrating Israeli technology into the aircraft.
The F-35 program has been plagued by problems and cost overruns and development has been put back by two years, which has dismayed the Israelis as they face off with Iran.
Under the 2010 deal, the Israeli air force expected to start taking delivery of the first 20 aircraft, powered by Pratt and Whitney's F135 engine, by 2015. But that's not now likely to happen until 2017 because of the program setbacks.
If there's further slippage on delivery, the Israelis have said they might consider buying additional Boeing F-15Is as a stopgap to maintain operational air strength.
That prospect appeared to gain credence with reports Saturday that F-35 flight testing has been suspended for the third time in the last year after an integrated power package, which provides power to start the engine and generates cooling for the aircraft, failed during a ground test.
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the tribulations of the F-35 is reawakening Israeli memories of the ill-fated Lavi fighter, a delta-wing combat jet designed by state-owned Israel Aircraft Industries, now Israel Aerospace Industries.
The prestigious, cutting-edge project, aimed at producing Israel's first indigenous fighter, crashed after the Americans, who were putting up 40 percent of the funding, decided they weren't prepared to finance a project that would compete with the emergent F-16.
Lavi was canceled by Israel's government Aug. 30, 1987. It was a major blow for the country's defense industry but the technological advances achieved helped catapult IAI and other companies into the high-tech age.
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