A total of 335,000 flight hours spread over 474,000 sorties. Yes, the numbers are impressive for the F-16A and B version in Israel. However, these early built F-16s finally left Israeli Air Force service on Monday 26 december 2016, more than 36 years after delivery of the first jets in 1980. Their final landing was at Ouvda airbase in the southern part of Israel.
These ‘original’ F-16s were named Netz in Hebrew and made famous by their role in taking out the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq on 7 June 1981, only a year or so after delivery of the first jets to Israel. By that time, an Israeli Air Force F-16 was already responsible for the very first air-to-air kill by an F-16.
Over the years, many dozens of F-16 Netz aircraft were extensively used by the Israelis and responsible for many more air-to-air victories. Nevertheless, more capable F-16C/D Barak and F-16I Sufa jets began taking over their role. The Netz was then used as a trainer aircraft, a role that also has some to end with the delivery of thirty M-346 Lavi trainer jets.
The last of these early model F-16s were flown by 115 ‘Flying Dragon squadron at Ouvda, who also used the Netz in an agressor role. Over the years, Israel already retired a substantial number of these jets.
According to Haaretz newspaper, 40 F-16s are now offered for sale. In the past, Israel already sold off substantial numbers of surplus A-4 Skyhawks. Most found a second life by being used for air combat training by civilian companies such as Draken International and Discovery Air Defence Services.
On the same day that saw US president-elect Donald Trump take a swing at the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II for being too expensive, Israel took delivery of its very first two jets. Both arrived at Nevatim airbase following a flight that saw stopovers in the Azores and Italy.
Last week, both jets arrived at the FACO after a transatlantic flight that saw a stop over in Lajes on the Azores. The visit to the FACO was a surprise move, especially since the Israelis have said that all future maintenance on the Adir will be done in-country. Nevertheless, the FACO in Italy offers maintenance and upgrade facilities for F-35 jets.
Israeli pilots will fly the new aircraft for the first time this week. In 2018, the Israeli Air Force will put them into service. The country now has 50 jets on order.
The arrival of the advanced jet was overshadowed by Trump’s announcement that the F-35’s program costs are ‘out of control’ just hours before. His tweet – that also vaguely hints at cutting those costs – saw Lockheed Martin stocks take a plunge straightaway. Most recent estimates say the total program costs are now around 376 billion USD.
Trump’s targetting of the F-35 comes only a few weeks after another blow to the program, which was Canada’s postponement of a purchase by selecting the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet for now.
The Israeli Air Force now has its full complement of 30 Leonardo Finmeccanica M-346 Lavi advanced jet trainers operational. The final one has been commissioned this week.
With the new jets, the skies of Israel will be free of the Skyhawk – the legendary A-4 that was the Lavi’s predecessor after having been commissioned in the 1960s.
The commissioning of the full 30 jets – known in Italy as the Master – went with some bad mouthing on the biggest competitor: the Korean Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle. “At the end of the day, the Italian plane was better than the Korean one. We choose wisely for the Lavi,” Israel’s head of procurement of the Ministry of Defence – Shmuel Tzuker, said to The Times of Israel.
USA’s T-X program
An interesting remark, since a derivative of the T-50 is also in the running to replace the US Air Force’s Northrop T-38 Talon advanced jet fighters. This Lockheed Martin/KIA T-50A is also facing the heat of the M-346, enroled in the USA’s T-X program as the Raytheon/Leonardo Finmeccanica T-100. According to Israel the M-346 is better in quality of training, safety, maintenance, specs and costs of operation.
So far, 68 M-346 Lead-In Fighter Trainer versions have been ordered by the air forces of Italy (18), Singapore (12), Israel (30) and Poland (8). But there are new markets at the horizon.
A noticeable development which may also interest countries like Israel and Poland is the recently presented armed version of the Italian advanced trainer. At the 2016 Farnborough International Airshow Leonardo Finmeccanica showed of its M-346FT (Fighter Trainer) with light multi-role capabilities including laser guided bombs and air-to-air missiles. Airheadsfly.com already went inside deep at Lecce Airbase, aka the Master’s nest.
The very first F-35 for Israel was unveiled on Wednesday 22 June during a roll out ceremony at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth facility. The aircraft is the first of 33 so far ordered by Israel, with more certainly on the way. The Israeli version of the F-35 is designated F-35I and named ‘Adir’ – Hebrew for mighty one.
The F-35I will be a special breed of the Lockheed Martin F-35A, with Israeli-developed and installed mission equipment. Israel previously choose a similar path with the F-15I Ra’am (Thunder) and F-16I Sufa (Storm). Contrary to the spectacular desert camouflage paint job on those jets, the first F-35I wore a standard grey camouflage scheme upon roll out in Fort Worth
The first Adirs should arrive in country in December for customization by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Next, the jets will be send to Nevatim airbase in the Negev desert.
The newly delivered Leonardo Finmeccanica M-346 Master jet trainer should prepare new Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilots for the F-35I. The last of 30 of those was delivered earlier in June.
Fighter jet deals worth billions of US dollars hang in the balance in the Middle East as they have been doing for a number of years, but things could be moving along now following the apparent ease between Iran and the West. Or did Kuwait and Qatar already make up their mind?
It is no secret that Kuwait is looking to purchase 28 Boeing Super Hornets to replace its fleet of older F/A-18C/D Hornets, and that Qatar has been seeking to buy up to 72 variants of Boeing’s F-15 Strike Eagle.
Both orders would come in handy to keep production lines in the US open, particularly the Super Hornet line. A batch of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) EA-18 Growlers is now in manufacturing and after that it will likely be the end of production for the F-18 Hornet and its variants.
Unless of course Kuwait indeed orders its Super Hornets. A deal never seemed close however, and the reason could very well be that the US did not want to spoil improving relations with shia-Islam orientied Iran by supplying advanced warfare machines to opposing sunni countries such as Qatar and Kuwait.
That standpoint may change now that the relationship with Iran seems on its way to normalization. On the other hand however, there’s also Israel to be taken into account. That country upgrading its F-15I Ra’am (Thunder) jets and won’t be very happy to see more Arab states getting similar capabilities, also considering the fact that Saudi Arabia already has an impressive fleet of F-15s – and another 84 new-build F-15SAs (Saudi Advanced) are on their way between now and 2019. The US may be sensitive to this also.
The coming months should tell if there will ever be Qatari F-15s and Kuwaiti Super Hornets. And finally, if there will ever be Iraqi Air Force Mirage 2000s, as the United Arab Emirates are reportedly looking to hand over some of their Mirages to Baghdad.