It’s Official: KC-46 Tankers And More F-35s For Israel, But No Advanced F-15s For Now

Assisted by U.S. financing, the Israeli Air Force will boost its stealth fleet and overhaul its tanker and rotary-lift capabilities.   

Israeli Ministry of Defense/Twitter

Israel has formally approved plans for its first order of troubled KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling tankers from Boeing, as well as the third squadron of F-35I “Adir” stealth fighters. Despite reported Israeli interest, there was no mention of any planned purchases of advanced versions of the F-15 Eagle. However, the Israeli government has also given the green light to purchases of “advanced munitions” and a new heavy-lift helicopter, either a variant of the H-47 Chinook or CH-53K King Stallion.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense said it had begun working on these procurement programs after they were all approved by the Israeli government on February 22, 2021. The first Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) for the initial two KC-46s was signed over the weekend. An LOA is a government-to-government agreement that identifies the defense equipment and services to be sold by the U.S. government.

Digital artwork published today on Twitter by the Israeli Ministry of Defense showed a KC-46 in Israeli markings refueling an advanced version of the F-15. It’s not clear if this imagery originated with the defense ministry or with Boeing, which manufactures both types, but for now, at least, there are no formal Israeli plans to buy new versions of the Eagle.

Israeli Ministry of Defense/Twitter

An artist’s impression of an Israeli Air Force KC-46 refueling an advanced version of the F-15, which is not covered by the latest procurement plans.

All these purchases for the Israeli Air Force (IAF) will be conducted via U.S. military channels, with funding provided by the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) initiative. In 2018, the Trump Administration approved a 10-year memorandum of understanding with Israel that covers $3.3 billion in FMF aid. FMF provides allies with block grants of money for military purchases, with the stipulation that a significant percentage is spent with U.S. companies. 

The Israeli Ministry of Defense has confirmed that similar procurement processes will be launched to buy the additional F-35Is, new heavy-lift helicopters, and undisclosed armament.

The U.S. State Department approved the potential sale of eight KC-46As to Israel almost a year ago, to replace the IAF’s aging Boeing 707-based tankers. The entire package in the eight-aircraft deal had an estimated value of $2.4 billion.

Israel reportedly inquired about whether it could take delivery of its first pair of KC-46s from a lot the U.S. Air Force had already contracted Boeing to build. This would allow the IAF to get these aircraft earlier than would otherwise be possible.

Boeing faced competition for Israeli orders from the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bedek Aviation Group which had offered second-hand Boeing 767s converted into tankers. IAI had previously supplied similar 767 tanker conversions to Brazil and Colombia. Reportedly, Boeing blocked these plans to assure its KC-46 would win through, something you can read about in detail here.

Another option was the Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), 61 examples of which had been ordered by March 2020, by Australia, France, NATO, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. The A330 MRTT will have been operational in a tanker capacity with its launch customer, the Royal Australian Air Force, for a decade this summer.

We don’t yet know when Israel will receive its first two KC-46s, but the aircraft is currently still years away from providing its intended mission set. Earlier this month, General Jacqueline Van Ovost, the head of Air Mobility Command, described the Pegasus as a “lemon,” amid ongoing problems that prevent it from performing its primary aerial refueling mission on a day-to-day basis. Full operational capability now won’t happen until late 2023 or 2024 at the earliest, according to officials.

With that in mind, the IAF’s tanker choice might require the 707-based fleet to soldier on longer still. Known locally as the “Re’em,” which means “Oryx” in Hebrew, the 707-300s now in use were introduced beginning in 1978. These second-hand aircraft were converted to tanker configuration by IAI, including installation of a refueling boom and its control system. The Re'em plays an important part in support of the IAF’s overseas deployments. The oldest Re’em, serial 140, a veteran of the IAF’s raid on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Tunisia in 1985, was retired in 2019, leaving nine examples active.

Tomás Del Coro/Wikimedia Commons

An Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 Re’em.

However, it remains possible that Israel will receive a bespoke version of the KC-46, as it did in the past with the F-35I, and others. The IAF could potentially acquire a Pegasus that differs significantly from the U.S. Air Force model and it should be noted that boom-equipped KC-767 tankers have been operating now for many years with both Italy and Japan. 

