|Israel is to receive 20 fighter jets from 2015 through 2017, with an option to buy a 'couple of dozens' more [GETTY]
Israel has signed a $2.75bn deal with the US to buy about 20 radar-evading Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jets, calling it the world's most advanced combat aircraft.
Israel is to receive the jets from 2015 through 2017, according to an Israeli statement at a signing ceremony at the consulate in New York on Thursday.
The agreement was signed after years of talks on such issues as aircraft price, Israeli industrial participation in F-35 production as well as integration of Israeli capabilities on its own F-35 fleet.
The cost was put at about $96m per aircraft, including the engine. In addition, the deal includes simulators, spare parts and maintenance - making the total value $2.75bn, the Israeli statement said.
At least 19 F-35s are expected to be part of the first batch. The total value could be as high as $15.2bn if all options are exercised, the Pentagon told the US congress in an initial notification in September 2008.
Israel is the first buyer outside the aircraft's nine-nation co-development group.
"The signing [...] is an event of great strategic and historic significance," Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US, said in a separate statement.
Describing the F-35 as the world's most advanced fighter, Oren said it would boost Israel's ability to defend itself, "by itself, against any threat or combination of threats, from anywhere within the Middle East".
Retired-Major General Ehud Shani, director-general of the defence ministry, signed for Israel while Navy Vice-Admiral David Venlet, head of the Pentagon's F-35 joint programme office, signed for the US.
Contrary to the written statement, Shani said the F-35 would start arriving in 2016, a one-year discrepancy with the press release that was not immediately explained.
The statement did not say how many jets were involved, possibly because this could depend on the ultimate cost of incorporating home-made Israeli technology.
When asked if Israel planned to buy more than an initial 20, Shani said Israel had an option to buy a "couple of dozens" more.
Asked about Israel's arch-foe Iran, he said Tehran is "a problem for all the democratic and free world, and one of the answers [...] concerning this problem is the F-35".
In August Iran unveiled a long-range, unmanned bomber aircraft which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, described as an "ambassador of death" to Iran's enemies.
The contract had been delayed by Israel's push to build its own electronic warfare, communications and other high-tech systems - changes that US officials generally opposed as overly costly and potentially counterproductive.
"The F-35 is a system where all these subsystems are fused and integrated," Richard Genaille, deputy head of the Pentagon's Defence Security Co-operation Agency, said a month ago.
"And integrating something that wasn't originally planned in the design will be very costly and will take a significant amount of time."
Moreover, it "probably will not be in the best interest in the long run of our partners", he told the Reuters Aerospace and Defence Summit in Washington on September 9.
Lockheed Martin, the F-35's prime contractor, said it was "very pleased" Israel was moving forward.
Tom Burbage, general manager of Lockheed's F-35 programme, said the aircraft, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, would strengthen Israel's national security posture both militarily and industrially.
Israel has discussed building the wings for about 25 per cent of the more than 3,000 F-35s that Lockheed expects to build for the US and partner countries over coming decades, an Israeli official said.
The US is co-developing the F-35 with eight foreign partners - Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway. Together, the partners have been projected to buy about 730 jets.