On Saturday, Israel suffered its first loss of a fighter jet in contested airspace in 36 years, when an F-16I was shot down over Syria while conducting combat operations against Iranian assets within the region. The inciting incident, a violation of Israeli airspace by an Iranian drone, ended with Israeli forces downing the drone and mounting an offensive against Iranian targets believed responsible for its operation, but the downing the F-16I by Syrian anti-aircraft fire prompted a broader counter-strike involving eight fighters engaging 12 Syrian and Iranian targets, dealing a significant blow to Syria’s anti-aircraft infrastructure.
“Twelve targets were attacked, including three Syrian air defense batteries and four targets belonging to Iran that constitute part of Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman, said Saturday.
But throughout the dramatic air campaign that transpired over the weekend, one question loomed: why didn’t Israel scramble their newly acquired, 5th generation fighters, the F-35I?
The dated anti-aircraft systems utilized by the Syrian and Iranian forces would certainly prove to be no match for the F-35s stealth capabilities, although Israeli forces were likely confident that their F-16s could manage them as they have repeatedly in the past. Nonetheless, with a far more advanced and capable combat platform parked quietly on the tarmac… why not put your best assets in the fight?
If you ask Israeli officials, the official line seems to be a simple one, “no comment.”
There are, however, a number of reasons the advanced platform was kept on its leash during the weekend’s air campaign, primary among them being an expected software update the fighter is supposed to receive before being put into combat operations, though those familiar with the platform have stated that the jet would have managed Syrian air space well despite the outdated software.
“I’d be very comfortable flying the currently fielded software in combat,” US Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, a former F-35 squadron commander, told reporters earlier this week.
The next most likely explanation for the F-35s absence from combat operations undertaken recently is a question of familiarity with the platform. Although Israeli pilots have been logging substantial seat time in the new platform since they received their first batch in December of 2016, the military may not feel as though their pilots and maintenance teams have honed their abilities to the point of entering combat operations quite yet. At near to $100 million per aircraft, one can hardly fault the Israeli government for being careful.
A number of other issues could also explain the F-35s reluctance to join the fight. There could be remaining issues with mounting Israeli ordnance in the internal weapons bays of the F-35I, making it useless in a firefight for the time being, or the decision may have been made to reserve the use of F-35s for only the highest priority offensive or defensive operations. Finally, it could simply have been a matter of the Israeli military being confident that the legacy F-16I platform was up for the task.
“They were sure the F-16I could easily survive the environment, as it has done so many times before,” a retired Air Force major general told Defense News about the engagement.
There is, of course, one final reason the Israelis may have opted not to field the F-35I, though it is entirely born out of conjecture: they may not have wanted to provide the Russian military, in Syria working alongside Assad’s troops, the opportunity to observe and gather intelligence on the advanced platform in combat operations. Russia’s SU-35 platform, widely considered to be among the most capable dog fighters on the planet, has been fancied by Russian officials as a potential match for America’s other fifth generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which is both faster and more maneuverable than the F-35.
Even against an advanced 4th generation fighter like the Su-35, the F-35 would need to rely on strategy and stealth to win. Israel and other nations fielding the F-35 platform may not want to put that strategy, or the limits of that stealth, on display in a war zone unless absolutely necessary. There can be no doubt that nations like Russia and China, each working to field their own 5th generation fighters, are eager to inspect the limits of the American platform long touted as the most advanced on the planet.
Regardless of why the F-35I didn’t join the fight on Saturday, it seems likely that it will see use over Syria if the conflict continues to escalate – though if it does, there’s a chance we may not hear about it directly. The F-35I would likely be used in secret at first, and as one government official said to Business Insider this week, “if things unexplained start happening, there’s a good explanation.”
Feature image courtesy of the Israeli Defense Force