Israel recently ordered another 25 F-35s. Israel already has fifty, organized into two squadrons. With the new aircraft there will be three squadrons. Israel was the first export customer to receive F-35s because it was the only exports customer that was regularly involved in combat, including air-strikes. Israel was also the only export customer allowed to modify and upgrade their F-35s. For this reason, the Israeli aircraft is known as the F-35I. The United States initially opposed Israeli requests to carry out modifications and upgrades, but the Israelis had a record of doing this with F-16s and F-15s obtained from the United States so F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin agreed to cooperate by making some modifications to the F-35Is before Israel received them. These included changes in command, control, communications systems, including computers, and the integration of intelligence collection, electronic warfare, and weapons integration systems. Israel agreed to not change anything inside the aircraft, but was free to add capabilities on top of the existing infrastructure. Israel Aerospace Industries, for example, was already working on such systems for the F-35I. The F-35I was designed to allow updates to Electronic Warfare and weapons integration systems. F-35I power and cooling systems were modified to allow incorporation of Israeli developed weapons. Israel has developed its own air-to-air missiles and GPS guided bombs.
Since 2021 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. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 a lot of European nations sought to obtain F-35s while canceling plans to buy older models of American and European combat aircraft. 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 in 2019 when Israel had only 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, which was 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, as in receivers for electronic signals, as well as six cameras and a very capable radar. 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 established diplomatic and defense relationships with Arab countries who are also threatened by Iran. That made it possible for Israel to establish diplomatic relations with some Arab Gulf States and that led to Americans' willingness to sell F-35s to the UAE (United Arab Emirates).