U.S. Senate mulls shelving fighter jet Israel slates for regional deterrence: report

10:36, May 25, 2011      

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The United States may decide to scrap production of the F-35, a fighter jet slated to comprise the backbone of the Israel Air Force (IAF) in the coming decades, the Ha'aretz daily reported on Tuesday.

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee convened last Thursday for an update on the progress of the F-35 program - the costliest in the history of the American military.

The committee instructed the Pentagon to begin searching for alternatives to the F-35 after U.S. Defense Department officials presented projections of massive cost overruns, according to the report.

The news of the Senate's change of heart regarding the future of the F-35 follow in the heels of America's mounting budget deficit, with President Barack Obama's administration looking to cut back on government spending.

The F-35 Lightning, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is a fifth-generation supersonic jet whose forte lies in its advanced stealth technology.

Israel placed an official order with Lockheed Martin, the plane 's manufacturer, last October after years of hard bargaining.

Under the terms of the 2.75-billion-U.S. dollar deal, the delivery of 20 F-35s to the IAF was scheduled to begin in late 2015 and will last for two years.

The deal was signed despite the fierce objection of some senior Israeli officials, who cited the jet's cost - around 96 million U. S. dollars per unit, a figure that excludes pilot training, maintenance and spare parts - as a risky financial undertaking.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, however, said that the decision to purchase the F-35s was critical for enabling Israel to maintain its qualitative military edge in the region. The plane is slated to replace the IAF's aging fleet of F-16 fighters, which entered service in the late 1970s.

IAF planners envision three squadrons, comprised of a total of 60 to 75 F-35s, in operational service.

The U.S. is also designating the F-35 to become the main fighter jet of its armed forces. Defense Department plans currently call for the purchase of nearly 2,500 units for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. Foreign countries, including Israel, have placed orders for some 600 jets.

But the grim data presented last week at the Senate's Armed Services Committee led its members to reassess the project altogether.

The cost of a single F-35 was originally set at 69 million U.S. dollars. But Pentagon officials who briefed the committee said that price tag has now risen to around 103 million dollars and could soar even higher.

The dramatic rise in costs is attributed to delays in the F-35' s flight tests, as well as problems in integrating some of its advanced systems and a recently-discovered structural malfunction, said the Ha'aretz report.

Israel expects the F-35 to usher in a new age of technological superiority that would significantly strengthen its deterrence in the region in light of increasing threats. But defense officials say no alternatives have been drawn in case the American project is scrapped.

Israeli Defense Ministry officials and the Israel Defense Forces downplayed the threat posed to the deal signed in October with Lockheed Martin.

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman's Office issued a comment on Tuesday, saying that a scenario of the F-35 program shutting down "has not even been discussed and is currently not an option."

A senior Israeli military official recently suggested that the IAF lease from the U.S. used F-15s to bolster its operational squadrons until delivery of the F-35 begins. The idea, rejected by the Defense Ministry, was floated after Lockheed Martin announced that the delivery timetable of the F-35 is expected to be extended to 2016.

Source: Xinhua
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