Israel: Cutting Edge F-35 or Conventional Missiles?

by Shemuel Meir

All the right phrases were said regarding the first F-35 aircraft delivered to Israel (designated “Adir” by the IDF) in an almost operatic rollout ceremony (22 June 2016): A new chapter in Israel’s military might and deterrent capability; the most advanced fifth-generation aircraft in the world; a stealth ghost plane that can pop up anywhere in the Middle East; the world’s best war machine; the sky is the limit; maintaining our qualitative edge; air superiority; practically hermetic protection of the country’s airspace.

For several days, we were treated to a concentrated dose of almost uniform descriptions of the fighter and its capabilities. The doubts raised about the performance of the F-35 in the Pentagon’s report (e.g. concerning its limited combat radius, the question whether it covered all of Iran’s territory, its limited armament carrying capability) were brought to our attention by economic rather than military analysts. The former naturally focused on the finances involved and the steep, wasteful costs.

This article will not discuss the operational pros and cons of the plane. We would rather focus on entirely different questions: Is there any correlation between the most expensive aircraft in the world and the strategic purpose it is supposed to serve in our region? Does the threat profile facing Israel justify buying so many F-35’s (75 according to the latest leaked count)? Is there no other weapon system that provides the attack and deterrence benefits associated with the F-35?

The chief argument made repeatedly by F-35 proponents in all their analyses had to do with its ability to make a surprise appearance anywhere in the Middle East, attack the target and head back out unnoticed. However, what its supporters failed to take into account was that the decision to purchase the fighter was made by the Israeli Air Force ten years ago.

That decision was made at a time when the Middle East facing Israel was a region saturated with direct military threats. Israel’s current threat map is radically changed. Removed from the Syrian army’s order of battle are the armored divisions and the fighter plane squadrons (as well as 98 per cent of its chemical arsenal). The eastern front is no more, and the Iraqi expeditionary force is off the threat map; nor is there a Libyan expeditionary force. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have proven resilient to the upheavals of the Arab Spring. A surprise, “all out” Arab attack scenario is off the strategic board, and is no longer relevant.

The Iranian nuclear agreement (July 2015) has, moreover, removed the sole existential threat to the State of Israel. The agreement has blocked both tracks that could have potentially seen Iran produce nuclear weapons (weapons-grade enrichment of uranium and plutonium separation) and subjected the country to an intrusive, non-time-bound inspection agreement for the prevention of nuclear weapons through the NPT Treaty and the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. It is worth noting that the removal of the Iranian nuclear threat from the threat map was the greatest single contribution made by the Obama Administration to Israel’s security.

What threats remain, then? A sub-conventional threat in the form of terror, and a threat from Hezbollah’s missile and rocket array. This begs the question whether these threats, lying within minutes of Israel’s border without an air-defense coverge, warrant the purchase of so many expensive F-35’s meant to “make a stealthy approach, launch a strike and disappear”?

These military missions can be handled by another, less costly system, entirely made in Israel and highly effective: conventional missiles capable of being launched to any range within minutes. They can be used to hit any military target in the Middle East within a few meters without risking pilots’ lives. Conventional missiles will also penetrate advanced air defense systems that might be deployed in the area in the future (for example, S-300 or S-400 systems to be provided by Russia to Iran).

As we have shown in our analyses on the Strategic Discourse blog in Haaretz during the talks leading up to the Iran deal, and contrary to the PM Office and pro-establishment Israeli Think Tanks arguments – missiles are not necessarily nuclear weapons. Pinpoint missiles with conventional payloads could serve as an ultimate deterrent. Many countries have ballistic missiles, but only less than ten of them possess nuclear weapons. The US is developing deterrence against non-nuclear countries using accurate cruise missiles with massive conventional destructive power.

Surprisingly, the conceptual groundwork for deterrence based on conventional missiles can be found in the work of Israeli military theorists who were world pioneers in this field. In a ground-breaking study, Yigal Alon proposed (probably inspired by his UK studies and friendship with military theorist Liddell Hart) that Israel stock up on conventional missiles of “great destructive power” for attacking distant targets (in his book Masach shel khol [A Screen of Sand], 1959). Alon thought that missiles had numerous advantages over planes. In addition to their role as “an arm that strikes and crushes” deep inside enemy territory, conventional missiles were also known to have “increasing importance as a deterrent”. These were the terms used back in the 1950s.

