On the morning of June 5, 1967 Israel conducted a preemptive air strike on Egypt, initiating what was to be known as the Six-Day War. By the end of the week, Israel had taken the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Egyptian and Jordanian air forces were destroyed and the Syrian air force decimated. Operation Moked (Focus), the opening airstrike of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), was designed to destroy the Egyptian Air Force on the ground and establish air supremacy. It accomplished both tasks.
June 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a turning point for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that cemented a doctrine centered on maintaining a qualitative edge against its adversaries. For the IAF this means maintaining air supremacy: the complete control of the skies within an operational area so that the enemy is incapable of interference using air and missile threats.
Fifty years later, the IAF continues to work towards maintaining air supremacy as it did in the opening hours of the war. It does this in part by obtaining the most technologically advanced systems in the world through close cooperation with the United States.
In mid-December 2016 the IAF received its first two F-35 aircraft. These next-generation fighters will be the most advanced aircraft in the region, intended to help Israel preserve its military edge by letting it operate unopposed anywhere in the region. Israel has ordered 50 of the fighters, and is the first outside the U.S. to begin operating the aircraft from home bases (Japan, Italy, the U.K. and the Netherlands received their initial aircraft which are being used for training in the U.S.).
However, with numerous cost overruns and production delays many analysts have questioned whether the F-35 is worth the $100-million price tag per aircraft. Proponents, on the other hand, call it a game-changer, insisting its advantages are unprecedented.
Supporters argue that fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35 are not fighters in the traditional sense, but rather sensor-shooters that can perform the roles of various types of aircraft simultaneously.
They are right: The aircraft’s strength comes from the ability to fuse information from multiple sources, assemble the information, and distribute it across a network. This ability allows numerous actors to use the information to make real-time decisions. Providing the same information to other aircraft, ships, or troops on the ground makes the F-35 a force multiplier unlike any other modern combat system.
Fifth-generation aircraft interact with the world differently than fourth-generation platforms, providing the IAF with a substantial advantage. The most precious commodity in combat is information, and a system that significantly improves situational awareness allows operators to make more intelligent, faster decisions than their opponents.
The IAF understands this capability and seeks to use it to perform missions that previously would have required many aircraft. While the F-35’s stealth capabilities widen its operational range, information sharing and integration increase not only its lethality and survivability, but that of all aircraft operating with it.
The F-35 alone cannot completely offset evolving threats, therefore the IAF’s recent announcement that it would likely purchase upgraded F-15s is another step in ensuring air supremacy. These aircraft, known as F-15 Advanced, are based on the aircraft currently being delivered to the Royal Saudi Air Force. Considered the most advanced F-15 variant ever built, it is equipped with the new APG-63(v)3 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, a redesigned cockpit, infra-red search track (IRST) pods, and a new generation electronic-warfare (EW) system that implements capabilities developed for the F-35. These advanced F-15s have been called generation-4.5 aircraft, as they incorporate many enhanced technologies and capabilities of fifth-generation aircraft into their design.
The IAF, by participating in the early stages of the program and being the first foreign air force to operate the F-35, has taken an active role in developing a system that will meet its needs. Israel is the only country in the region to operate this highly sophisticated system, and integrating it with advanced F-15s will insure that it can protect itself in its next critical confrontation, just as it did in June 50 years ago.
John Cappello, a former U.S. Air Force B-1B pilot and Air Force Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on military affairs.