Warplanes: F-35s For Nearly Everyone

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August 11, 2022: In the last year there have been a lot more joint exercises involving Israeli and foreign F-35s. Details of these exercises have not been publicized but it apparently involves testing current and new F-35 capabilities and sharing that knowledge with other F-35 users. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February a lot of European nations have sought to obtain F-35s while canceling plans to buy lesser modern jets. Ukraine’s ability to defeat the larger Russian air force, using Ukraine’s own Russian-designed aircraft, made it clear that the Ukrainian tactics carried out with F-35s would provide an enormous edge over air forces equipped with older aircraft. Even China has not yet produced a stealth aircraft as capable as the F-35 and now NATO nations with F-35s realize they have a substantial edge and have shared that knowledge with other NATO countries.

Israel demonstrated what the F-35 was capable of four years ago. By 2019 Israel had 14 F-35I fighters and some had been operational for over a year. These F-35Is flew training missions near the Syrian border and then operational missions over Lebanon and Syria. This comes after years of overcoming opposition from the United States to allowing Israel to modify the F-35A to use Israeli electronic warfare equipment and software, and also to handle Israeli-made missiles and smart bombs as well as a smart helmet (something Israel pioneered). This led to the Israeli aircraft being designated the F-35I, which have been in the air since 2018, often armed and within range of hostile radars and anti-aircraft missiles as well as the latest Russian electronic warfare equipment.

Israeli engineers also confirmed fears that the F-35 is eminently hackable. Other foreign users who have received their first F-35s agree that the heart of the F-35's superior capabilities are its software and digital communications with other aircraft and troops on the ground. Users are pointing out all manner of potential network vulnerabilities, and all are actively seeking which of these vulnerabilities are actual (and fixable) rather than potential and unlikely. F-35 software was designed over a decade ago when much less was known about how combat aircraft software could be hacked and already some basic changes in F-35 software architecture are being planned to deal with that.

This brings up another major problem. The F-35 software is more complex and omnipresent throughout the aircraft than in any previous warplane. It’s a major effort to carry out and test any changes. Some major upgrades are needed in how F-35 software changes are made and how quickly. In wartime this would be essential, as otherwise vulnerable aircraft would be grounded when needed most. Foreign users have also provided useful advice on penetration (“red team”) testing and have become another major effort that was not anticipated.

The U.S. and other foreign users of the F-35 noted Israel’s F-35I experience and the Israelis have increasingly been sharing it with allies. Israel got priority on deliveries because they are literally a combat zone. Initial reactions of Israeli F-35I pilots and air force commanders were positive. What the Israeli pilots and all others who have flown the F-35 agree on is that its software and degree of automation is spectacular, easy to use and very effective. 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.

Israel has become something of an unofficial member of NATO and is sharing a lot of its F-35I knowledge with NATO nations. Israel not only has to deal with Russian aircraft and electronic systems in Syria but an even more dangerous threat from Iran. Israel has finally established diplomatic and defense relationships with Arab countries who are also threatened by Iran. One aspect of the 2020 Abraham Accords that made it possible for Israel to establish diplomatic relations with Arab states was American willingness to sell F-35s to the UAE. In 2021 a new U.S. government took over and included Qatar in the F-35 deal. This alarmed Israel and many American military leaders who saw Qatari support for Islamic governments and some Islamic terror groups, as well as Iran and China, as good reasons to prevent F-35 sales to Qatar. The new American government is also inclined to make deals with Iran while also seeking help from Gulf oil states to increase oil production in order to bring oil prices down. The Arabs did not cooperate, not just because of American attitudes towards Iran but also because the new American government had sharply reduced U.S. production of oil. The UAE may eventually get its F-35s but only after the current disputes with Qatar and the Americans are settled.

 


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