At the end of 2014 Israel ordered another fourteen American F-35A fighters, with the option to order another 17 in 2017. Back in 2010 Israel sought to get to the front of queue for the new F-35A fighter-bomber by ordering nineteen. These are all to be delivered by the end of 2018 and the first of the newly ordered batch is to arrive in 2019.
Although the F-35A costs about twice as much as a high-end F-16, the Israelis believe it's worth the price. The F-35A matches the F-16 in terms of maneuverability, outperforms it in terms of stealthiness, payload, range, supportability, survivability and overall operational effectiveness. Not surprisingly the F-35 costs more than twice as much.
The U.S. Air Force still expects to get production models of its 31 ton F-35A in late 2016. This is the cheapest version, costing about $159 million each. The U.S. Navy version (the F-35C) will arrive in late 2019 and cost about $264 million each. This version has a stronger landing gear to handle carrier landings and components that are more resistant to corrosion from constant exposure to salt water. The vertical take-off version for the marines, the F-35B, will cost $214 million each. All of these prices are expected to be much higher (20 percent or more) in reality. This is happening despite more and more delays as well as questions about reliability and cost. At the moment the F-35 costs 60 percent more (than the F-16, per flight hour) to operate.
The F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and, before the SDB (Small Diameter Bomb) arrived, four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. A new bomb rack allows the F-35 to carry eight SDBs internally. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.
Like the F-22 fighter, the F-35 is stuffed with a lot of new technology. Most of the F-35s built will be used by foreign nations. The rising cost of the F-35 brings with it reluctance to buy as many aircraft as currently planned. The success of smart bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan has also made it clear that fewer aircraft will be needed in the future. In any event, it's likely that F-35s will end up costing more than twice what the most modern F-16s go for. But with SBDs F-35s become a very potent bomber that can get at well protected targets because of the F-35 stealth.
Many air force generals around the world still see the F-16 as a better deal. That may well be, depending on who your likely opponents are. But if you live in a rough neighborhood, the extra cost of the F-35A appears a prudent investment. Nevertheless, over 4,000 F-16s have been sold, and it is still being built. But the F-35 is shaping up to be a big seller as well, and is seen as the successor to the F-16 in the 21st century.
Israel also operates one of the most capable versions of the F-16 (the F16I). These began arriving in 2004and Israel will upgraded 125 of its F-16C and D models to the I standard. The F-16I is a 24 ton, two seat fighter-bomber, and is probably the most capable F-16 model in service. It's basically a modified version of the F-16C/D Block 50/52, equipped with a more advanced radar (the APG-68(X)) and the ability to carry Israeli weapons like the Python 4 air-to-air missile and the Popeye 2 air-to-surface missile. Costing $50 million each, the F-16I has an excellent navigation system, which allows it to fly on the deck (a hundred meters from the ground), without working the pilot to death. The aircraft can do this at night or in any weather. The F-16I can carry enough fuel to hit targets 1,600 kilometers away (meaning Iran is within range). The aircraft uses the latest short and long range air-to-air missiles, as well as smart bombs. Electronic countermeasures are carried, as is a powerful computer system, which records the details of each sortie in great detail. This is a big help for training. The F-16I is basically optimized to deliver smart bombs anywhere, despite dense air defenses. This further increases Israels military power versus its neighbors. Israel eventually received 102 of them.
Israel originally planned on get a hundred F-35As. The first ones were originally supposed to arrive by 2012. There have been a lot of delays and delivery has slipped six years, and even that may be optimistic. There will be additional delays Israel wants to equip its F-35s with some Israeli electronics and weapons, and that deal is still being worked out. Installing this equipment will take months, at the very least.