TEL AVIV, Israel, April 12 (UPI) -- Israel's air force, the country's strategic spearhead that will carry out any pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear network, is undergoing a technological revolution, military officials report.
But the centerpiece of this program is Lockheed Martin's problem-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The development program has been repeatedly delayed because of technical hitches and cost overruns, and there are fears in Israeli military circles the stealth jet may reach the air force too late to cope with the challenges Israel can expect over the next decade.
Israel has ordered 20 F-35s configured for its requirements and including some Israeli-made systems, under a $2.75 billion contract signed in October 2010.
That's enough for one squadron. Israel wants at least 55 to form a complete F-35 group that potentially will be the air force's most destructive combat unit, and has been given Pentagon clearance to acquire them.
The aircraft, for now the world's only fifth-generation fighter, is intended to ensure Israel's military supremacy in the Middle East, underwritten by the United States, through the first quarter of the century.
The Jerusalem Post reports that the technological revolution is based on creating a "digital network in the skies" that integrates strike jets, electronic warfare aircraft, in-flight refueling tankers and helicopters into a multitude of real-time data sources that include ground forces, the navy and the intelligence services.
It's called network-centric warfare, and the program's run by the air force's Information Communication Technology branch.
This will give combat pilots an unprecedented view of the battlespace and allow their controllers to direct a variety of combat platforms to the most important strategic and tactical targets.
"We can communicate directly with other platforms," a senior air force officer told the Post. "This acts as a force multiplier...
"It's like a pack of leopards on a hunt. They work together in a network, not as individuals."
The source noted that this move toward wiring the air force into a single digital network was a primary reason for selecting the F-35. The Israeli version is known as the F-35I.
"The F-35I was chosen not because it was the fastest, or because it can carry the most munitions, but because of its network capabilities," the senior officer explained.
"All of the information is available to it. It knows what threatens it, its situation at any given moment, and the status of fellow aircraft. It's a network entity."
But the JSF's troubled development program seems to stumble from technical hitch to another, and remains a worry for the air force planners.
In February, the Pentagon grounded the JSF after a routine inspection uncovered a cracked turbine blade in a testbed F-35A, the U.S. Air Force version, at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
"The F-35's a huge problem because of its growing, already unaffordable, cost and its gigantically disappointing performance," said Winslow Wheeler of the watchdog Project on Government Oversight.
"That performance would be unacceptable even if the aircraft met its far-too-modest requirements, which it's not."
The Pentagon said it's working on the problem with Pratt & Whitney, the United Technologies Corp. manufacturing the F-35 engine, and Lockheed.
The F-35 project, at an estimated cost of nearly $400 billion, is by far the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program.
The Pentagon plans to buy 2,443 of the highly maneuverable single-engine jets for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Israel and other foreign states will buy 600.
Some members of Congress are complaining about the aircraft's growing price tag, currently running at $96 million per aircraft for Israel, well above the original figure.
However, Israel's defense sector will produce some of the F-35I's components; Israel Aerospace Industries some wing parts, Elbit Systems airframe parts and pilots' helmet-mounted display units.
The air force had expected to take delivery of its first F-35s in 2015.
But Steve O'Brien, Lockheed's vice president for F-35 business development, said during a recent visit to Israel the jets will be handed over to Israeli pilots at Eglin Air Base, Fla., in the second half of 2016.
They'll return to Israel in early 2017 after training.
That may be later than the Israelis would like, but O'Brien assured them: "You have one of the most advanced air forces in the world. When the F-35s arrive to join your fleet, you'll reach another level altogether."