May 4, 2021
Israel is once again warning that it may have no choice but to preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. And its air force is becoming more capable of executing such a challenging mission.
In late April, Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen warned that a “bad” nuclear deal between the United States and Iran “will send the region spiraling into war.”
“Anyone seeking short-term benefits should be mindful of the longer-term,” he said. “Israel will not allow Iran to attain nuclear arms. Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our planes can reach everywhere in the Middle East – and certainly Iran.”
In the mid to late 1990s, successive Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, expressed concerns about Iran’s nuclear program as well as its then fledgling ballistic missile program which it was developing with North Korean assistance. The prospect of a preemptive strike by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) first came up at that time.
In 1981, the IAF attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor. In 2007, it also destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor. In both those cases, however, the strikes targeted a single facility. Iran’s nuclear program consists of several facilities spread across the country which are much more adequately protected than either the Iraqi or Syrian facilities were. They are also much further away from Israel.
In 2005, when asked how far Israel was prepared to go to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the then Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Dan Halutz responded literally: “Two thousand kilometers.” That is approximately 1,200 miles, roughly the distance IAF jets would have to fly to attack Iran’s main nuclear sites.
In 2008 over 100 IAF F-15s and F-16s flew 900 miles across the Mediterranean with tanker aircraft in a clear demonstration of their capability to reach Iran.
Two notable things have changed since that time: Israel acquired a fleet of stealthy fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II jet fighters, many of them unique F-35I ‘Adir’ variants built to incorporate Israeli-built systems, and Iran greatly improved its aged air defenses.
Iran’s air defenses were so antiquated in the mid-2000s that they had trouble even detecting, never mind tracking and targeting, various aircraft operating inside Iranian airspace.
“The country’s radar network was in such a poor condition that it proved incapable of tracking most of the U.S., Israeli and allied unmanned aerial vehicles that frequently made forays deep inside Iranian air space,” wrote military aviation expert Tom Cooper. “Similarly, USAF tankers supporting combat operations over Afghanistan and Iraq sometimes spent up to two hours inside Iranian airspace – without ever being detected.”
Since then, Tehran has acquired highly formidable high-altitude S-300 air defense missiles from Russia and developed several similar systems of its own that could pose a significant challenge to any IAF strike using F-15s or F-16s. Consequently, Israel may well have to rely heavily on its radar-evading F-35s.
In 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel’s F-35s “can reach any place in the Middle East, including Iran, and of course also Syria.”
However, the F-35’s approximate range is 650 miles when armed, which is insufficient for a round trip from Israel to Iran’s nuclear sites.
Therefore, these fighters would need to be accompanied by tanker aircraft for mid-air refueling, especially if they are operating from Israeli airbases rather than from another country much closer to Iran. Use of non-stealthy tankers could reduce the element of surprise, a crucial element for the success of any Israeli first strike.
Israel is already addressing this problem by developing external fuel tanks that will almost double the combat radius of its F-35s, making them capable of longer-range missions.
It already has a lot of experience modifying its fighters in such ways. After all, Israel turned its F-15s into highly-capable bombers long before the U.S. – which originally used the jets solely as an air-to-air fighters in strict adherence to the mantra “not a pound for air-to-ground” – developed the Strike Eagle.
The fuel tanks Israel is presently building for its F-35s are most likely conformal. Such external tanks are designed in a way that won’t seriously undermine the fighter’s critical stealth capabilities, which regular drop tanks undoubtedly would.
F-35Is outfitted with conformal fuel tanks would ultimately require fewer aircraft, and no tankers, for a strike mission against Iran’s nuclear facilities. That could prove highly advantageous for the attacking IAF jets since it would reduce the likelihood of Iranian radars detecting them early in their mission.
As a result, in the near future, Israel will be more capable than ever of carrying out its frequently repeated threat of preemptively attacking Iran’s nuclear program if it believes Tehran is on the verge of developing nuclear weapons.