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Israel has fingers crossed on F-35 deal
by Staff Writers
Tel Aviv, Israel (UPI) Nov 18, 2011

Israeli defense officials say they're confident the first squadron of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be delivered on time in late 2016 despite problems that have set back the project for at least two years.

The officials' optimism, reported in Israel's media, flew in the face of the constant technical setbacks that have plagued the development of the stealthy fifth-generation fighter and suggestions in Congress the high-profile project be scrapped because of massive cost overruns.

The Jerusalem Post reported that defense chiefs do not believe that U.S plans to put back the F-35's initial operational deployment because of the development problems will affect the delivery of 20 of the jets Israel ordered in October 2010 under a $2.75 billion deal.

These will equip one Israeli air force squadron. The Israeli Defense Ministry has budgeted the purchase of more F-35s for a second squadron under the military's new multi-year plan that begins in early 2012.

Ultimately, the air force wants three F-35 squadrons to form the spearhead of its strike force -- some 75 aircraft.

The Pentagon has already approved the sale to Israel of 55 of the jets at dates yet unspecified.

The Israelis say they need the F-35 to maintain their long-held air superiority in the Middle East, and in a wider context, the Jewish state's technological edge over its regional adversaries, Iran in particular.

Israel's main problem is that senior U.S. air force officers said in testimony before Congress earlier this month that the F-35's development problems mean it is not likely to become operational with U.S. forces until 2018 -- two years later than planned.

Aviation Week reported recently that the U.S. Air Force plans to upgrade more than 300 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters and probably some Boeing F-15s as well to fill the operational gap caused by the F-35 delays.

The state-of-the-art F-35 is scheduled to replace an entire generation of fighters in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

According to recent figures, the plan is to buy 2,443 of the jets for U.S. forces over 25 years.

It's being built in partnership with eight countries and Lockheed Martin expects countries like Italy, Canada, Australia and Turkey to buy at least 600 of the jets.

Non-partners Japan and Singapore, like Israel, are also expected to acquire the aircraft.

But some potential foreign customers have started reducing their orders. Rising costs seem to be the main reason.

When Israel bought into the F-35 program back in 2002, the original price tag was $69 million per aircraft. But that's risen to $103 million and could go as high as $112 million.

In May, senior members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee instructed the Pentagon to provide alternatives to the F-35 because of the constant development delays.

"We cannot sacrifice other important acquisitions in the Department of Defense investment portfolio to pay for this capability," declared committee Chairman Carl Levin.

"The sense in Washington is that after years in which there was strong political backing for the American defense industries' banner project, senior politicians are having the scale back support in the face of a mounting budget deficit," the Israeli daily Haaretz observed.

The Israelis see the F-35, the world's most advanced combat aircraft, as the ideal weapon to mount pre-emptive strikes against Iran's nuclear installations.

Washington vigorously opposes that on the grounds it would ignite a regional war with potentially devastating consequences.

There's never been any suggestion the Americans might be seeking to delay delivery of the F-35s to lessen the odds of an Israeli assault.

But even without any skullduggery, the earliest Israel can expect to get its hands on the jets is 2016, with the air force able to deploy them operationally by 2017-18.

Some analysts wonder whether it's worth acquiring three squadrons of F-35s.

"Intelligence assessments indicate that 2016 is three to five years after the time Iran is expected to go nuclear," observed Yossi Melman, a security specialist who writes for Haaretz.

"The moment that happens, it will be too late to bomb Iran.

"And if Iran doesn't have nuclear weapons by then, that means its leadership has decided not to produce them and Israel wouldn't need the F-35 to bomb the country in the first place."

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US, Canada reaffirm commitment to F-35 jet program
Halifax, Canada (AFP) Nov 18, 2011 - Canadian and US defense chiefs Friday reaffirmed their commitment to fund the F-35 fighter program despite shrinking military budgets, saying it was crucial to safeguarding North America's air space.

Canada and the United States both face budget pressures "but we are not wavering on our commitment to this program," Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said at a joint news conference with his American counterpart, Leon Panetta.

"This program is going ahead," MacKay added.

The F-35, touted as the backbone of the future US aviation fleet, has been plagued by repeated delays, safety concerns and cost overruns, prompting criticism in Canada over the government's support for the project.

Both Mackay and Panetta said there was no alternative to the Joint Strike Fighter, designed by Lockheed Martin for ground attack and air defense missions.

The US defense secretary, who has warned the aircraft might face budget cuts, sought to reassure Canadians that there was no risk of the United States pulling back from the Joint Strike Fighter.

"I did see press reports that indicated that somehow that we're not committed to the F-35," Panetta said.

"Let me make very clear that the United States is committed to the development of the F-35 and to a cooperative relationship with the F-35 with our Canadian friends," he said.

Earlier this week, however, Panetta outlined in a letter to Congress the potential impact of possible sweeping defense cuts and said the F-35 could be among weapons programs that face reductions under that worst-case scenario.

The letter, which painted a dire picture, spelled out what might happen to US military spending if Congress fails to agree a deficit reduction deal, which could trigger automatic cuts across the government's budget.

Despite technical and financial headaches facing the F-35, the radar-evading fighter jet is seen as a top priority at the Pentagon and among US lawmakers.

Top US military and defense officials, however, have suggested the program may be scaled back and one variant of the plane, the F-35B short-takeoff version, might even be axed.

The Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history and defense officials have struggled to keep costs under control, with each plane's cost doubling in real terms over the past decade.

The program's cost has jumped to about $385 billion, and the price of each plane is currently at $113 million in fiscal year 2011 dollars.


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