Israel shot down an Iranian drone with an Apache helicopter and had one of its own F-16s downed by Syrian air defenses in an intense air battle that played out over the weekend of Feb. 10, 2018. Experts say its a matter of time until the F-35 steps in for its first taste of combat.
After the loss of the F-16, Israeli jets scrambled within hours and took out half of Syria's air defense network, according to their own assessment.
But the image of the destroyed Israeli plane will leave a lasting black eye for the Jewish state, and Syria's assistant foreign minister promised Israel's air force "will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria."
Despite the downed F-16 and Syria's threats, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue to wield his air force against Iranian-backed targets in Syria when he feels they get too close to his borders.
"We made unequivocally clear to everyone that our modus operandi has not changed one bit," he said.
So, why didn't Israel send F-35 stealth jets? Isreal has spent hundreds of millions on acquiring and supporting the weapons system purpose-built to fight in contested air spaces undetected. Israel declared its F-35s operational in December 2017.
Looks like a job for the F-35?
F-35 Lightning II. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons.)
Justin Bronk, a combat aviation expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider that the F-35 today has a "very immature software set," and that it "doesn't make a huge amount of sense to use them and risk them over enemy airspace" when it can afford so few of them.
But retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, a former F-35 squadron commander, thought differently.
"I'd be very comfortable flying the currently fielded software in combat," Berke, who trained with Israeli pilots at the U.S. Navy's Top Gun school, told Business Insider.
Berke said the F-35 was "ideal" for the heavily defended airspace over Syria, and also ideally suited for Israel's air force, which he described as finding "innovative, creative, and aggressive ways to maximize the capability of every weapons system they've ever used."
"The F-35 will see combat for Israel and it's just a matter of time," Berke said. Bronk and other experts contacted by Business Insider agreed that the F-35's first combat will likely take place in Israeli service, as they lash out against mounting Iranian power in the region.
Presently, it's not clear that Israel didn't use the F-35. Israel has a long history of pioneering weapons systems and hitting the ground running with new ones. Israel has conducted its air war in Syria very quietly, only publicly acknowledging strikes after its F-16 went down. In March 2017, a French journalist cited French intel reports allegedly saying the F-35 may have already been put to work in Israeli service.
When the F-35 starts fighting, you'll know
F-35 Lightning II in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sean Sweeney)
But, with or without the F-35, Israel seemed satisfied with its counterattack on Syrian defenses. Bronk cautioned that Israel's claim to have taken out half of the defenses probably only refers to half of the defenses in immediate proximity to its borders, but said they have "many, many tricks developed over decades" for the suppression of enemy air defenses.
The surface-to-air missiles in Syria's hands "certainly cannot be ignored or taken too lightly," according to Berke, and pose a "legitimate threat" to legacy aircraft like Israel's F-16.
A source working on stealth aircraft for the U.S. military who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the work would only hint to Business Insider that the F-35 may be gearing up for a fight in Syria, saying "if things unexplained start happening, there's a good explanation."