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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Three Israeli F-35s have landed in Israel as part of a clear effort by the country to greatly expand its 5th-Gen warfare capability and potentially further deter or hold off threats from Iran. 

Called F-35 “Adir” jets, the new planes add to the existing line up of 5th-Gen fighter jets either stationed in the Middle East or in close enough proximity to perform operations if called upon. While much of the U.S. and global focus has shifted from counterterrorism to great power warfare preparation, asymmetrical threats are by no means entirely disappearing from the radar. 

The F-35, for instance, was used to attack Taliban targets in Afghanistan in recent years, the 5th-Gen aircraft continues to expand its Close Air Support mission envelope to add ground attack capability in closer proximity to maneuvering ground troops. Given this growing mission scope for the F-35, the new Israeli aircraft may be well suited to take on additional missions in the Middle East where counterterrorismprecision targeting or counterinsurgency Close Air Support might be needed. Therefore, while F-35s are likely to enjoy air supremacy in most places throughout the Middle East, it still brings added tactical value should there be a need for CAS or various kinds of covert air attacks and precision strikes. This would prove quite relevant in the event of another ISIS-type threat or emerging terrorist training camp which might need to be eliminated from the air should there be moving targets. There does appear to be an extremely pertinent and impactful tactical reason to operate F-35s in CAS, given the aircraft’s ability to use its speed, 25mm cannon and lower-to-ground maneuverability to elude incoming enemy ground fire. At the same time, there is also emerging consensus that some kind of non 5th-Gen light attack plane specifically configured for counterinsurgency. However, the particular blend of ISR and attack potential woven into an F-35 may bring an entirely new generation of integrated CAS because incoming video and targeting data could almost instantly be merged with weapons applications and close-in attack. 

Thelargest overall impact of additional F-35s in Israel, however, may be when it comes to deterrent Iran. Iran is among a handful of nations known to operate Russian-built S-400 air defenses which would likely need stealth bombers or fighter jets attacks to establish air superiority. Iran is also believed to operate some F-14 Tomcats, dual-seat Navy fighters now retired by the U.S. These planes, or other Iranian aircraft would need to be destroyed in the air, something F-35s or F-22s would be well positioned to accomplish. 

Iran’s nuclear ambitions, still of great concern regardless of whether some kind of U.S.-Iranian cooperative deal is reached, might need to be kept in check with the threat of stealthy 5th-Gen precision air strikes able to destroy facilities or transport vehicles looking to move nuclear material. Unlike a ship-fired Tomahawk or precision land missile, a maneuvering air asset such as an F-35 might be uniquely equipped to track and destroy moving targets in the event Iran seeks to maneuver troops, mobile launchers, weapons or even nuclear materials. 

The Isreali military continues to engineer new external fuel tanks for its specially configured “Adir” variant of the F-35, an aircraft tailored by the country for unique mission sets particular to address the kinds of enemy threats their forces are likely to encounter. Simply put, extra fuel tanks can of course massively extend strike range and multiply combat options for Israel, should it be confrontedwith an operational need to attack enemies at greater distances than an F-35 could normally reach. 

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According to an Israeli news site called Walla, the Israeli Air Force Flight Testing Center (FTC) at Tel-Nof AFB is “developing the external drop tanks that will help the Adir to complete long-range missions over “third circle” targets, such a hypothetical strike against Iranian objectives.” 

Thefirst studies for new fuel tanks started at least during the system design and development phase (SDD) of the 5th gen aircraft several years ago, Walla report, but nothing new appears to have surfaced in the last few years

While the concept of external fuel tanks may upon initial examination seem to greatly reduce the stealth properties of an F-35, the 5th Gen aircraft may indeed be able to preserve its low radar signature withextra tanks. How? Well the Israeli report did not show any images or renderings of what an extra additional fuel tank may look like on the jet, yet previous instances of external fuel tanks such as the “conformal tanks” built onto the Navy F/A-18 indicate that it is possible to align the configuration of the extra tanks along the body of the fuselage in a way that preserves  blended wing-body stealth shapes, edges and contours. 

Regardless, the addition of any degree of extra “metal” flying through the air, no matter how stealthily it is engineered, may increase the detectability of the jet, however perhaps not to a degree sufficient to render it vulnerable to Iranian S-400 air defenses. Also, the added range capacity afforded by the extra tanks of course increases strikereach and, of equal or greater significance, substantially enhances mission “dwell time” over target enabling F-35s to hunt for and strike targets on a single mission.  This kind of added time on missions during strikes could prove to be of particular relevance in the case of Iran, because Isreali F-35s would not only have to cross the Persian Gulf but also likely be faced with a large number of Iranian targets. There may be mobile missile launchers which require F-35 drone like surveillance to locate or sensitive and somewhat obscured high-value targets such as nuclear facilities not easily attacked by short-duration missions. The longer a single F-35 can operate over a particular area of operations, the less there may be a need for more aircraft, a tactic which would of course make any air attack less detectable to Iranian radar. 

The extra tanks for the Adir may prove particularly crucial given that Israel may not have an aerial refueler sufficiently stealthy or well positioned to add fuel to F-35s during attack operations. Unlike the U.S. Navy which operates the carrier-launched MQ-25 Stingray refueler to extend maritime power projection, the Isreali military may not have a comparable ability to add fuel to the 5th-Gen aircraft. Certainly the existence of something like the Stingray can, in the case of the U.S. Navy, almost double the strike range and dwell time of carrier-launched F-35Cs.  

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Lockheed Martin