JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The United States has brought forward a planned sale of advanced F-35 warplanes to Israel as part of efforts by the two allies to maintain a military advantage over Iran, an Israeli newspaper reported on Thursday.
Quoting unnamed defense officials, The Jerusalem Post said the Pentagon had agreed to supply the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to Israel as early as 2012, when the U.S. air force is scheduled to receive the first of the supersonic, radar-evading jets.
Israel, which is not among eight countries partnered with Washington in producing the F-35, had been expected to get the plane in 2014 or 2015. Its buying rights were briefly suspended during Pentagon protests over Israeli defense exports to China.
Israel is building up its arsenal for a possible showdown with arch-foe Iran, which the United States accuses of seeking nuclear weapons. Iran insists its atomic ambitions are peaceful.
According to The Jerusalem Post, Israeli defense Minister Ehud Barak got U.S. agreement to accelerate the F-35 sale during talks with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Washington last week.
“This plane can fly into downtown Tehran without anyone even knowing about it since it can’t be detected on radar,” the conservative daily quoted a defense official as saying.
Barak further overcame some U.S. objections to Israel installing its own technology on the F-35, a major point of contention in past negotiations, the Jerusalem Post said.
U.S. officials were circumspect about the report.
Jon Schreiber, international director of the Pentagon’s F-35 program, said through a spokeswoman: “We have nothing to substantiate that article”.
After meeting Gates, Barak told reporters he was “optimistic the planes will be with us on time”. He did not elaborate, and a Barak spokesman declined comment on the Jerusalem Post report.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he was not aware that moving up delivery of the JSF had been “part of the discussion at all” between Barak and Gates.
Assumed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, Israel has hinted it could resort to preemptive strikes to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb. Israel believes Iran could begin making nuclear weapons by 2010. Western intelligence agencies say it would take several years longer.
Additional reporting by Jim Wolf and Andrew Gray in Washington