Amid F-35 Expectations, the F-16 Remains the Backbone of Israel’s Air Power
JNS.org – Despite the excitement and expectations generated by the arrival of the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets into the Israeli Air Force fleet, much older workhorses — the F-16 and F-15 aircraft — still do most of the heavy lifting.
Israel’s F-16 and F-15 jets may get less headline space these days, but they still form the crux of Israel’s air power, a senior military official affirmed in recent weeks.
Out of the approximately 700 flying units in the possession of the IAF, nine are F-35 fifth-generation fighter jets, and many hundreds are F-16s and F-15s, outnumbering the F-35s by a very large margin.
The F-35 jets will eventually grow to 50 aircraft and their game-changing capabilities have already begun impacting the entire IAF. But they will remain the minority for a long time to come. The IAF has no intention of placing its trusted F-16s or F-15s into storage hangers.
“The F-16, not the F-35, is the backbone of the air force,” the official said. The legacy F-15 jet and its newer version, the F-15i, although fewer in number than the F-16, are also part of the air force’s core fleet.
“Every type of plane in the … air force has its unique place,” Maj.-Gen. Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a former IAF commander, told JNS in an interview.
The F-35, dubbed Adir (mighty), “is part of a gradual renewal process for an aging order of battle, which in any case must be replaced.”
“This process has always gone on,” said Ben Eliyahu. “It stretches out over many years — tens and sometimes many tens of years — and this way, a suitable order of battle of aircraft is maintained.”
The purchase of two F-35 squadrons is a powerful new component that creates deterrence for Israel in the Middle East, adds Ben Eliyahu. It does this by keeping the IAF at the forefront of technology, maintaining a strategic Israel-US military bond, and creating essential stealth capabilities that Israel would need in any future war, he said.
The F-35 jet’s ability to create networks of intelligence data — to gather, receive, and distribute this data — is critical to the 21st-century IAF, he added.
The networking abilities of the older jets are not as developed, but are still good enough to remain in service for many years to come, he said. “All of the planes can activate smart, precise weapons in a way that does not fall short of the F-35.”
In recent years, the IAF has also been upgrading and modifying its F-16 jets, according to Col. A. (who cannot be named), head of the Planning and Organization Department. The colonel said on the IAF’s official website last week that both the older F-16c/d jets, dubbed Barak (lightning), and the newer F-16i planes, known as Sufa (storm), are undergoing upgrades — receiving new munitions and other vital systems.
According to Ben Eliyahu, all of the older aircraft have the ability to reach altitudes and carry payloads that do not fall short of the F-35 and sometimes surpass it.
Ben Eliyahu drew attention to the way in which new and older aircraft will cooperate with each other during missions, saying “after the Adir breaks through and clears a path through its stealth [abilities], the [other] planes can freely arrive after it. In addition, after achieving air supremacy, all of the planes can freely penetrate [the enemy’s airspace].”
As a result, he said, although the F-35 remains vital in its importance, the air force still needs to have hundreds of combat aircraft at its disposal.
As the IAF is kept busy defending the national security of the Jewish state on multiple fronts, such as conducting missions over Gaza, Syria, and other regions, and policing Israel’s red lines against Iran’s attempt to take over the Middle East, its older jets will remain an inseparable part of that effort.