“I sit in the roomy cockpit of the F-35 Jet… I pressed the touch screen, which reminds me of my iPad2 device, and chose a missile. The radar locked onto a target. One press on a red button. The missile is launched, the plane turned aside, the countdown began and after a few seconds, the missile hit the target. I destroyed an enemy jet!”
(Simulation at Eglin Air Force Base, southwest Florida, United States)
The stealth jet known as the F-35 (known in Israel as “Adir”) is the Pentagon’s most expensive and advanced jet, with development costs totalling $ 4 billion. The jet is manufactured by Lockheed-Martin, the largest weapons manufacturer and military service provider in the world, along with the engine provider Pratt & Whitney.
Since the start of the stealth jet project in 1996, an endless series of problems and malfunctions emerged related to development and funding of the jet. Critics of the project pointed to timetable delays and costs that increased by more than 50% since the Pentagon gave the green light. A 2014 US Defense Department report raises questions about the technology, maintenance and trustworthiness of the jet, and testifies as to “unacceptable performance” of the combat jet’s software. The US Defense Department Comptroller added that no less than 363 problems have emerged in the design and manufacturing of the stealth jet.
Despite all this, and after years of negotiations, Israel has announced that it would purchase a squadron of 19 jets at a cost of $2.75 billion (the cost does not include auxiliary systems that must also be purchased), which will land in Israel by 2016. The purchasing agreement will route most of the military aid that Israel receives over the next decade to that purpose. The actual meaning of “the purchase” is that the US is subsidizing Lockheed-Martin and the stealth jet project through the Israeli market, and Israel will have to purchase from the US all the equipment necessary to maintain and operate the jets in the future.
Because the stealth jet is still in the development process and is not a finished product, the US has a special interest to sell the jets to the IDF in order to encourage other countries to buy them, thus lowering the cost of production for the US and Lockheed-Martin. An Israeli promise to purchase the jets is critical, first and foremost because of the Israeli military’s reputation, and secondly because no other state has committed to buying the jets up to that point. As part of the deal, the US promised that if Israel gets the stealth jets, the US will purchase $4 billion worth of products from the Israeli military industry in return. In 2013, Elbit got a contract to develop all the helmets for the jets, and shortly thereafter Israel Aerospace Industries got a contract to manufacture the wings for the jet. The United States’ gamble seems to have turned out well: after Israel agreed to have the jets, it was joined by Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Norway and Denmark, though some of them stepped away from the agreement due to complications.
The F-35 story provides a window into US-Israel relations, which are often described as a one-sided dependency by Israel on the US. The picture that emerges from the F-35 deal actually reveals a codependent relationship: the US promotes its global sales by “pushing” US military equipment on the Israeli market through political pressure by putting into question whether the US would continue to be committed to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge over its neighbors. According to a senior source in the military industry interviewed in Haaretz: “The US is actually saying: ‘We are giving you the best we can. If you don’t take it, we are not committed to Qualitative Military Edge on other matters as well.”
And from the Israeli side, military aid “free up” enormous sums of money from the Israeli defense budget for other purchases, and at the end of the day the deal brings huge sums of money to the Israeli military industry, as is mentioned in the agreement itself. Another expression of the relations between the states is the incentives package that the US offered Israel in 2010, which included dozens of stealth jets in exchange for a settlement construction freeze (Israel refused to freeze settlement construction, but asked for the jets anyway). In other words, the US floods Israel with weapons in exchange for producing more weapons, all without examining the long-term security impact on civilians, who pay the highest price for the regional arms race.
Beyond the human and social price that the occupied Palestinian society and the occupying Israeli society pay, the economic cost of the stealth jet project comes at the expense of US taxpayers. For example, in 2012 the Pentagon announced the grounding of all F-35 jets because of technical malfunctions. It turned out that the blunder cost $8.45 billion to US taxpayers.
Another question that arises when evaluating the stealth jet deal is whether Israel even needs jets at all, who has the authority to decide this issue, and how the decision-making process takes place. The answers to these questions are not certain, but it may be said that there has been a long struggle between the Defense Ministry and the Israeli Air Force concerning these questions. Likewise, there are various parties that were kept out of the decision-making process, like the Israeli National Security Council as well as Finance Ministry personnel who do not directly pertain to decisions related to US aid. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee only receives reports, and even these reports are only sent to the Subcommittee on Equipment and Purchasing. According to Knesset Member Nachman Shai, “National security is not just buying jets… there are also other important issues such as the elderly, single mothers, poverty and education that are discussed in the Education and Welfare Committees in the Knesset. That is a decision that must be weighed against the needs of the state, and this calculation must be done by the National Security Council or some other civilian body.”