What turns the Israeli Air Force into the “Sky Lord” of the Middle East?

From a small country that is always “bullied” by surrounding countries, Israel has risen to become a powerful military force in the region.

Since the 1960s, the air force of the Israel Defense Forces (commonly known as the IAF) has played a central role in the defense of the country. The Israeli Air Force’s ability to secure the battlefield and protect civilians from enemy air attacks has enabled the IDF to fight with a huge advantage.

At the same time, the IAF has demonstrated its strategic reach to strike important targets at considerable distances. IAF dominance is achieved through effective training, exploiting enemy weaknesses, and a flexible approach to design and procurement.

Over the years, the Israelis have tried a variety of strategies to equip their air force with fighters including buying from France, buying from the US, and building the planes themselves. This country seems to have solved the problem with a combination of the two methods above with great effect.

In its early years, Israel bought weapons that were necessary and could be found on the market. This means that IDFs generally work with devices from a variety of sources and are mostly guaranteed from European manufacturers.

By the late 1950s, however, Israel had secured arms-transfer relationships with a number of countries, most notably the United Kingdom and France. The relationship with France eventually resulted in the delivery of high-tech military equipment, including Mirage fighter jets, and also substantial technical support for Israel’s nuclear program.

Israel Air Force Dassault Mirage III
Israel Air Force Dassault Mirage III

These Mirage fighters became the core of the IAF during the Six-Day War that broke out in 1967, in which Israel destroyed most of its neighbors’ air forces in the first hours of the war.

However, in 1967, France imposed an arms embargo on Israel that put Tel Aviv in a difficult position. The IDF needed more fighters while also looking for capabilities that the Mirage couldn’t provide, including mid-range ground attack.

Under these conditions, the Israelis adopted the age-old strategy of simply stealing what they needed. To supplement their existing airframes, the Israelis acquired Mirage’s engineering blueprints through espionage.

Israel created two fighter jets, the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Nesher and the IAI Kfir. The latter uses a more powerful US-designed engine and was once considered the main fighter of the IDF air force. Both aircraft enjoyed export success, with the Nesher serving in Argentina and the Kfir being sold to Colombia, Ecuador and Sri Lanka.

Israel air force Nesher
Israel air force Nesher

This investment has helped the growth of Israel’s aerospace sector, which has major implications for the rest of the Israeli economy. Massive state investment in military technology development has not always spurred broader innovations in civilian technology.

In this case, however, state investment provided a key pillar for the early development of Israel’s civilian technology sector. The success of the IAI Kfir aircraft proves that Israel can stand on its own in the field of aerospace technology, eliminating the need to depend on a foreign supplier or funding.

However, Israel continues to invest heavily in aircraft purchased from abroad. The IDF began purchasing F-4 Phantom fighters in the late 1960s and F-15 Eagles in the mid-1970s

Israel believes that the combination of different warplanes will increase its ability to fight in the air. This led to the development of the Lavi, a light multirole fighter that could complement the F-15 Eagles Israel continues to acquire from the US

But the military-technological environment has changed. Developing the Lavi from scratch required a huge state investment. Moreover, the US has much more serious export controls than France and has a much more dangerous set of tools to enforce compliance.

Despite initial optimism about the export prospects of the Lavi, Israel soon realized that the United States would not allow widespread export of the fighter jet with important technologies from the United States. The fact that Lavi exports will compete directly with the F-16 will only exacerbate the problem between Israel and the US.

In August 1987, the Israeli cabinet decided to abandon the Lavi project, which provoked opposition from the IAI corporation and the workers involved in the project. However, all political efforts to revive the aircraft failed and Israel eventually acquired a large number of F-16s which were compensated by the US.

On the other side of the globe, however, Lavi inadvertently killed the export prospects of the F-22 Raptor. Because the US was concerned that Israel was sharing Lavi technology with China, the US Congress completely banned the export of the F-22. This decision has prevented Israel and some interested US allies from wanting to buy the F-22.

Israel air force F-15C
Israel air force F-15C

Instead of pursuing its own fighter jet development programs, Israel has recently preferred extensive modifications to the planes it buys from the United States. The F-15I “Thunder” and the F-16I “Storm” have both been upgraded to optimize them for Israeli operations.

Both aircraft have increased range and improved avionics that allow the IDF to fight effectively at long distances from bases. The F-15I, a variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle, is the IAF’s most important long-range strike platform.

In addition, the IAF has taken improved steps to make the F-35s more suitable for Israeli service, including advanced software modifications.

IAI has continued to enjoy great success despite the lack of a major fighter jet development project. IAI develops and exports components for domestic and export use including bombs, ammunition and avionics.

Israel F-35 Adir
Israel F-35 Adir

IAI has also entered the UAV market with great success both at home and abroad. And despite Lavi’s debacle, Israel’s high-tech defense sector has performed well, having significant spillovers into the private civilian economy.

Israel’s current aerospace strategy depends on its strong relationship with the United States. This is true both in terms of platform availability and ongoing mutual technology developments. Fortunately for Israel, there is little reason to believe that this relationship between the US-Israel alliance will soon decay.

isareli drones

And even if this unthinkable happens and Israel needs to look elsewhere than the United States, the Israeli industry’s expertise in developing various critical components and support systems each other insists that they will stand firm before finding another partner to replace.

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