Israeli pilots are expected to arrive at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., for training on the F-35 next year, while delivery of the first aircraft to Israel is expected a year later, in 2015.

Israel placed an order for 20 F-35s in 2010, becoming one of the first international customers to formally order the fifth-generation fighter.

The first squadron will be based at Nevatim air base in the Negev desert. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) selected the F-35 when the program was “on probation,” amid uncertainty about the stealthy fighter’s cost. In an exclusive interview with Aviation Week, Brigadier General Hagai Topolansky, chief of air staff and deputy IAF commander, outlined some of the advantages the IAF could gain with this new fighter.

“Assuming the F-35 will offer the capabilities it is planned to deliver, it will bring a new dimension to air battles as we know [them] today.” Topolansky explains. “The advantage of this strike fighter is not about higher performance or weapon capacity, but the ability to understand the battle space, [to] identify [and] locate targets from standoff range and neutralize them before being engaged. These capabilities are meaningful in dealing with modern fighter aircraft and advanced SAMs. While the F-35 has many limitations, it can take on and win against any threat currently available in-theater. Its ability to independently collect, assess and process the battle-space situational picture, and strike those targets independently and effectively from standoff range, provides a qualitative edge over anything the enemy can confront with in the foreseeable future.”

Topolansky notes that among the requirements Israel insisted upon throughout the procurement negotiations was the adaptation of the baseline F-35A, including all its systems, to the IAF operational environment. “Our F-35I will be equipped with our specific networks, armament and electronic warfare, among them the Spice autonomous EO-guided weapon. It will also carry the AIM-9X2 air-to-air missile, which will become the first platform in the IAF to employ this advanced air-to-air missile. We also plan to continue and pursue the development of future air-to-air missiles; we still evaluate the cost/performance tradeoff between a common air-to-air and air-to-ground missile and a dedicated AAM design,” Topolansky explains.

“Through this process we are implementing many lessons learned, and will meet the requirements of the (Joint Strike Fighter) by introducing the necessary technical solutions that will enable the aircraft to carry out all its missions while conforming to our own operational concept. We have learned a lot through this process, and will use some of this experience in future systems upgrades. The U.S. is also interested in the solutions we have come up with, as they could solve critical operational gaps.”