TEL AVIV, Israel, June 8 (UPI) -- Israel's military leaders are expected to give the green light to buying more of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighters to equip a second squadron when they meet this month to finalize the military's procurement plan.
The contract for as many as 20 of the fifth-generation stealth fighters is "one of the key elements" in the multiyear program, known as "Oz" -- Hebrew for "strength" -- The Jerusalem Post reported Friday.
The procurement plan, which covers the weapons other military systems Israel will need for the next decade or so, will go before the government for approval once the General Staff signs off on it.
The Israelis appear to be determined to go ahead with the long-mooted deal for a second F-35 tranche despite major setbacks in Lockheed Martin's development program.
These and cost overruns are pushing up the price of the single-engine multi-role fighter, considered the most advanced fighter in the world.
Israel ordered 20 F-35s in October 2010 at a cost of $2.75 billion, although it's unclear whether it will actually receive 20 aircraft because of the constantly rising price tag for the F-35.
First deliveries are scheduled for some time in 2017. The F-35 is intended to replace the Israeli air force's main strike jets, Lockheed Martin F-16I Sufas and Boeing F-15I Ra'ams.
Under a second contract, Israel would begin receiving those aircraft in 2020. Meantime, Israeli pilots are expected to begin training on the F-35 in the United States in 2016.
Despite the plethora of problems Lockheed Martin is facing with the F-35 program, the indications are that Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and the new air force commander, Maj. Gen. Amir Ashel, former head of the military's planning directorate, are staunch supporters of acquiring the JSF.
Eshel's predecessor air force chief. Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, whose term expired in April, was a driving force behind the initial F-35 contract despite stiff opposition from within the defense establishment amid major cuts in Israeli defense spending.
In view of the sale of 72 advanced F-15 Eagles to Saudi Arabia and the advanced aviation technologies the kingdom and other Arab states are acquiring from the United States and Europe, the Israelis see a pressing need to maintain their long-held Qualitative Military Edge, a status the Americans have pledged to maintain.
At present, the Israeli air force has 100 Sufas and 25 Raams, backed up around 185 lower-performance F-16s and F-15s.
The Sufas and Raams are the air force's strike spearhead and would carry out any long-range strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities that the Israeli government has threatened to unleash.
The F-35s would take over that mission once they become operational with the Israeli air force.
"The second contract would likely be for a similar number of aircraft and could mean -- depending on when the second deal is signed -- that the Israeli air force could have 40 operational aircraft by the end of the decade," the Post's military editor, Yaakov Katz, reported.
Whether the price tag, around $113 million per aircraft, would remain the same is questionable, given the problems the F-35 program has had over the last few years.
"Senate questions over the quality of production of the F-35 will compound the mounting woes of the $396 billion Pentagon program, which has already been restructured three times in recent years to extend the development phase and slow production," Katz observed.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee questioned the quality of production of the aircraft, citing a "potentially serious issue" with its electronic warfare capabilities.
"The committee is concerned about production quality and whether it is sufficient to ensure the delivery of JSF aircraft to the United States and its allies at an affordable price," the committed declared in a report.
Senior Israeli officers have voiced concerns about the continuing F-35 delays, which some say could push the military to consider possible alternatives, such as new F-15 Eagles or F-15 Fighting Falcons to bridge the gap if the first JSF deliveries are pushed back beyond 2017.
Even the U.S. Air Force fears that F-35 production orders will be cut back of the aircraft doesn't enter service soon.
The Americans are already upgrading several hundred of their Block 40/50 F-16s as a stopgap.