Israel F-35 Airstrikes Are World's First Test Of The 'Mighty One,' Top Commander Says

Israel has become the first country in the world to launch operational airstrikes using the F-35 stealth fighter jet, an Israeli air force commander has claimed.

Major General Amikam Norkin told a conference of visiting air force chiefs that the F-35 had been used in two separate strikes on different fronts in recent weeks, The Times of Israel said.

Israel is one of the major buyers of the American-made Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II multi-role fighter. Israel received its first fifth-generation warplanes in 2016, and they were declared operational in 2017.

An Israeli F-35 fighter jet performs in an air show at the Hatzerim base in the Negev Desert, near the southern Israeli city of Beer Sheva, on December 29, 2016. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Though the U.S., U.K. and a number of other nations are using the platform, none have so far launched combat airstrikes with the fighter.

"The Adir aircraft are already operational and flying missions. We are the first in the world to carry out operational strikes with the F-35," Norkin told the air force officials, using the Israeli name for the jet, which means "mighty one" in Hebrew.

He explained, "The Israeli air force has twice carried out strikes with the F-35, on two different fronts." He did not specify in which theaters. "We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East," Norkin added.

Israel has agreed to purchase 50 F-35 fighters in total, which will be delivered in installments until 2024. It is possible Israel will add more F-35 orders and may eventually purchase as many as 100 aircraft. At least nine have been delivered so far.

“The Adir planes are already operational and flying in operational missions. We are the first in the world to use the F-35 in operational activity”

— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) May 22, 2018

American F-35s are in their final year of the development phase. Combat testing will begin in September, and full-scale production rollout could begin by the end of 2019. The U.S. has so far ordered 1,763 F-35s across the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps branches, 270 of which are flying.

Israel has recently conducted airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria and militant positions in the Gaza Strip. It is likely that these were the fronts on which the F-35 performed. According to Reuters, the air force is also believed to have flown missions against militants in the Egyptian Sinai and Hamas arms smugglers in Sudan.

Norkin also showed a photograph of two of the aircraft flying over the Lebanese capital of Beirut, in a clear threat to the militant Lebanese Hezbollah group, which has fought Israel in the past and is active in Syria. Some of Israel's airstrikes in the country have targeted weapons shipments believed to be heading to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israeli F-35 fighter jets perform during an air show over the beach in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 2, 2017. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

One round of recent Israeli strikes were in response to Iranian rocket fire from Syria, which itself came after repeated Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in the country. Norkin said Iran had fired more rockets at Israeli bases on May 10 than the 20 previously disclosed. "The Iranians fired 32 rockets, we intercepted four. The rest landed outside Israeli territory," he said.

The Israeli air force then hit dozens of targets across the country, in the most extensive Israeli attacks on Syria for several decades. Norkin said that although Syrian defenses fired 100 missiles at the attacking planes, none found their target.

In the Gaza Strip, tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been high as tens of thousands took part in large-scale "right to return" protests. Israel claims Hamas and other Islamist groups were using the demonstrations as cover to infiltrate Israel and launch new attacks. As such, the Israeli Defense Forces have targeted Hamas outposts and tunnels.

One such tunnel was just feet away from entering Israel, Norkin said. "From the air, we destroyed a Hamas tunnel that was dug at a depth of [66 feet]," he noted.