Defense Minister Ehud Barak will chair a key meeting this week during which he is expected to decide whether Israel will buy new stealth fighter jets.
Barak was in Washington late last month for talks with his American counterpart, Robert Gates, that focused on Israeli plans to purchase the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
While the Pentagon has approved an Israeli request to buy 75 JSFs, Israel plans – as a first stage – to acquire only around 20.
Two main obstacles have slowed down Israeli procurement plans until now – the price of each aircraft is likely to reach just over $140 million, and there is US opposition to the integration of Israeli systems into the planes. Barak raised the second issue with Gates and announced after the meeting that significant progress had been made.
Due to the high cost of the aircraft, Israel will, as a first stage, buy a smaller number of aircraft, which will be configured, with minor changes, the same as those operated by the US Air Force. These planes will begin arriving in Israel toward the end of 2015.
The second batch of aircraft, likely to arrive in the second half of the decade, will already be designed according to Israeli specifications and include Israeli-made systems.
Barak will convene senior Defense Ministry procurement officials and top IDF and IAF officers for a meeting on Wednesday, during which the details of a deal are expected to be finalized. Barak will then bring the agreement to the security cabinet for final approval.
One of the Israel Air Force’s main motivations for becoming the first non-US customer to receive the aircraft is concern that other countries in the region – particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia – will be allowed to purchase the aircraft.
Israel, for example, was the first country outside the US to buy F-15s, but Saudi Arabia now operates a significant number of F-15s and is in talks with the Pentagon regarding the purchase of an additional 84.
While the Saudi interest in the new plane is understood as having more to do with the kingdom’s concern regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Israel is also worried about the increasing Saudi air power.
“We work according to the assumption that other countries will receive the jet, and that is why we need to be the first,” a top IDF officer said last week. “The JSF not only provides unbelievable capabilities, but will also assist Israel in boosting its deterrence.”