Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant recently highlighted his country’s decades-long dependence on American Fighter Jets.
“The air force is built on two components: American planes and Israeli pilots. If you have an alternative for one of them, let me know,” Gallant reportedly told lawmakers during a July 31 closed-door briefing to the Knesset (Israeli parliament) Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The defense minister made the remarks in response to lawmakers’ complaints about the Biden administration and Israeli Air Force (IAF) pilots protesting the controversial judicial overhaul the incumbent Israeli government is pushing.
Gallant’s comment was also a candid admission of the obvious fact that Israel relies on the U.S. for its air force fighter jets and has done so for many decades.
At almost 400 fighters strong, Israel boasts the world’s second-largest F-16 fleet, operating various types throughout the decades. In July, it ordered another 25 stealthy fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighters for $3 billion, bringing its fleet up to 75 and further enhancing the tiny country’s qualitative military edge (QME) over the rest of the region.
The United States also provides Israel with $3.8 billion in annual security aid and has helped fund expensive Israeli military projects, such as the cutting-edge Arrow, David’s Sling, and Iron Dome air defense missile systems. These systems can defend Israel from various threats, from large long-range ballistic missiles to small short-range rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
On the other hand, American funding for developing such systems and for the entirety of its fighter fleet comes with some strings attached. For example, Israel needs American authorization for selling these systems to third parties, most recently for sales of the Arrow 3 and David’s Sling to Germany and Finland.
More recently, Washington banned Israeli pilots with foreign passports from flying Israel’s F-35s for fear of potential espionage.
On the other hand, the Adir variant of the F-35 built for Israel is “the only F-35 variant to enter service heavily tailored to a foreign country’s specifications,” making it incredibly unique.
The U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s QME over the Middle East has been written into American law since 2008, something that’s arguably much more valuable for Israel than a more diversified military arsenal.The Electoral College: Tracing Its Origins and Evolution in American Democracy
Still, Gallant’s comment about Israel’s dependency on America for warplanes and his rhetorical question about finding alternatives was noteworthy.
In January, a Turkish official also questioned why Turkey relies exclusively on American fighter jets, particularly F-16s, for its air force. And, as previously noted here, the wealthy Arab Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar each have large mixed fleets of American and European fighter jets, reducing their dependency on any single country.
Before Israel became a close American ally, it had relied on France for warplanes. Paris embargoed an Israeli order for 50 Mirage jets following the outbreak of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. France eventually reimbursed Israel for those embargoed jets and Israel never bought French warplanes again. It went on to build an unlicensed copy of France’s Mirage 5, the Nesher, from which it developed the Kfir, a fighter with more Israeli avionics and components.
Since the 1970s, Israel has proven adept at indigenously developing tanks, producing the Merkava series of main battle tanks. However, its burgeoning military partnership with the United States disrupted and ultimately aborted the development of a fourth-generation Israeli fighter aircraft in the 1980s.
Israel’s Lavi fighter project courted controversy at home and abroad. In Israel, the public criticized the high development costs. The United States, which had invested in the project, opposed potential competition in the export market, especially with an aircraft resembling the iconic F-16. A narrow majority in the Israeli cabinet voted to cancel the project in 1987.
For decades, former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who was also an aeronautical engineer, resented the decision, arguing that American pressure had essentially robbed Israel of the opportunity to compete with American aerospace giants (Israel had estimated there would be demand for up to 407 Lavis on the international export market).
In 2010, he argued that had Israel pushed ahead with the project, it “would be operating the world’s most advanced fighter, upgraded over the years to incorporate operational experience and newer technology” instead of going “hat in hand” to the U.S. for F-35s costing approximately $150 million each.
The special military relationship between the United States and Israel is, in many ways, incomparable to any other in the world. Gallant’s comment is a reminder that this relationship, as advantageous to Israel as it is, has rendered his country almost wholly dependent on the U.S. for its airpower, long a crucial pillar of Israel’s deterrence and QME.
South Korea and Turkey are two countries currently endeavoring to develop indigenous fighters with fifth-generation features – the KF-21 Boramae and TF Kaan – almost four decades after the Lavi’s cancellation. If they succeed, these combat aircraft will undoubtedly become a source of national pride for Koreans and Turks alike.
Consequently, it would hardly be surprising if Israelis ponder from time to time what could have been had they more stubbornly insisted upon developing their own national fighter.