Lockheed showcases F-35 Israel sales in face-off with Boeing

Joshua Shani, a retired Israel Air Force general, forges partnerships with local defense contractors as head of Lockheed Martin’s local operations

As tensions with Iran simmered last November, Israeli Air Force officers turned up at Nevatim Air Base in the Negev desert to greet the delivery of three F-35 stealth fighter jets. The message was clear: Israel is equipped with the most advanced aerospace technology that can attack multiple sites in Iran if it escalates its nuclear program.

The aircraft delivery by Lockheed Martin, which increased the size of Israel’s F-35 fleet to 36 planes, was also a message to Boeing and other competitors that it will battle across global markets for dominance in military aircraft sales. The Bethesda, Md.-based aerospace company is the biggest weapons manufacturer in the world, and is strengthening links with Israeli defense contractors as it fights to maintain its stature in the Middle East.

Heading that effort is Joshua Shani, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli Air Force, who has been CEO for Lockheed Martin’s operations in Israel for 30 years. The company has engaged in over $1 billion of offset deals through manufacturing agreements with Haifa-based Elbit Systems, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries and other Israeli firms. Elbit produces helmet-mounted displays for the F-35s that project information onto a pilot’s visor. IAI produces wing parts for both the F-35 and F-16 jets.

“Lockheed Martin has a large footprint in Israel,” Shani, 77, said in an interview with The Circuit.

Besides the fighter aircraft, Lockheed Martin is working with state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems on a variant of Israel’s Iron Beam laser air-defense system for the U.S. market. Iron Beam is a 100-kilowatt air-defense laser cannon, developed by Rafael in cooperation with Elbit, and the Israeli Defense Ministry. The defense system shoots down rockets, mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles at far cheaper costs than missile interceptors. The system was displayed for visiting U.S. President Joe Biden at Ben Gurion International Airport in July by former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Just last week, it was reported that Israel and the U.S. are in initial talks for the purchase of 25 Boeing F-15 fighter jets.

Lockheed Martin is active throughout the Gulf region, where it sells Hercules C-130 transport aircraft to Saudi Arabia and maintains a Center for Innovation and Security Solutions in the United Arab Emirates. The company is expected to begin delivering new F-16 jets to Bahrain in 2024. 

Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin F-35 Stealth fighter jet

Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force pilots stationed in the region, who fly F-16s and F-35s out of Al-Udeid Base in Qatar, regularly cooperate with Israeli Air Force pilots and often train together. With Israel’s entry into CENTCOM, the U.S. military command responsible for the Middle East., joint military drills with Gulf allies Bahrain and the UAE are becoming formalized. In October 2021, the Emirati air force chief, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim al Alawi, arrived in Israel for a groundbreaking visit to observe the IAF’s Blue Flag combat drill. 

“This is a government-to-government relationship, but the joint systems means that the Israeli and U.S. militaries can cooperate well, and as a result, brings genuine value,” Shani said. 

Bridging the gap between the aerospace giant and the State of Israel is only the latest of Shani’s many exploits in a 58-year career. Born in 1945 to Holocaust survivors in Germany’s Bergen-Belsen displaced persons center, which had previously been a concentration camp, Shani came to Israel as a child. He received his pilot’s wings from Ezer Weizman, the commander of the IAF who went on to become Israel’s president.

“For my family who attended the wings ceremony, it was the most joyful and moving moment of their lives,” he recalled. 

Shani’s skills were recognized in his selection for the IAF’s aerobatic flying team, but he was ultimately transferred to the transport flying division. Starting on the Boeing B377 Stratocruiser aircraft, which began flying in 1947, Shani rose through the ranks until he started flying the C-130 Hercules, which was the aircraft that in 1976 transported Israeli commandos to the Entebbe airport in Uganda to rescue more than 100 hostages taken captive by Palestinian and West German terrorists. Among those killed in Entebbe were three hostages and the ground unit commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, older brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

“Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked me directly to take this on,” Shani said.  “We had days of preparations leading up to it. It was extraordinarily difficult, especially in a relatively new IAF plane, which few knew how to fly. No one knew much about the Hercules.” Upon his return from Entebbe, Shani recalls being greeted by the IAF commander who gave him a bottle of whiskey.

“I learned how to fly the Hercules in the United States, being one of the first two Israeli pilots [trained] on it,” he said. “We then instructed hundreds of pilots – a whole generation – on how to fly it. Today, I have ‘grandchildren’ – the sons of pilots I instructed – in the transport fleet,” he  said.

In 1978, Shani became commander of the IAF base in Lod, adjacent to Ben Gurion International Airport, the first base commander from the transport aircraft array. 

“As commander, the buck stopped with me,” he said. “I had the last say. The responsibility caused my hair to turn white.”

In 1985, Shani became the IAF’s attaché in the U.S. with the rank of brigadier-general. He was awarded the Legion of Merit by the U.S. Armed Forces. Entering civilian life, he started by advising Israeli defense companies and in 1993 was hired by Lockheed Martin as its chief executive in Israel. 

Shani takes pride in Lockheed’s role in building Israeli air capabilities, including the delivery of 102 F-16 Sufa fighter jets – the backbone of the IAF, and the acquisition of two squadrons of F-35 stealth aircraft. If the purchase of a third squadron is approved, Israel will have 75 F-35s. 

“The F-35 faced stiff competition from Boeing’s F-15, and many questioned its true capabilities in air-to-air combat. But the F-35 has won,” Shani said.  “There were challenges, it was initially expensive, but when its price dropped to $78 million – the price of an F-16 — the IAF began purchasing many of these planes.” 

Shani maintains close relationships to Israel’s military decision-makers. The Lockheed Martin Israel chief “is a rare combination of an officer and a former senior IAF pilot who continues, in his present role, to contribute to the national security of Israel, in the field of the IAF’s force build up, which is a spearhead of Israel’s combined force,” former Maj. Gen. Amos Gilead, executive director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University, and former director of policy and political-military affairs at the Israeli Defense Ministry, told The Circuit. Shani’s also a “charming and intelligent person,” he said.

While Lockheed Martin has a retired general running its Israeli division, Boeing hired the IAF’s former commander, Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, to run its operation in Israel.

Competition between the two global giants heated up over an IAF contract to upgrade its aging Hercules fleet. Boeing offered the IAF a plan to upgrade existing planes, while Lockheed Martin argued that they needed to be replaced. “As the oldest Hercules operator, I knew what we did to these planes and how we broke them by landing them on dirt runaways. I objected to the upgrade proposal,” said Shani.

The IAF ultimately bought Lockheed’s new Super Hercules, and Elbit fitted out two squadrons with new on-board electronics systems, he said. Lockheed Martin and Boeing also faced off in 2021 over which would supply the IAF with new transport helicopters, to replace its aging fleet of Yasur CH-53D aircraft. The question was settled in February of that year, when Israel announced that it opted for the Lockheed Martin Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion, which has a range of advanced capabilities, including autonomous pilot assist modes. The competitor was Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook.

“We demonstrated that despite being more expensive, if you look at it over the years, the Chinook would have had to be upgraded twice, to receive new refueling capabilities, meaning that the long-term costs would have been the same,” Shani argued. 

The IAF has ordered 12 Sikorskys, and reserved the possibility for another six.

“I believe that my work with Lockheed Martin has created extensive and crucial benefits for Israeli defense,” said Shani. “The F-35, the new Hercules, the C-130J Hercules and the CH-53K King Stallion have no competition. They are the best in the world.”

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