The F-35I is back: On Sunday, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) returned to bring its fleet of F-35I Adir airframes into full service following their grounding in July. The US discovered a problem affecting the fighter jet’s ejection seats last month, prompting the Israelis to examine its 33 airframes. Under the guidelines of IAF Chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, two Adirs were checked daily for safety by maintenance teams. Without special permission from Bar, each fighter was placed under house arrest as a precaution. The IAF’s 33 fighters have all been cleared for flight, but the US Air Force F-35s remain grounded.
F-35I safety concerns after discovering explosives were not in the ejection device
The US Air Forces at the end of July grounded its fleet of F-35 fighters temporarily, citing a potentially fatal defect discovered in some of its aircraft’s ejection seats. Ejection seats are used to save the pilot or crew of an airplane in an emergency. Generally, the canopy is removed, the pilot restrained, and a catapult fired by gas pressure, propelling the pilot or crew away from the aircraft. ejection seats are only used as a last resort when a pilot decides beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no chance of salvaging the airframe. Pilots are an extremely valuable asset to any military, as their training requires immense money and time costs and it is a human life. Ejection seats act as a pilot’s last line of defense – if the airframe falls, the pilot is still protected from this tool. Therefore, the seat has two advantages, it helps prevent tragedy while preserving a valuable military asset.
During a routine maintenance check in April, officials discovered a faulty component in an airframe’s ejection seat. A speaker for Air Force Combat Command Alexi Worley said the problem involves the explosive rounds in the ejection seats, which are helping him propel himself out of the plane. According to the Air Force Times, a maintenance worker discovered the problem after doing a routine check and feeling that the ejection cartridge was suspiciously light. Further investigation revealed that the magnesium powder used to launch a pilot from the fighter plane was missing, which would impair the ejection seat’s function. Worley added, “On July 19, we began a technical timeline policy to inspect all cartridges on the ejection seat within 90 days,” Worley said in the statement. “As a precaution,” she said, “Air Combat Command units will be conducting a standstill on July 29 to expedite the inspection process.” Based on the data gathered from these inspections, ACC will decide to resume operations.”
The US is still grounded on its F-35 aircraft
While the Navy claimed that only jets “within a limited range of lot numbers are affected,” the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps suspended all flights of several types of fixed-wing aircraft. The IAF followed suit, stop Training flights for its squadrons of F-35I Adir fighters. Israel’s 33 fighter jets are divided into two squadrons under the IAF, the 116th Lions of the South Squadron and the 140th Golden Eagle Squadron, in addition to the Air Force training squadron. Israel’s ‘Adir’ variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter represents the premier fighter in the IAF’s arsenal. The IAF’s Adir is a heavily modified version of the American prototype. Not only was Israel the first buyer of the US-made fifth-generation jet, it was also the first country to fly the F-35 in combat.
In May 2018, then-Commander of the IAF, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, announced that the military’s fleet of F-35I Adirs participated in a Celebration Israeli retaliation against Tehran and its regional proxies in Syria claiming: “We (the IAF) conducted the first ever F-35 operational strike. The IAF is a pioneer and a world leader in air force operations.” Since then, the IAF has relied more heavily on the capabilities of its Adir airframe.
In March, the IDF announced that its fleet took part in its first airstrike, taking out at least two Iranian drones in 2021. According to The Drive, “The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have also released a video showing one of the drones engaged, from the perspective of an F-35I. While it’s unclear whether it came from the jet’s electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) or the helmet-mounted display, this is the first time we’ve seen an F-35 participate in a dogfight of this nature.”
In recent years there has been a sharp uptrend in Iran-sponsored attacks on Israeli and US forces in the region. As hostility continues to mount, the IAF is likely to rely more heavily on its fleet of F-35I Adirs. While the recent grounding of its airframe was brief due to the potentially faulty ejection seats, any additional intelligence that would result in a prolonged suspension of training would be detrimental to the IAF’s operational readiness.
Maya Carlin is Defense Middle East Editor at 19FortyFive. She is also an Analyst at the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has bylines in many publications including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post and Times of Israel.