On July 9, 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran has threatened recently to destroy Israel.” Netanyahu, while examining F-35 stealth fighter jets, also mentioned that “it is worthwhile for them to remember that these planes can reach everywhere in the Middle East, including Iran.”
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have risen dramatically since the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the re-imposition of sanctions. Lately, Iran announced it had surpassed the 3.67% enrichment cap set by the JCPOA. The Iranians might reach higher uranium enrichment, and by that come closer to a nuclear bomb. The US might stop Iran, by force, but if not, Israel might have to take matters into its own hands and attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
In an attack against Iran, Israel will dispatch dozens of aircraft, mostly fighter/bombers such as the F-15I, the F-16I and the new F-35. Israel began assimilating F-15Is and F-16Is in the late 1990s, especially for this kind of a mission. For example, the F-15I has a range of 4,500 kilometers, which should be enough to cover the distance from Israel to Iran, which is about 1,000 kilometers.
The Israeli air force has been training over the last two decades to attack remote objectives such as the Iranian sites. The IAF carried out long-range sorties in the past, like the 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis, about 2,000 km from Israel.
However, Israeli fighter aircraft will require tankers, for air refueling, for several purposes. First of all, Israeli fighters might not be able to reach Iran in the shortest way, i.e., by crossing Jordan and Iraq. Saudi Arabia, a sworn enemy of Iran, might allow Israeli aircraft to fly over its territory. Israeli aircraft will also have to maneuver in the air, particularly against Iranian air defenses and in aerial combat, which demands a lot of fuel.
The IAF will use command and control aircraft to orchestrate the attack so far away from Israel. Those planes will have to stay near Iran, far enough not to be exposed to Iranian anti-aircraft missiles and fighter jets.
The Israeli air force also employs unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence-gathering and. The IAF gained vast experience in this field, yet mostly in confronting hybrid forces such as Hamas that don’t have air defense systems or an air force. Iran might be able to shoot down some of Israel’s UAV, as they already did with American ones.
The Iranian air force is quite weak; with old if not almost obsolete planes like the F-14s, which it received in the 1970s. Iran’s fighters cannot match Israel’s much more modern aircraft. However, Iranian aircrews do have some advantages over their Israeli counterparts because they will fly close to their airfields so they will have enough fuel for dogfights. They can also coordinate their steps with anti-aircraft batteries, including the sophisticated S-300. Furthermore, if Iranian aircrews have to abandon their plane, they will land in friendly territory, whether in Iran itself or in neighboring Iraq. In contrast, Israeli aircrews who will have to bail out of their planes will obviously be in danger if they have to parachute into Iran or Iraq. They will try to reach more friendly Arab countries like the Gulf states or Jordan.
Due to the strength of the fortification around some Iranian nuclear sites, Israel might not be able to penetrate them with its bunker-buster bombs.
Notwithstanding the challenges and risks associated with an elaborate attack on Iran, Israel might be obligated to do so if Tehran does not abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Dr. Ehud Eilam is a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy. He had previously worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense