Why Israel is adding unique new capabilities to its F-35 combat aircraft fleet
In a recent joint exercise with European allies and the US, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) tested some of the modifications made to its F-35 fighter jets to make them more capable in the event of a potential operation against Iran.
March's Exercise Noble Dina, with participation from Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy and the US, lasted two weeks, taking place in the Mediterranean between the Israeli coast and Crete.
The IAF carried out a 'great number' of practice attacks on targets representative of those included in the target bank that Israeli intelligence has been building over the past few years .
Israeli defence sources said that among the capabilities tested for the first time were an extended flight time for the F-35 without using aerial refuelling.
No further details were given about this capability, but the sources said it was developed by the flight test centre of the IAF with an Israeli industry partner.
The sources were only ready to say that the F-35s operated by the IAF will carry more fuel 'in special tanks' in non-stealth flight phases, implying the solution impacts the aircraft's low radar cross-section.
The sources added that the additional fuel is 'a must' even with aerial refuelling on top. The IAF currently operates ageing Boeing 707 tanker aircraft and recently ordered the KC-46A. According to Shephard Defence Insight the IAF will receive four KC-46s with deliveries beginning in 2025.
In other recent tests an F-35 was trialled with an Israeli-made high-precision bomb weighing 1,000kg. The bomb is designed to fit in the weapons bay of the aircraft and is intended for 'super penetration'. In the trials the weapon reportedly achieved a CEP of 3m.
Iranian nuclear sites are located underground, protected by layers of rock and concrete.
The F-35 operated by the IAF's main test unit has been also equipped with solutions that enable it to fly and launch weapons in EW-saturated environments.
Israeli sources said that this is a priority as Iran seems to be the main target for the F-35 if Tel Aviv decides to act against the country's nuclear programme.
Closer relations between Russia and Iran have enabled Teheran to get updated data about the EW systems carried by the IAF's F-35s. This information was acquired by Russian forces in Syria that have been monitoring IAF operations.
The IAF test aircraft was also used to enhance the F-35's capabilities to intercept the armed UAVs that Iran is producing in growing numbers. The sales of these drones to Russia for use in Ukraine has helped Iran to develop new versions with larger warheads.
In 2021 IAF F-35s intercepted two Iranian UAVs carrying weapons on their way to the Gaza Strip. This took place outside Israeli airspace.
Israeli sources said that the growing threat of Iranian armed UAVs is also reflected in the modifications made to the IAF's F-35s. One key element is allowing pilots to get direct data from ground units that are part of the IDF's 'depth command'.
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