The Israeli Defense Minister expressed his preference for the country to acquire a third F-35 squadron in comments to media on Monday.
Speaking to Ynet TV, Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz stated, “Right now we have two [F-35] squadrons. I reckon we will expand that. That is what I requested of the Americans. I would buy another F-35 squadron and then examine what to do with the balance – continuing to expand the F-35 [procurement], going for F-15s?”
Gantz traveled to the U.S. in September 2020 and, the following month, hosted his American counterpart, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, in Tel Aviv.
Israel presently has placed orders for 50 F-35s and has received around half of the jets. The first began arriving in December 2016, and Israel has confirmed that the aircraft have subsequently seen combat duty. Over the last few years, the Air Force has engaged in deliberations over whether to add another F-35 squadron or purchase more F-15s instead. The F-35 provides stealth capability, while the F-15s are able to carry heavier payloads. A final decision on the purchase has been expected for some time, but may have been delayed over political gridlock in Israel.
The F-35 has likely received even greater attention following the signing of the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates last year. The agreement, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the Gulf state, also paved the way for the U.S. State Department to approve the Emiratis’ request for the F-35, making the UAE the first Arab state to be approved for the advanced aircraft.
The UAE has requested 50 jets, which would give its air force the same number as the Israeli Air Force absent any follow-on Israeli buys. Other countries in the Middle East are interested in acquiring the jet as well.
A Congressional bid to block the Emirati deal last month failed to achieve sufficient support, but a contract to sell the jet to the UAE has not yet been announced. The incoming Biden administration has not specified what its approach to the deal will be, though some foreign policy advisers to the president-elect have expressed skepticism of the sale.
It is not clear when Israel will move forward with its own plans on a new fighter jet purchase. Three inconclusive elections from 2019 to early 2020 failed to produce a clear majority in the Knesset, but the coronavirus pandemic prompted Gantz to enter a coalition with rival Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister. Under the terms of their arrangement, Netanyahu remained as prime minister, but he was supposed to transfer the premiership to Gantz in late 2021.
However, continued dysfunction in the governing coalition has impeded the passage of a budget, and last month, the Knesset dissolved. Israel will thus head to new elections in March.