Has Israel Actually Sent The F-35 Into Combat Already?

It's highly doubtful that the F-35I has been bombing targets and buzzing palaces in Syria just weeks after arriving in Israel. 

IAF

For some time now, various news outlets have claimed that Israel is already using its pair of recently-delivered F-35I Adirs in a combat role even before they've been declared operational by the Israeli Air Force. But today, military aviation journalist Thomas Newdick conveyed a report by a French journalist that not only claimed the F-35Is have been active over Syria, but also details what targets they specifically took out on their mission there. Additionally, the writer claims the Adir's first combat missions occurred in January, just a month after the aircraft arrived on Israeli soil.  

Thomas Newdick skeptically summarizes the report on Air Forces Monthly's news blog

Georges Malbrunot, who writes for French newspaper Le Figaro, cited French intelligence sources. He posted on Twitter today that examples of the Israeli F-35—two of which have been delivered to the country to date—took part in a raid over Syrian territory on the night of January 12-13. The mission saw them strike objectives around the capital, Damascus.

According to Malbrunot, the F-35s targeted warehouses containing Russian-made Pantsir-S1 mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems that Israel feared could be delivered from Syria to Hezbollah forces operating in Lebanon. The warehouse was located at Mezzeh, a military airfield in Damascus.

During the same attack, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) also reportedly destroyed an S-300 SAM battery deployed near the Syrian presidential palace, on Mount Qassioun. According to the same unnamed French intelligence source quoted by Malbrunot, the F-35 aircraft finally overflew the palace of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad before returning to Israel.

Malbrunot provided a final quote from an unnamed soldier, explaining that "With the Pantsir, Hezbollah ensures that the Israeli Air Force is almost totally unable to operate over Lebanon."

The IAF has had bouts of activity over Syria in recent months, hitting targets usually related to Hezbollah. For years, IAF fighter aircraft have operated over Syria without issues, relying on the IAF's advanced electronic warfare and hacking capabilities to give their tactical aircraft a cloak against Syria's somewhat antiquated air defense system. In 2015, Netanyahu and Putin initially worked out a deal to deconflict Israel air operations over Syria with Russian aircraft and air defenses shortly after Russia started its military adventure in Syria. In recent months that deal has begun to deteriorate.

But still, Syria does not have any S-300 batteries as the report claims—the only "triple digit" SAM systems deployed to Syria are owned and operated by Russia. In particular, these include an S-400 battery at Russia's air base south of Latakia and a S-300 battery deployed near Russia's expanded warm-water naval facility in Tartus, Syria. With this in mind, unless Israel has taken upon itself to destroy Russian SAM systems and Russia had no issue with it, this claimed attack did not happen. 

As for flying over Assad's palace in some show of force, the likelihood that actually happened is slim to none. Why would Israel provoke an already very fragile situation in Syria and especially risk their most prized weapon system—including the international fallout that would go along with it—for what amounts to a hollywood-like intimidation gag? Coincidentally, I also find it funny how Israeli seems to always buzz their potential enemies' palaces in media reports. In the past, when Israel was proving its air dominance in the region, such a tactic may have been used sparingly for psychological warfare purposes, but it serves little purpose today on battlefield Syria. Sure, it sounds cool—like something ripped from an '80s action movie or bar room tale—but in reality, it only invites additional risk and the IAF has nothing to prove to their neighbors.

As for the Pantsir-S1 being transferred to Hezbollah—there is already a talk about Iran obtaining these advanced point air defense systems through Syria, with Damascus working as an intermediary. And yes, any advanced arms transfer to Hezbollah seems to be a highly legitimate and high-value target in Israel's eyes. But the claim that IAF would be unable to operate over Lebanon if a handful of these systems fell into Hezbollah's hands shows a poor understanding of modern air combat capabilities, especially those of the IAF, and of the Pantsir-S1 system. In addition, active Pantsir point defense systems become targets themselves, especially considering Israel's high-end electronic surveillance abilities and unique asymmetric suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) capabilities. In other words, although it increases risks to air operations, the IAF can deal with a few Pantsir-S1s in the hands of Hezbollah.

At this point, the story doesn't hold much credibility, but what about the F-35I being used in this, or any other operations over Syria? It is highly unlikely, although considering the increasingly inhospitable air defense environment being constructed by Russia over Syria and much of the surrounding region, eventually using the F-35I for extremely high-priority missions over the war-torn country may become a necessity. Has that time already come? Unlikely, especially since Israeli standoff munitions could achieve the same effects without risking any sensitive technology or the stability of Israel's most important weapons program. 

Israel is known for its amazing aerospace ingenuity and for rushing its newest fighters into service to take part in specific missions or conflicts, but putting the F-35 into a combat environment within a month of receiving the aircraft, and nearly a year before the IAF says the jet may be operational, is a big stretch. And once again, the geopolitical ramifications of something going wrong while doing so, potentially putting the whole program at risk internationally, outstrips the need to use the aircraft to blow up some point defense systems in a warehouse that can be struck via other far less sensitive means.

Is it possible that the F-35I may have ventured outside Israeli borders to test its ability to detect, geolocate and classify Russia's most advanced air defense systems from afar? And could this have occurred while Israel's F-15 and F-16 fighters were on a real mission inside enemy territory? Maybe, but Israel has plenty of other assets that are capable of collecting similar data and this would be a far cry from the F-35I's supposed actions detailed by the French reporter. 

The funny thing is that I've heard reports from Israeli and other intentional news sources that have claimed F-35Is struck targets in Syria before any F-35s were even delivered to the IAF. Sure, the targets were struck, but not by a jet that hadn't even arrived in the region yet. The reality is that the F-35A will have its day—many days actually—on the leading edges of battlefield middle east soon enough, but let's keep things in perspective until then. 

In the end, it may be possible that Israel has used their two F-35Is in some combat or combat support role, but it is far from probable, and so far there is little evidence that supports such a claim.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com