TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Despite deepening defense budget cuts, the Israeli air force is reported to be moving toward ordering a second squadron of 20 F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin, possibly as early as this year.
The first 20 Joint Strike Fighters were ordered in October 2010 at a cost of $2.75 billion.
Israel ultimately wants to acquire 75 F-35s, to replace Lockheed Martin's F-16I and Boeing's F-15I to form the spearhead of its strategic air power, particularly in terms of long-range strikes against Iran.
But the cost in the current budgetary climate is likely to be prohibitive, particularly as Israel's military is focused on developing a range of anti-missile defense systems to confront an anticipated massive bombardment that could go on for weeks with potentially catastrophic results.
"According to initial plans, the (air force) would place the order for the second squadron in late 2012-early 2013 and begin receiving the planes in 2020," The Jerusalem Post reported.
"It is possible, however, that the United States would attach the new squadron to the one ordered in 2010 and expedite the delivery if the order is placed soon."
Israeli pilots are to begin training on the F-35 in the United States in 2016, with the first of the fifth-generation fighters scheduled to arrive in Israel in early 2017.
If all that goes to plan, the Israeli air force could have 40 F-35s operational by the end of the decade. These are expected to operate from the Nevatim Air Base in the Negev Desert south of Tel Aviv.
The cost of buying such a number of the new aircraft, which is intended to equip nearly every tactical warplane in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps over the coming years, has triggered an intense debate within Israel's military establishment on what its future war-fighting needs will be.
Critics argue that the funds could be better spent on upgrading existing systems, such as the F-16Is and F-15Is that currently constitute the Israeli air force's strike force.
This argument has been bolstered by the plethora of problems and hefty cost overruns that have plagued the F-35s development in recent years, and have set back production at least two years.
That would delay its operational debut until sometime after 2018 -- seven years later than originally planned.
Jane's Defense Weekly recently reported that a new Pentagon technical report on the F-35 program recommended slowing U.S. acquisition of the new jet due to a "lack of confidence" in the reliability of the design.
That timeframe is one that the Israeli air force finds unacceptable. Due to these potential delays, the air force is looking at the possibility of purchasing second-hand F-15 upgrades and other platforms from the U.S. Air Force at prices far lower than brand-new F-35s.
In December, The Jerusalem Post's military expert, Yaakov Katz, reported that amid the growing concerns about delays in the F-35 deliveries, the Israeli air force has fast-tracked upgrades on its F-16 C/D variants with new avionics and combat systems.
The Post said senior Israeli officers say that additional delays could lead the Defense Ministry to consider buying new F-15 Eagles or F-16 Fighting Falcons from Lockheed Martin and Boeing to bridge the gap if the F-35 delivery dates are pushed back beyond 2017.
Even the U.S. Air Force fears that F-35 production orders will be cut back if the jet doesn't enter service quickly.
These concerns are fueled by the expectation that many U.S. F-16s, which entered production in the 1980s, will soon be too old for operational use.
The Americans are already refurbishing several hundred of their Block 40 and 50 F-16s.
In Israel, the F-35 has some heavyweight backing.
Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, the air force commander who steps down in April, supported the JSF acquisition and overcame heavy opposition to push through the 2010 order.
His successor, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, currently head of the Israeli military's Planning Directorate, is expected to press for the second squadron order when he takes over command of the air force.
"The shrinking force structure problem points us toward fewer, but more sophisticated, platforms," former air force commander and chief of the defense staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz observed recently. "The F-35 fits this trend exactly."
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