By Dr. Ezio Bonsignore
The signature on the final agreement between the US and Israel for the supply of a first batch of F-35A LIGTHNING II fighter aircraft (a.k.a. JSF) would seem to mark a very important turning point in the political, strategic and military relationship between the two countries. The reasons for this author’s use of a cautious conditional tense will become evident in what follows.
Needless to say, there never was any real doubt about the US being ready and willing to accept an IDF order for the F-35 as soon as Jerusalem was interested in placing it. Now, in this specific case, an “order” means that Israel will receive the aircraft courtesy of the US taxpayer through the annual Military Assistance Program outlays, but that’s irrelevant.
Despite the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, and despite Washington’s determination to maintain the qualitative and quantitative edge of the Israeli military over its neighbours, the official signing of the contract has been delayed by about two years by a dispute – a squabble, if you prefer – about the Israeli’s right to integrate onto their F-35 a variety of equipment, subsystems and weapons of their own choice.
The US (which in this context includes the government as well as the military and industry) has always been adamant that foreign JSF customer can integrate whatever equipment can be physically integrated, however, subject to US approval and provided that:
a) The customer(s) requiring the integration of a certain item will carry all relevant costs,
b) The integration will be performed in the US by Lockheed Martin, and
c) All aircraft manufactured after that will have the integration as a built-in feature, even if they are intended for customers that are not interested in the item. That is, the F-35s to be delivered to Italy or the US will have the capability to use the ASRAAM air-to-air missile (this being paid for by the UK) even though they rather use the IRIS-T and AIM-9X, respectively. This is intended to avoid the proliferation of a number of national variants, incompatible with each other.
Point b) is pivotal. Given the nature of the electronics of modern combat aircraft, based upon a digital databus, integration of anything more sophisticated than a New Year’s Eve firecracker necessarily requires access to the source codes – that is, the very key to all aspects of the design.
The US firmly intends for the source codes of the F-35 to stay home, under double lock and key. The Israelis, however, have spent the past two years insisting for the right to integrate on their own whatever they would wish to. This was in part to give work to their industries, in part to obtain access (free of charge) to the most advanced aircraft technologies in the word, and in part to prevent anyone, even the US, from being able to precisely know the characteristics and capabilities of their aircraft. However, the US, once in a while, refused to budge.
The formal signature of the contract now indicates that a compromise, of sort, has been reached. But compromises being, well, compromises, the interesting question now is who exactly gave in to whom, and about what.
While there is a lot of (probably deliberate) disinformation around, the terms of the deal seem to be as follows:
a) The aircraft of the current order will be delivered to the “US standard,” with only a minimum of very minor modifications. It is not immediately clear whether “US standard” here means “the very same aircraft as the USAF” or rather refers to the widely suspected export standard with degraded stealth features.
b) The IDF, however, has a stated requirement for up to a further 75 JSFs in three batches (25 + 25 +25 aircraft). A possibility has been left open for the “last” Israeli F-35s (whatever “last” means) to be designed and delivered in an Israeli-optimised version, featuring Israeli-made sub-systems. But it would appear that even these aircraft would be built and completely outfitted by LM. So, no Israeli workload and no transfer of source codes.
So, where does this leave us, or more precisely the US and Israel?
For Israel to obtain access to the source codes right now it was, in all evidence, totally out of the question. Not even the UK – despite being a “Level One” partner in the JSF programme, with very significant financial and technological contributions, and despite what at the time was mistaken for a promise by George W. Bush to Tony Blair – will get them. One might wonder whether Jerusalem was really serious in its insistence, or it was all part of a high-level poker game.
The question is thus postponed to those “last” Israeli F-35s, which might – or then might not – receive part of their equipment in Israel, via the transfer of the source codes. In the latter case, an observer familiar with the Lavi and Jonathan Pollard events might wish to speculate on how long it will take for the codes to end up in China or Russia.
It is also theoretically possible that all of the above is itself only disinformation and a smoke curtain. I mean, it is also possible that the US has actually agreed to transfer the source codes to Israel, and that the aircraft will be secretly modified as soon as they start arriving in 2015/2016.
It would arguably take some time for the rest of the world to realize what’s going on. But the moment they do, the sh** will really hit the fan.