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Israel gets ready for F-35s and KC-135s

  |   June 10, 2013 at 1:03 PM
TEL AVIV, Israel, June 10 (UPI) -- Israel's air force is getting ready to absorb its first squadron of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the combat jet that will assure the country's aerial supremacy for years to come.

But it's getting other U.S. aircraft as well as part of the $100 billion Middle Eastern arms deal announced by the Pentagon in February.

These include Boeing KC-135 aerial tankers that will greatly extend Israel's strategic reach.

No number has been specified, but expanding Israel's in-flight refueling capacity, potentially doubling it, greatly enhances its prospects in mounting preventive airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

The air force is also getting as many as 30 Italian-built M-346 Master advanced jet trainers as part of a $1 billion contract signed in early 2012 with Alenia Aermacchi.

These will replace the air force's venerable Vietnam-era Douglas A-4 Skyhawks. At one time the air force had 200 of the agile jets that saw combat in several Middle Eastern wars.

The first nine M-346s are slated to arrive in mid-2014, with all delivered by 2015. The jets will be based at the Hazerim flying school near Beersheba in the southern Negev Desert.

The first of 20 multirole, single-engine F-35s ordered by Israel in October 2010 at a cost of $2.75 billion are scheduled to arrive in 2016 at the earliest, but the air force is already setting up a new infrastructure to absorb the stealth jets.

The first F-35 squadron is expected to be deployed at the sprawling Nevatim airbase in the Negev, which already holds two F-16 squadrons and one operating Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports.

Israel's military plans to move "significant resources into southern Israel," The Jerusalem Post recently reported in what is seen as a strategic dispersal blueprint amid concerns of a sustained missile bombardment by Iran and its Middle Eastern allies in a future conflict.

The Israeli business daily Globes recently reported new bomb-proof underground pens for the fifth-generation jets are being built to accommodate the F-35s along with special testing installations that minimize the noise of the jets' Pratt & Whitney F125 engines.

The Israeli government has approved the acquisition of a second batch of 20 F-35s despite the plethora of problems and setbacks that continue to plague Lockheed Martin's development program.

Ultimately, the Israeli air force wants 75 F-35s. These will replace Lockheed Martin's F-16I Sufas and Boeing's F-15 Ra'ams as the air force's strategic strike force.

The air force currently has 100 Sufas and 25 Ra'ams, backed by about 185 lower performance F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles.

If all goes according to plan, the air force will have 40 F-35s operational by the end of the decade.

The F-35 acquisition is critical for the Israelis if they are to maintain their long-held technological military advantage in the Middle East.

"A substantial portion of Israel's air power is based on an array of aircraft that will become obsolete in the next few years," Globes defense expert Yuval Azulai observed.

"Many of the F-16s and F-15s have served the air force for more than three decades."

The U.S. arms package announced in February, which also includes advanced weapons for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to counter the Iranian threat, will extend the Israeli air force's acquisition of U.S.-produced weapons systems and complement the F-35 purchases.

"The arms deal is particularly interesting in light of what is appropriated for Israel: aerial refueling tankers," the U.S. global security consulting firm Stratfor observed.

To hit multiple nuclear targets in Iran, Israeli strike jets would need to fly more than 1,550 miles, which would require in-flight refueling.

The 10 Boeing KC-707 tankers -- converted airliners -- and Lockheed 130Hs, which are converted Hercules transports, Israel currently possesses would not support the number of strike jets required.

That would mean the Israelis "would be operating at the margins in terms of risk and reserve capacity," Stratfor noted.

The KC-135 Stratotankers "will enable Israel to deploy more fighter aircraft in any strike against Iran. ... Broadly speaking, a single KC135 could theoretically support anywhere from four to eight Israeli aircraft in a strike against Iran."

But, like the F-35s, it may take a few years for Israel to get these aircraft, and it's possible Israel will have to deal with the Iranian threat much sooner than that.

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