May 25, 2017:
Israel now has six F-35 fighters and several have been flying training missions near the Syrian border, and maybe even across it. This comes after years of overcoming opposition from the United States and allowing Israel to modify the F-35A to use Israeli electronic warfare equipment, software and also handle Israeli made missiles and smart bombs as well a smart helmet (something Israel pioneered). This led to the Israeli aircraft being designated the F-35I. Now these aircraft are in the air, often armed and within range of hostile radars and anti-aircraft missiles.
The U.S., and other foreign buyers of the F-35 are watching the F-35I experience carefully. Initial reactions of Israeli F-35I pilots and air force commanders has been positive. What the Israeli pilots, and all others who have flown the F-35 agree on is that the software and the degree of automation built in is spectacular. The F-35 has a large number of sensors (receivers for electronic signals, six cameras and a very capable radar) and the fusion of all that data and presentation to the pilot based on the current situation is impressive and makes the F-35 much easier to fly, despite all the additional capabilities it has.
This sort of thing is not a new idea. By the 1990s it was recognized that this new technology; data fusion, would be a key capability for combat aircraft (as well as ships and ground forces). Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and other sensor data (sensor fusion) and other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and combining it to provide commanders with a better understanding of current operations, preferably in real time if you are a fighter pilot. The F-35 is apparently the best working example of this so far and what is learned from the F-35 software will be the basis for updated software for older aircraft. But beyond the data fusion (and automatic sharing with other aircraft or systems on the surface) the pilots were impressed about how effective the “pilot assistant” software was. This is another concept that has been around for decades and more frequently installed in new aircraft. These minor advances get reported but never make headlines. But given the F-35s stealth, maneuverability and sensor/data fusion, most pilots quickly become enthusiastic proponents of the aircraft.
Some of these early pilot reactions were dismissed by critics as PR. But with the Israelis it is different because they are most likely to use those new capabilities in combat first and Israeli pilots have a reputation for delivering very blunt assessments (both public and otherwise) of aircraft performance. That bluntness has always been encouraged in Israel. For decades the U.S. has been building new combat aircraft and upgrades based on input from Israeli experience and that input has generally been very useful.
Potential foes are concerned and are beginning to show it. In April 2017 it was confirmed that Russia had brought in one of its four new A-50U AWACs aircraft, in part to get a better look at the F-35I and test its capabilities. That works both ways. Similar Russian and Chinese fighter designs are behind schedule and none are in service yet.
Israel has 50 F-35Is on order with the first 33 F-35Is to arrive by 2021. The option to buy another 17 was exercised at the end of 2016, based on initial experience. The first 15-20 F-35s will be delivered as F-35As and Israel will convert them to the F-35I standard. All remaining F-35Is will be equipped as F-35Is at the American factory and delivered ready for action.
By April 2017 235 F-35s had been delivered, mostly to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. Over 4,000 F-35s are expected to be delivered by the mid-2030s with more than 70 percent going to the United States.
The 31 ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and, before the SDB (Small Diameter Bomb) arrived, four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. A new bomb rack allows the F-35 to carry eight SDBs internally. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.