Israel's military announced on Monday that its F-35 stealth fighters, supplied by the US, had shot down two Iranian-made drones in March last year.
In a typically opaque statement, the Israeli military said the UAVs “were intercepted in regional airspace in coordination with neighbouring countries before they could enter Israeli skies”, providing no details on where exactly the incident happened.
Media reports said the Iranian drones were en route to the Gaza Strip and Lebanon carrying a consignment of pistols, meant for Palestinian militant outfits and Hezbollah, respectively.
On Monday, the Israeli Air Force's Twitter handle shared video footage of the downing of the UAVs. Interestingly, one of the Israeli Air Force pilots shown in the video said the operation was “the first operational interception of its kind in the world in which an F-35 successfully intercepted an aerial target.”
US defence websites such as Breaking Defense and The Drive reported on the significance of what appears to be the first air-to-air 'kill' scored by an F-35 anywhere. While drones are slower than fighter jets, their smaller size and less-powerful engines make them harder to detect by older radars and infra-red sensors.
In May 2018, the Israeli Air Force announced it had become the first military to use the F-35 in a combat role. The announcement came months after the country achieved initial operating capability for its small F-35 fleet.
The claims of the first air-to-air kill of the F-35, if confirmed, will mark continuation of a 'tradition' by the Israeli Air Force: Scoring maiden kills for US-built fighter jets.
In 1975, Israel became the first export customer of the F-15 air superiority fighter, which remains in service with the country's air force. In June 1979, Israeli F-15s shot down two Syrian MiG-21s, marking the first kills of the US-built jet anywhere.
In 1981, an Israeli F-15 shot down a Syrian MiG-25 over Lebanon. At the time, the MiG-25 was one of the fastest-flying aircraft that could operate at higher altitudes than rival jets. Israeli author Shlomo Aloni has written about the F-15 in Israeli service. He estimates the aircraft has claimed nearly 50 'kills' in Israeli service, with 33 Syrian jets downed in the 1982 Lebanon war.
While Syrian and Soviet publications have claimed Israeli F-15s have been shot down, there has been little photographic evidence to back those claims.
Israel began receiving its first F-16s from the US in 1980. The F-16 is a single-engine jet, which is lighter than the F-15 and meant as a multi-role fighter. In April 1981, the Israeli Air Force scored the first combat kills for the F-16 anywhere when it downed two Syrian Mil Mi-8 helicopters over Lebanon. Israeli F-16s are credited with 44 air-to-air kills in the Lebanon war of 1982.