TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel on Sunday said it will expand its fleet of next-generation F-35 fighter jets in a move that officials believe will help maintain the country's qualitative military edge over its Mideast neighbors for years to come.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office announced that his Security Cabinet has approved the purchase of 17 additional F-35s. In all, it said, the acquisition will bring the number of planes the air force will get to 50.
The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, with an estimated cost of nearly $400 billion. Israel is among a small number of allies slated to receive the plane, with the first F-35 expected to arrive in about three weeks.
A senior Israeli air force official described the arrival of the F-35 as a game-changing development that will give Israel a "strong and effective tool" in dealing with challenges across the region.
He said its ability to "integrate" various-cutting edge systems would preserve Israel's ability to act freely in hostile airspace. He cited its long range capability, its ability to provide pilots with critical data in real time and a stealth system that can evade or delay detection by the world's most sophisticated radar systems.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military briefing guidelines, said Israel would begin training with the new planes immediately, but that it would take "more than a few months" for the first planes to be operational.
He did not specify what missions Israel might make with the planes, but said the F-35s are expected to meet all of Israel's needs. In recent years, Israel has reportedly carried out long-range airstrikes as far away as Sudan, and is believed to have struck Hezbollah-bound weapons shipments in neighboring Syria.
Israel has also hinted in the past at making plans to strike Iran, some 1,000 kilometers away, if the Islamic Republic presses forward with a nuclear program it considers suspect. The threat of Israeli action in Iran has dropped following the international community's deal with Iran last year to curb its nuclear program.
Both Syria and Iran possess sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft systems. He said these systems will still present a challenge, but the F-35 will be "very helpful" against them.
The official said the arrival of the Russian air force in Syria, where it has backed the government in its civil war against rebels, has also complicated the situation for Israel.
Israel and Russia have established a communications mechanism to prevent clashes between their air forces. He said the two countries do not coordinate their activities, but instead are aware of each other's interests and take steps to maintain security and avoid conflict.
The Pentagon's F-35 program has been criticized by members of the U.S. Congress over testing problems, delays and cost overruns. International buyers include Britain, South Korea, Israel, Italy, Australia, Canada, Turkey and Japan.