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Why Only Israel Can Customize America’s F-35 (At Least for Now)


ANY BIG-TICKET MILITARY technology purchased from the US comes with rules. Big stacks of strict guidelines outline exactly what allies can do to the hardware and the systems that run it. Generally, it comes down to: nothing. No modifications, no additions, no deletions. You can’t even make repairs without written consent from the Pentagon.

Uncle Sam typically responds to such requests with a resounding no, especially when the hardware in question is the wildly advanced (and wildly over budget) F-35 Lightning II Joint Striker Fighter. The stealth fighter jet, which Lockheed Martin is selling to US allies, comes with caveats that expressly prohibit unauthorized tinkering and a requirement that only US-run facilities service the plane. These rules, designed to protect deeply intertwined systems and maintain the security of sensitive technology, are non-negotiable.

Unless you are Israel.

Israel will be the first ally to receive the aircraft when its deliveries begin in December, and it will for the foreseeable future be the only country allowed to install customized software and weapons. The software is an app-like “command and control” system used elsewhere in the Israeli Air Force’s fleet; the weapons would initially be an Israeli-built missile system. The US will most likely also let the Israeli Air Force service the jets independently.

The negotiations are still ongoing within Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office, which grants such approvals. Final decisions are expected this year. One reason Israel gets a pass is because of its technological track record, particularly with US weaponry. Israel’s Air Force has long tweaked F-16s and F-15 to integrate its own systems.

Israel is quite adept at building advanced military technologies, from weapons systems to sensors to communications gear, and sells a lot of it to the US. Israel’s Litening precision targeting system—an external pod that uses infrared imaging and laser range-finding to guide bombs to targets—is used in a variety of US Air Force and Navy aircraft. The sophisticated Joint Helmet-Mounted Display system for F-22 fighter pilots leans heavily on Israeli technology.

But an even bigger part of the explanation has to do with Israel’s state of perpetual conflict, which makes it a different sort of ally for the US. Speaking at a conference last month in Tel Aviv, as Defense News reported, Israeli Air Force chief of staff Brigadier General Tal Kalman suggested Israel’s “unique requirements” justify a degree of autonomy with the F-35. Israel is pursuing its own maintenance center at Nevatim Air Base, where the jets will be based. When you might go to war at any moment, the argument goes, you can’t have your best hardware


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