The first test F-35I (“Adir”) aircraft outside of the United States arrived at the Israeli Air Force (IAF) Flight Testing Center (FTC) at Tel-Nof Air Force Base. November 11th, 2020, marks the start of a new era in the IAF Flight Testing Center (FTC) Squadron – for the first time in 14 years, a first of its kind fighter jet equipped with advanced experimenting capabilities will land at the squadron. The arriving “Adir” (F-35I), designated for flight experiments, will greatly enrich the IAF’s independence in improving its division of fifth generation aircraft. The FTC’s flight line operates all of the IAF’s fighter jets and the technical department must maintain them regularly and thoroughly.
“With the new addition of the ‘Adir’ to the lines of experimental aircraft in the Israeli Air Force’s FTC Squadron, we are witnessing a historic event, the magnitude of which cannot be underestimated – a meaningful corner stone in the IAF’s inauguration and development of the F-35 division”, said Brig. Gen. Oded Cohen, Commander of Tel-Nof AFB. “To the FTC Squadron personnel – the absorption of the ‘Adir’ poses new challenges. I have no doubt that by virtue of your skill and professional spirit you will know, as you have proven in the past, how to challenge the limits of the ‘Adir’s’ capabilities, and lead the IAF through toward new horizons”.
One of the extraordinary aspects of the IAF is its use of Israeli operating systems and munitions on its various flight platforms. In the majority of the acquisitions made in cooperation with the United States, the IAF is given the opportunity to install its own electronic warfare, communications and weapons systems – all to accommodate the platforms to the relevant operational needs and requirements. For the F-35I, the situation is more complicated: “In the ‘Adir’ program, the IAF doesn’t have access to everything, and cannot fully intervene. The experimental F-35I will act as the main building block for acquiring new flight capabilities, and allow for independent installation of munitions.
In addition to the flight and technical departments, the FTC Squadron has a systems department. The squadron’s aircraft are equipped with systems that collect the data that is later used to examine the test outcomes. The systems department focuses on collecting and dissecting the data from the aircraft systems, including delivering the information in real-time to the squadron on the ground, where the test is closely monitored. In the near future, concurrent with the integration of the aircraft, American teams from “Lockheed Martin” will arrive at the squadron to deliver system instructions to its personnel.
The Israeli F-35s will be based at Nevatim Airbase in the Negev. The decision was based on operational, environmental, infrastructure and training considerations, as well as the IDF’s strategic vision to transfer some of its bases to the region. Israel is currently building the infrastructure needed to accommodate F-35s, including hardened aircraft shelters, underground pens, and maintenance facilities. In addition, the IAF has ordered 30 M-346 trainer jets to train pilots. The site is to produce a total of 811 wing pairs and initial orders for the F-35 will be for 20 planes, with a total of 75 intended.
The Israeli Air Force declared the F-35 operationally capable on 6 December 2017. In July 2018, a test mission of at least three IAF F-35s flew to Iran’s capital Tehran and back from Tel Aviv. While publicly unconfirmed, regional leaders acted on the report; Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei reportedly fired the air force chief and commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps over the mission. On 22 May 2018, Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin said that the service had employed their F-35Is in two attacks on two battle fronts, marking the first combat operation of an F-35 by any country. In July 2019, Israel reportedly expanded its strikes against Iranian missile shipments; IAF F-35Is allegedly struck Iranian targets in Iraq twice.