Another Israeli military theorist, Israel Tal, called for creating massive conventional deterrence within the framework of a new security doctrine for the 21st century (in his book Bitakhon Leumi [National Security], 1996). According to Tal’s analysis, carried out in the aftermath of the air defense missile that “bent the aircraft’s wing” in the Yom Kippur war and the decision made by Arab countries to procure surface-to-surface missiles – the strategic balance was shifting in Israel’s disfavor. The “monopoly over deterrence” that had been previously maintained thanks to qualitative supremacy and the Israeli Air Force’s destructive firepower was lost. Tal believed that air power “could no longer serve Israel as an exclusive strategic pillar” and that we would have to develop “an alternative conventional strategic deterrent capability.

According to Israel Tal, long-range missiles had introduced a strategic revolution in the Middle East, and more countries would buy them. Having lost its monopoly on conventional deterrence, Israel would consequently have to adapt to a new reality involving mutual deterrence vis-à-vis remote areas.

We have now come to the second decade of the 21st century. The reader can take Israel Tal’s analysis regarding the supremacy of the conventional missile over the fighter plane and substitute “Iran” for the rubric “Arab countries”. And in the spirit of our times, “missile” can be taken to stand for any unmanned aircraft. In Tal’s (somewhat pessimistic) analysis from the late 1990s, the takeaway from the IDF’s last big war in October 1973 was that Israel’s air power could no longer serve as an exclusive strategic platform. Viewed from the second decade of the 21st century, it does not really have to. Especially due to a possible mismatch between the most advanced aircraft in the world, supposed to be the Air Force’s spearhead, and the strategically less daunting threat map.

One last note and food for thought. We have shown how Israeli theorists recommended long-range missiles carrying conventional payloads as a preferred option for deterrence. The Iran deal (JCPOA), which blocked the country’s path to nuclear weapons (with an emphasis on removing the core of the heavy-water reactor in Arak, which did away with the threat inherent in a compact plutonium warhead mounted on an Iranian missile), lends the discussion on the advantages of conventional deterrence a new angle and a new life.

An analytic distinction between delivery systems (missiles) carrying conventional payloads—that the parties would be allowed to hold for purposes of conventional deterrence—and banned unconventional weapons might help extricate the initiative for arms control in the Mideast from its deadlock. It might also help reignite the currently-stuck Helsinki process for Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East.

This article originally appeared in Hebrew in Haaretz and is reprinted with permission.

Shemuel Meir

Shemuel Meir is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a former IDF analyst and Tel Aviv University researcher. He is currently a strategic blogger for Haaretz focusing mainly on nuclear issues, Iran, and a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone.


One Comment

  1. There are many other important considerations in this very complicated set of questions that the author has not mentioned.

    First of all, there are a number of serious questions about the ultimate performance of the F-35. The final design (or designs, there will be three final designs) has not been finalized, and when it is the existing aircraft will have to be re-manufactured to meet the final design specs.
    There are a number of persistent performance defects that have not been corrected.

    Its promised performance was described in the article as “make a surprise appearance anywhere in the Middle East, attack the target and head back out unnoticed.” With the deterioration of all other major threats, the Iranian nuclear infrastructure remains the most serious threat, at least to some. However, the Russians have supplied the Nebo SVU VHF radar systems to Iran, first seen in an Iranian parade in April 2010. These systems have a range of at least 250 miles, and an altitude capability of 100 miles, but can also detect the US stealth B-2 bomber at 30 miles out, and the stealth F-22 and F-35 at 20 miles out. These systems cannot only provide target detection, but can provide mid-course guidance to either a SAM or a air-to-air missile toward the target, including flying the missile to a position to the side of the stealth aircraft, where the target is more visible to the missiles’ homing detectors. (The F-35 is more visible from the side than the decades-old F-22.) All these stealth aircraft are fairly slow, and are very vulnerable once detected, even from Iranian defenses. These Russian 1 to 2 meter wavelength radars are, for complex reasons, more effective than western radars, which are deci-meter and centimeter wavelength systems.

    These radars cannot cover all of Iran, but can effectively protect the small number of important nuclear sites, each of which are protected by over 100 AA sites, plus coverage by Iran’s most advanced fighter jets, which also have anti-stealth technology.

    However, Iran’s important enrichment sites are all deeply underground, and effective bunker-buster weapons must be precisely delivered by plane, not missiles. Iran is a hub of tunneling activity, with 300 major projects ongoing at any given time. Reportedly, the Iranian air defense headquarters is 820 feet underground, and at least one strategic missile base is 1520 feet down. So the effectiveness of Israel’s means of attacking Iran’s nuclear program is deeply in doubt. The F-35 may not solve this problem.

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