Israel receives two new-generation F-16I fighter jets
RAMON AIR BASE, Israel (AFP) Feb 19, 2004
The Israeli air force took delivery Thursday of the first two of more than 100 US-built F-16I jets, a new generation of warplane which will soon make up the backbone of Israel's fleet.

Experts say the ultra-sophisticated development of the battle-tested F16 Fighting Falcon, to be named Sufa (Storm in Hebrew), sports a much-increased range of 1,500 kilometres (around 930 miles) without needing in-flight refuelling, allowing them to reach anywhere in the Middle East.

Media reports said this new capability could allow the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to hit suspected nuclear targets in Iran, as it did in Iraq in June 1981 when it bombed the Osirak reactor near Baghdad.

Built by US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, the two planes left the contractor's plant in Fort Worth, Texas late Wednesday and set down at the Ramon air base in the southern Negev desert on Thursday afternoon after a stop-over in Portugal's mid-Atlantic Azores islands.

The two planes were officially handed over at a ceremony at the base attended Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, army chief Moshe Yaalon and his IAF counterpart Dan Halutz and former premier Ehud Barak.

"In spite of the demands of the war against terror, the army must still be ready for a (conventional) war," Mofaz said at the ceremony.

Yaalon said that the new aircraft were "a response to the threat of ground missiles and non-conventional weapons" facing Israel.

The procurement of 102 of the two-seater jets at an estimated cost of 4.5 billion dollars is the biggest defence deal in Israel's history.

For its part, Lockheed Martin is committed to 2.6 billion dollars worth of reciprocal procurements, of which 1.1 billion has already been made.

Funding for the contract comes from US military aid to Israel which totals around two billion dollars per year.

Israel placed its first order for 50 aircraft in 1999, with a second order made in 2001. Delivery is slated for completion by 2009.

With the 102 new Sufa jets, and another 230 Fighting Falcons, Israel will command the second largest F-16 fleet in the world behind the United States.

Although the IAF refuses to give details of the new jet's range, it describes it as "very significant".

Powered by a Pratt and Whitney F100-PW-229 engine, many of its multiple systems are produced by the Israeli aerospace industry.

Two internal regular fuel tanks are supplemented by two jettisonable wing-mounted tanks which significantly increase the radius of action, experts say.

With a special head-mounted visor showing all the flight data, the pilot can aim a missile by fixing his gaze at the target.

It is equipped with the new Python 5 infrared-guided air-to-air missile produced by the Israeli defence firm Rafael, which is claimed to be unstoppable if the target is within the pilot's vision.

It is also fitted with the radio-controlled advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM), and laser-guided precision bombs.

The craft is equipped with an "outer protection" shield against external threats including surface-to-air missiles, as well as a number of other secret features.

Other systems have been kept under wraps.

The first model was shown to Mofaz at a ceremony at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth plant in November last year.

Two days later, while on a trip to Washington, Mofaz aired Israel's fears about Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme during talks with US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Concentrated efforts are needed to delay, to stop or to prevent the Iranian nuclear program," he said, warming that Iran would reach a "point of no return" within a year unless there were concerted efforts to stop it.

Iran, which refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, denies it has a nuclear weapons programme.

Israel itself has never confirmed or denied charges it possesses nuclear weapons, but the United States has considered it to be a nuclear power since 1969 and experts estimate it has 200 nuclear warheads.