Israel Says Its F-35Is Have Flown Strikes As The Drumbeat For War With Iran Gets Louder

The head of the Israeli Air Force made the rare public announcement at a conference, which comes after numerous rumors about the jet's combat debut.

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Israel says that its first F-35 squadron is already conducting operations, including at least two combat missions, in an unusual public acknowledgment about sensitive military activities. The disclosure shows that the Israeli Air Force continues to be at the forefront of aerial warfare developments, may help explain a number of odd recent reports about incidents near or over Syria, and is likely a message aimed in large part at Iran and its regional proxies.

Israeli Air Force (IAF) commander Major General Amikam Norkin made the announcement among other updates about his service at the opening of the country’s International Air Force Commander Convention, which is hosting air force personnel from around the world, on May 22, 2018. The IAF chief used a picture of F-35s, which Israel calls the Adir, or “mighty,” flying over the Lebanese capital Beirut as a backdrop. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refused to release a copy of that image to the press, according to The Times of Israel.

“We performed the F-35's first ever operational strike. The IAF is a pioneer and a world leader in operating air power,” Norkin declared. “You know that we just won the Eurovision with the song ‘Toy.’ Well, the F-35 is not a toy,” the general officer added, referring to Israeli singer Netta Barzilai’s winning entry in the latest iteration of the annual musical competition.

Norkin did not say when or where the two combat missions had occurred, what types of munitions the aircraft had employed, or what the specific objectives of those sorties might have been. He did, however, make clear that the stealthy jets did not take part in a massive Israeli retaliatory strike against Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria on May 10, 2018.

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An Israeli F-35I Adir refuels from a US Air Force tanker during its flight to Israel in 2016.

Israel declared initial operational capability with the F-35I in December 2017. At that time, 140 Squadron, the country’s sole unit flying the aircraft had nine Joint Strike Fighters. Another six were scheduled to arrive at an unspecified time in 2018.

With the exception of the first two aircraft, all of Israel’s jets reportedly have versions of the Block 3F software package, which would give the aircraft the ability to employ both GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Paveway-series laser-guided bombs from its internal weapons bays while maintaining its full stealth characteristics. The U.S. Air Force has also cleared the GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb on its F-35As, which are similar to the F-35I.

In addition, the Israelis have also secured the unique rights from the manufacturer Lockheed Martin to modify and add additional code into the aircraft’s mission computer, which may have allowed them to integrate other weapons on the aircraft. The F-35s could also have help direct stand-off strikes by non-stealthy aircraft.

With its low-observable features, the F-35 would be better suited to penetrating through dense, integrated air defense networks, such as those in Syria, to get close enough to its targets to engage with precision-guided bombs. Whatever the case, the F-35Is conducting strikes is a major milestone for the IAF, as well as the international Joint Strike Fighter program, which has and continues to suffer delays, development difficulties, manufacturing issues, and more.

For Israel specifically, being the first of the nearly 12 current or future F-35 operators to use the jet in combat reinforces its position as a major aerial power, as Norkin noted. The announcement is well in line with the country’s other previous air combat milestones.

Notably, in 1979, Israel was the first country to achieve an air-to-air kill with an American-made F-15 Eagle fighter jet and the IAF subsequently became the first to truly realize that aircraft’s potential as a long-range strike platform, which you can read about in more detail here. The Israelis have also been leaders in expanding the capabilities of the F-16 Viper platform, having been the first to use that aircraft in combat in 1981, as well. The country has been at the forefront of development of advanced air-launched stand-off munitions, too.

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An Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra'am multi-role combat jet.

As such, that the Israelis are employing their F-35s in combat is not particularly surprising and may be part of the reason for an increasing number of curious rumors and other reports about the country’s aerial activities over Syria. It seems relatively clear that reported Adir operations in October 2017 and March 2018 were spurious.

In March 2018, FlightGlobal did report, citing unnamed sources, that the F-35Is had gone into combat the month before, but said at that time that Major General Norkin had classified all information about the type’s activities. If true, this may mean the Adirs were involved in the response to an Iranian drone that penetrated Israeli airspace from Syria and was reportedly on armed and on its way to carry out a strike of its own.

AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a piece of an Iranian drone, which Israel says was on its way to carry out a strike, during a press conference in February 2018.

That incident led to a flurry of activity in which Syrian air defenders managed to shoot down an F-16I Sufa multi-role fighter jet and damage an F-15. Israel has routinely targeted Syria’s surface-to-air missile systems that engage its aircraft over the country and may have decided under the circumstances to commit the low-observable Adirs given the apparent danger to its non-stealthy combat jets. It may have also been a turning point in deciding to employ the aircraft on a more regular basis given the apparent change in the severity of the threat to non-stealthy aircraft.

Then, on the night of April 16-17, 2018, Syria initially claimed there had been another Israeli strike, before saying that the incident had actually been a false alarm. Russian sources subsequently accused the United States and Israel of launching an unspecified electronic warfare or cyberattack to confuse Syrian air defenders.

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An Israeli F-16I Sufa multi-role fighter jet.

Though it would seem odd for such an operation to not include a kinetic strike, it could have been an intelligence or reconnaissance mission or some other sortie to probe the country’s defense networks. This may have been an instance of the F-35Is using their powerful array of electronic warfare surveillance systems to scoop up data on enemy radars and other air defense nodes.

A rumor also emerged that Israeli F-15s had used American callsigns and transponder codes to mask their approach and sneak in and out of Syria largely undetected during another major series of strikes on April 29, 2018. Though the IAF’s F-15s were reportedly part of that mission, the F-35Is could have helped clear, or at least prove, a safe route in and out of the country and may have been better suited to engaging the targets that were further away from the Lebanese border.