The decision to buy a third squadron of F-35Is comes as little surprise, as Israel was also weighing up the options of buying advanced versions of the F-15 as well, including a potential mixed buy. For now, however, the IAF appears to have decided to focus on the F-35I — the local name “Adir” means “Mighty One” —rather than supplementing and/or upgrading its existing fleet of F-15s.

To date, Israel has signed contracts for 50 F-35Is, sufficient to populate two squadrons, the latest of which was declared ready for combat last August. The next purchase will likely cover another 25 jets to allow a third squadron to be formed. The F-35I models are broadly equivalent to the F-35A, but incorporate an increasing proportion of Israeli-made technology and weapons, with these local changes being trialed using a unique F-35I testbed that arrived in the country last November.

ISRAELI AIR FORCE/AMIT AGRONOV

Israel’s specially-built F-35I test jet touched down in the country last November.

For now, at least, Boeing’s hopes of selling more F-15s to Israel will have to be put on hold. Speaking to The War Zone last summer, Prat Kumar, Boeing’s Vice President and Program Manager for the F-15, said the company was responding to a request for information from Israel for up to 25 new Advanced F-15s, plus upgrades for 25 existing F-15I aircraft.

However, it’s possible that Israel might revisit the F-15 again in the future. While it’s clear that the IAF prizes the F-35I’s stealth qualities for penetrating missions within contested airspace, as well as its unrivaled data-sharing capabilities, there remains a requirement for an aircraft with advanced avionics that can operate alongside the F-35I and carry heavier weapons loads over long distances, essentially serving as a “missile truck.”

The next decision will involve the new heavy-lift helicopter for the IAF, with the existing fleet of around two-dozen CH-53 “Yasur” helicopters in need of replacement. The chosen platform will be used for a range of vital missions, including combat search and rescue (CSAR), long-range heavy assault, and deep-penetration insertion and extraction of special operations teams.

Israeli Air Force

A CH-53 “Yasur” releases infrared decoys. 

This is set to be a straight battle between the H-47 Chinook and the CH-53K. In the past, there’s been Israeli interest in the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, and while this option seemed to have been shelved as of last year, primarily on budget grounds, it may now be back on the agenda, according to reports. As it is, the H-47 and CH-53K already offer the choice between two very different sets of capabilities. The CH-53K, for example, has demonstrated an ability to carry up to 36,000 pounds of cargo, compared to around 21,000 pounds for the latest iterations of the CH-47F. 

On the other hand, the availability of the more powerful General Electric T408 engines, as used in the CH-53K, could help the H-47 close the gap. The Chinook might also offer a significant cost saving, the U.S. Army having been buying new production CH-47F models for between $30 and $40 million each in recent years, depending on the total size of the order. In contrast, the average unit cost for the CH-53K has increased to more than $120 million.

U.S. Army

A modified NCH-47D testbed helicopter with the T408 engines during its first flight at Felker Army Airfield in September 2020.

Israeli media reports suggest that the undisclosed “advanced munitions” mentioned by the Israeli Ministry of Defense as part of the deal will include as many as 4,000 weapons for IAF fighter jets. Other munitions are also likely to be bought for the Iron Dome air defense system and the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system.

Overall, this latest procurement plan will continue to help that Israel maintains its Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the Middle East region, with more F-35Is on the way and the United Arab Emirates’ deal for the Joint Strike Fighter currently suspended until further notice. As a legally-mandated requirement of the U.S. government, QME not only seeks to keep the Israeli Defense Forces ahead of their regional adversaries but also promotes interoperability with U.S. partners and ensures that U.S.-based defense firms benefit too. 

While it’s clear that the IAF’s 707-based tanker fleet is in need of replacement, the choice of the KC-46 means it won’t be until late 2023 or 2024 at the earliest that this aerial refueling asset is fully capable of performing its core mission.

Moreover, the Foreign Military Financing plan means that U.S. security assistance continues to be fundamental to the IAF’s modernization goals and its overall capabilities. Whatever equipment may follow, this seems certain to remain a pillar of the IAF’s development in the years to come.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com