Israel's defence minister favours buying one more F-35 squadron for now

FILE PHOTO: Leader of Blue and White party, Benny Gantz looks on after voting at a polling station in Israel’s national election in Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel March 2, 2020. REUTERS/Nir Elias

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s defence minister said on Monday that he wants the country to buy a third squadron of stealth F-35 warplanes from the United States, and that he hoped a deal could be clinched before President Donald Trump steps down on Jan. 20.

Israel has been in talks with Washington on how to preserve its military advantage after the Trump administration approved a possible F-35 sale to the United Arab Emirates last year. The plane was previously available only to Israel in the region.

“Without doubt, we need to expand the F-35 array. Right now we have two squadrons. I reckon we will expand that. That is what I requested of the Americans,” Defence Minister Benny Gantz told Ynet TV.

“I would buy another F-35 squadron and then examine what to do with the balance – continuing to expand the F-35 (procurement), going for F-15s?”

Gantz did not specify the number of F-35s in the proposed new squadron. Defence officials have said the two squadrons already ordered by Israel consist of 50 planes.

Gantz’s coalition government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell apart last month, triggering a March 23 ballot. Both men remain in their posts until a new government is formed after the ballot.

Asked if Israel might complete a defence procurement deal with the United States before Trump steps down, he said: “I hope so. I think the defence budget needs to be handled properly, to be safeguarded. It is a kind of active insurance policy.”

The F-35 is made by Lockheed Martin Corp and the F-15 by Boeing Co.

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