Israel receives F-35s, first country after USA
After the stealth fighter jets, costing around $100m each, were delayed by fog in Italy, the much-anticipated and delayed celebration takes place at Nevatim Air Force Base; US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter attends event; hundreds of would-be attendees left earlier when delays were announced; event overshadowed by Trump criticism of F-35 project cost.
Israel's first two F-35s landed in Israel at the Netavim Air Force Base in the South on Monday afternoon to a celebration that had been delayed five hours by fog in Italy that prevented the stealth jets from taking off.
Israel became the first country after the US to receive the American-built jets, which will increase its ability to attack distant targets, including Iran.
The much-hyped arrival of the first two fighter jets was overshadowed by US President-elect Donald Trump's tweet that Lockheed Martin's whole F-35 project was too expensive, which came out while the planes were delayed in Italy.
"The F-35 program and cost is out of control," Trump said on Twitter, sending Lockheed Martin's shares down 4 percent.
The guests included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in addition to senior IDF officers, MKs, businessmen and other officials.
Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin's F-35 programme leader, said the company understood concerns about affordability and had invested millions of dollars to try to reduce its price.
Netanyahu said, ""Our long arm has now become longer and mightier."
The prime minister stopped to personally thank the American secretary of defense for having come, saying, "I want to thank you, Secretary Carter, for coming here with your wife to mark this milestone with us."
Netanyahu commented, "It's a sign of your personal commitment to Israel's security on many fronts." He extended his gratitude to the entire US administration, saying, "And I wish to thank as well, along with all the people of Israel, President Obama. Israel is your best and most reliable ally in the Middle East—in my opinion beyond the Middle East. We will always remain so. Thank you, Secretary Carter."
Carter appreciated that Israel, which began by flying "leftover World War II aircraft," would now be flying the advanced F-35. Calling the plane by its Hebrew nomination of "Adir," ("The Mighty One") he lauded Israel as being the first US ally in the region to receive the stealth fighter.
The defense secretary assured the crowd, "We're more committed to Israel's security today than ever before."
Israel, which finalised a 10-year, $38 billion arms deal from the United States this year, plans to maintain two F-35 squadrons.
Critics of the plane say it can carry a smaller weapons payload and has a shorter range than Israel's current squadrons of US-built F-15s and F-16s.
But some experts say the F-35's stealth capabilities make up for this because it can be more accurate and fly a more direct route to its target. Israel's air force mostly flies missions close to home, in the Gaza Strip and against arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.
Nimrod Shefer, a retired Israeli air force major general, said the new aircraft were a welcome addition.
"(There are) very low- to very high-altitude missiles ... and targets that are becoming more and more difficult to detect and to destroy," he said
Hundreds of spectators also came to the ceremony, which was supposed to begin at 2:30pm originally. When it was uncertain if the event would take place, a great many left. It was only announced shortly after 16:00 that the planes had left Italy and that the ceremony would indeed take place at 7:30pm.