TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Israel's air force is preparing to receive the first of 19 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which will become its strategic spearhead, and 30 Italian M-346 advanced trainers for a new generation of pilots who will one day fly the U.S. stealth jet.
The F-35s, which Lockheed Martin is developing with Northrop Grumman Corp. and Britain's BAE Systems, aren't expected to be delivered until 2016 but the Israeli air force needs to build an entire infrastructure to maintain the jets once they're operational.
That includes selecting a base from which the first squadron will operate and constructing hardened shelters, underground pens and maintenance facilities.
Israel signed a $2.75 billion contract for the original order of 19 F-35s in October 2010 and the air force is keen to order jets for a second squadron. Ultimately, the air force wants least 75 F-35s -- costing up to $15.2 billion -- to maintain its long-held air supremacy in the Middle East over the next two decades.
It's not hard to see why.
Over the next few years, the air force's main strike jets, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons and Boeing F-15 Eagles, some of which have been operational for three decades, will be become obsolete. The Israeli air force currently flies 27 F-15I "Raam" Strike Eagles and 102 F-16I "Sufa" fighters as its high-end strike force.
These are supported by 72 F-15A-D Eagles and 224 F-16A-D Fighting Falcons, which form the backbone of the air force, making Israel the second largest F-16 operator after the United States.
The multi-role F-35s, with their advanced power plants, radars, missile systems and avionics, will replace these older jets but won't enlarge the air force.
The Israelis' enthusiasm for the F-35 has been tempered by repeated development program failures and cost-overruns that have delayed production schedules at Lockheed Martin and cast doubts on delivery dates.
And the cost per aircraft keeps rising. The Pentagon's original estimate of $395.7 billion to develop and produce 2,443 F-35s through the mid-2030s is 70 percent up on the initial contract with Lockheed Martin signed in 2001.
"It's unbelievable," a senior Israeli officer told Defense News. "First it was $40 million to $50 million per plane and then they told us $70 million to $80 million. Now we're looking at nearly three times that amount and who's to say it won't continue to climb?"
Israel's defense industry could reap major contracts under a reported agreement by the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin to install Israeli-made electronic warfare systems in the F-35I, the designation of the Israeli versions of the JSF.
Sources familiar with the negotiations say the program is worth $450 million to Israeli defense contractors for the first batch of F-35s.
Israel has been pressing the Pentagon and Lockheed to allow them to install Israeli electronic equipment, including electronic countermeasures, command systems, radios and datalinks, to integrate Israeli-made weapons systems into the F-35s it buys.
The Israelis usually insist on that and got their way with their fleets of F-15Is and F-16Is but on this project, with various versions of the F-35 due to equip the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, the Americans have been more reluctant than usual to give Israel access to the F-35's software code that's required to integrate non-U.S. systems.
"Based on the order options it has committed to, Israel is expecting to share about $1 billion worth of buyback related to the F-35 program," Defense Update magazine reported.
"The system integration deal ... will allow an increased participation by Israeli industries in the JSF program."
Among the companies likely to benefit are state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries which will build wings for the aircraft. Another is Elrisa, a subsidiary of the leading electronic equipment manufacturer Elbit Systems, the air force's main electronic warfare systems supplier.
Meantime, the air force is getting ready to absorb the 30 Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master combat trainers acquired under a $1 billion deal in 2012. These will replace the air force's venerable Douglas A-4 Skyhawks acquired in the 1970s. The first nine M346s are scheduled to arrive in summer 2014.
"It's still not clear whether 30 aircraft will be enough to train all the combat pilots we want to train," a senior air force officer noted.