Pilots of the newest F-16I long-range fighter/bomber which is to roll off the assembly line in Texas Friday are itchy to get their hands on the $45 million jet.
Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin delivers the first F-16I at its plant here Friday to an Israeli delegation led by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, fresh from his talks in Washington.
The rollout ceremony marks the interim phase in this $4.5 billion dollar deal, the largest arms deal ever taken in the history of the state. Lockheed Martin won the tender, beating rival Boeing, in 1999 to supply 102 of the advanced fighter jets which are aimed at strengthening the IAF's long reach, being able to reach nations like Iran and Libya.
The aircraft have been supplemented to Israel's specifications and are different from any other F-16, even in the service of the US Air Force. They are being paid for from the annual US military grants given to Israel, which this year stands at about $2.2 billion.
The next phase is transporting the jets to Israel. The first is expected to arrive next month and gradually the whole squadron will be in place at the Ramon base deep in the Negev. A total of three squadrons will be delivered by 2008.
With the arrival of the 102 F-16Is, Israel will have a total of 362 of the jets – the largest fleet in any country in the world behind the United States. The F-16s are the backbone of the IAF, but these new "I" models will give added punch to the long-range capabilities of the IAF and will complement the squadron of F-15Is Israel received in the end of the 1990s.
The Air Force has nicknamed the F-16I as "Sufa," or thunderstorm. It has a 820 non-refueling radius of operation.