Israel regularly conducts missions into Syria via Lebanon, but typically against targets nearby, such as those in and around the Syrian capital Damascus. The April 29, 2018 operation included strikes near Aleppo, further to the north, with additional reports that the Israeli aircraft employed Small Diameter Bombs in that instance. We have no way to confirm whether local witnesses actually found the GBU-39/B in the Aleppo area or if they were from this particular strike.

It is equally possible that the IAF would have been unwilling to send the highly sensitive F-35Is deep into Syria in the initial combat sorties and instead used them to launch SDBs from Lebanese airspace – which would help explain the picture of the aircraft over Beirut – against targets closer to the border. Other aircraft, such as F-15s or F-16s, could have launched stand-off strikes into more high-risk areas as they have done in the past. 

Regardless, Israeli airstrikes into Syria have become increasingly pronounced in the last 18 months as the country has stepped up its campaign against Iranian interests in that country. There are only likely to continue to be more opportunities in the near future where the F-35Is can play some sort of direct or supporting role.

And Norkin’s apparent decision to declassify the F-35I’s combat debut seems in no small part to be a signal to the Iranian regime about Israel’s continued willingness and capability to use its most advanced capabilities to defend its own interests. The IAF chief’s statements are just the latest in a number of uncharacteristic disclosures that all appear in line with this over-arching message.

Lockheed Martin

One of the first F-35Is for Israel in 2016.

In March 2018, Israel officially admitted that it had launched an air strike to destroy Syria’s nascent nuclear weapons program more than a decade earlier. Though there were a number of domestic political reasons for this release, as well, the IDF was still keen to use it as an opportunity to reinforce the credibility of its threats of military action.

“The message of the attack on the reactor in 2007 is that Israel will not accept the construction of a capability that threatens the existence of the State of Israel,” IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot said in a statement at the time. “That was the message in ’81 [with the strike in Iraq]. That was the message in 2007. And that is the message to our enemies for the future.”

Ahead of the May 10, 2018 operation over Syria, Israel also publicly accused Iran of being directly responsible for a series of rocket attacks into Israeli-occupied areas of the Golan Heights, another rare statement. The IDF subsequently released a significant amount of information and imagery relating to those strikes on Iranian targets, another uncommon decision for a country that has typically refused to confirm or deny such operations occurred at all.

Major General Norkin’s reveal of the F-35I’s combat activities also comes after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a grandiose presentation of stolen data regarding Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Though the information was dated and did not indicate Iranian officials were still pursuing a nuclear weapon, the press conference seemed to never the less make the case for military action to prevent the regime in Tehran from doing so in the future.

This, of course, came right before U.S. President Donald Trump announced his administration was pulling out of the controversial multi-national deal with Iran over its nuclear activities. On May 21, 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo further outlined a dozen demands the U.S. government has for its Iranian counterparts, which would be virtually impossible for them to fulfill except under extreme duress. Again, the underlying argument there seemed to be that military action was increasingly the only choice for constraining Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East and beyond.

In addition, Norkin's use of Beirut, home base of the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, may have been an implicit threat against that group, and Iranian proxies in general. However, Lebanon's air defenses are completely unable to challenge the regular intrusions by non-stealth Israeli jets and there's no indication that the IAF would actually need the Adirs for any future operations in that country.  

And if nothing else, the announcement also coincides with the 70th anniversary of both the founding of Israel and the creation of the IAF, both of which occurred in 1948. Revealing the Adir's combat activities, no matter how limited, is clearly a major point of national pride.

Still, the idea that the F-35I flying missions over could serve as a significant tacit threat toward Iran and its regional state and non-state partners is something we at The War Zone have discussed before in the past. It also carries a number of potential risks, though.

As I wrote after IAF declared IOC with the Adirs:

“The F-35Is would offer increased protection for Israeli pilots flying these missions, even over Syria's most densely defended areas, such as around the capital Damascus. And if nothing else, sending the Adirs into Syria would provide a real world demonstration of their capabilities for both the Syrians and the Iranians, as well as Iran's other regional proxies, to see. With this in mind, we could see the jets used on an operational mission as early as tonight.

“And even though the F-35Is would be even better protected against Syrian air defenses, there is always the possibility of a lucky shot or just an accident. The Joint Strike Fighter’s low observable characteristics don’t actually render it invisible and the jets aren’t immune to normal wear and tear. During 140 Squadron’s qualification period, one of its Adirs ended up briefly grounded after a bird strike.

“The practical and political fallout from an F-35 crash over Syria would be immense, not just to Israel, but to other Joint Strike Fighter operators, including the United States. There is nothing to suggest the  Syrians wouldn’t happily share any parts of the aircraft they might recover with Iran, as well as Russia. Even if those countries were  unable to glean any significant information from their examinations, it  would be a propaganda coup for all of them.”

There is also the potential that Russia, which has so far declined to engage any Israeli aircraft flying strikes in Syria and appears to be strengthening its own ties with Israel, maybe be able to glean important details about how its existing air defense systems, including the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, might perform against the jets. The United States and other NATO country have already voiced concerns about leaks of sensitive information about the aircraft from fellow alliance member Turkey, which is in the process of receiving both F-35s and S-400s.

We don’t know whether Israel’s combat use of the F-35 has the U.S. government’s blessing, but Israeli authorities clearly believe that the benefits of employing the stealthy jets outweigh the risks. And now that we know the Adirs are flying actual missions, it may become more obvious when and where the aircraft are flying.

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A pair of Israeli F-35Is.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com