Opinion - Politics

The F-35 has already freaked out Iran and changed everything in the Middle East

Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II
Robert Sullivan | FlickrCC

No conversation about the world's massive political and economic changes since 2015 is complete without mentioning the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, developed by Lockheed Martin.

That became even clearer this week thanks to a somewhat cheeky statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in response to Iran's provocative moves in the Persian Gulf and other threats from Tehran. Standing in front of an F-35 jet parked at an Israeli Air Force base, Netanyahu barely held back a smile as he said that Israel can reach Iran, but Iran cannot reach Israel.

He didn't add the words "undetected by radar," but it was surely implied.

To understand why that soundbite with the visual backdrop was more than just bluster, you have trace the F-35's incredible history in the Middle East over the past four years.

We hopped into a F-35 simulator. Here's what it's like
We hopped into a F-35 simulator. Here's what it's like

You don't have to be a military genius to know that a supersonic jet that can fly undetected by radar for hundreds of miles will make a difference anywhere in the world. But the F-35's already powerful impact in the Middle East was multiplied extensively during the months leading up to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That was still more than a year before the jet was put into service anywhere in the world.

But it was late summer 2015 when reports in the Israeli news media surfaced about how Israelis working on F-35 prototypes had managed to double the jet's flight and stealth capacity. It wasn't lost on anyone that the extension meant Israeli Air Force pilots could use the F-35 to fly from Israel to Tehran and back without detection -- and without having to refuel at U.S. air bases in Saudi Arabia or Iraq.

Suddenly, U.S.-Israeli air superiority in the region had risen to a new level. Saudi Arabia had already begun the process of cooperating more with Israel on defense and security matters for some time, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at during a "60 Minutes" interview after President Trump's election. But the idea of letting Israeli jets land and refuel in that Arab country was still a stretch in 2015. Iraqi leaders were also not receptive to the idea. But the new technology was now rendering the objections moot.

The move only acted to bring the Saudis and the Israelis closer. It was one thing for the two countries to have a common enemy in Iran that was on the verge of getting billions of dollars and a clear, if supposedly delayed, path to a nuclear weapon. But with the new F-35 and its expanded capacities in the picture, there was something more tangible than political promises and intelligence sharing to hang their hopes on.

Israel says it's the first country to use the US-made F-35 fighter jet in combat
Israel says it's the first country to use F-35 fighter jet in combat

All of that made it easier for King Salman to shake up his regime and name Mohammed bin Salman the new crown prince. Mohammad, who is aggressive on defense, wasted little time enhancing military ties with Israel and the U.S. There was even an unconfirmed report that he visited Israel secretly in September 2017.

Yet the most direct effects of the F-35 were still to come. In July 2018, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported that Israel had flown a test mission of at least three F-35 jets to Tehran and back from an airbase near Tel Aviv. While never confirmed publicly, a good number of military and political leaders in the region believed and still believe the story. The long-rumored threat the F-35 posed to Iran now seemed like a reality.

Earlier this month, reports in the same Kuwaiti newspaper said that Iran's military leadership panicked enough over the purported stealth mission that it kept news of it from reaching Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

But when Khamenei found out about the mission, he reportedly moved to fire not only Iran's air force chief but also the long-serving and powerful commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. That's major impact without even firing a shot.

All of this comes as Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has decided to choose procuring Russia's S-400 missile program at the expense of getting promised F-35s from the U.S. Judging by how much his neighbors in the region fear and revere the F-35, this appears to be a ruinous choice.

US halts delivery of F-35 equipment to Turkey
US halts delivery of F-35 equipment to Turkey

The impact of the F-35's development has had a major financial impact, as well. Since reports of the Israeli stealth enhancement first surfaced, Lockheed Martin shares are up more the 75%. The F-35 program is also the most expensive defense project in U.S. history, and it has faced a long history of criticism for that cost.

But considering how much the very existence of the jet has already achieved in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, it may already be more than worth it.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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