F-15 - Alon Ron
An Israel Air Force F-15. Photo by Alon Ron
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As the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran continues to dominate the international media agenda, every new report, every latest detail, however small, and every nuance uttered by one of the main players, such as Sunday's interview with General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, will receive inordinate attention. In that vein, today's report in the New York Times on the tactical difficulties facing Israel if it indeed decides to strike, while being generally well-informed and authoritative contains little, if any, fresh information.

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There is nothing new about the fact that even the most optimistic planners and commanders in the IDF do not believe that Israel can completely wipe out Iran's nuclear capabilities. Senior air-force officers have long been saying that "we will have to go back to Iran a second time, we have no illusion that we can delay their plans by more than two or three years."

The New York Times quotes military experts who claim that Israel will have to use at least a hundred warplanes in an Iranian operation, this probably a conservative estimate as in addition the main nuclear-enrichment installations, Israel will most likely seek also to take out research centers and long-range missile bases and factories. In addition, there will have to be strikes on anti-aircraft missile batteries and radar sites.

But this is exactly the mission the IAF has been equipping for over the last fifteen years. Between 1996 and 2009, Israel purchased, largely with U.S. Foreign Military financing, 125 advanced F-15s and F-16s, specially modified for carrying out long-range strategic attacks. In addition to these five front-line squadrons, the IAF fields another nine squadrons of older-model F-16s and F-15s. In all, Israel has around 350 fighter jets, a larger aerial combat force than countries of the likes of Britain and Germany.

While a large-scale operation against Iran, and at the same time quite likely pre-emptive strikes against Iranian missile-launchers in Lebanon, Gaza and perhaps Syria, would stretch the IAF's resources, it is still within its capabilities. This is exactly what the lion's share of the defense budget has been spent on for over more than a decade. On fighter jets, airborne tankers, long-range reconnaissance drones and electronic warfare aircraft.

Another important consideration mentioned by the experts is the range of such a mission, some 1,600 kilometers. While this is within the extended range of the F-15I and F-16I, to fly such distances with a heavy weapons payload and to have sufficient time to bomb the targets and fight off any Iranian interceptors necessitates a significant aerial refueling force. For the last few years, Israeli representatives have been snapping up every old Boeing 707 airliner in good condition (some of them have colorful histories, such as President Anwar Sadat's private plane) and converting them into airborne tankers. According to various sources, the IAF has by now eight or nine such tankers. These also have limited payloads, one tanker can fuel about eight F-16s or four larger F-15s which will limit the number of aircraft that can actually attack Iranian targets at any one time. This constraint would probably lead to a wave of attacks, in which the first would be against the most important targets and the anti-aircraft systems, and the next waves go on to strike the secondary targets.

The choice of flight-route will also be significant. The New York Times points out presciently that the departure of American forces from Iraq and the fact that the Iraqi Air force currently lacks an air-defense capability opens up the shortest route from Israel to Iran.
Another factor mentioned in the NYT report is that Israel lacks large bunker-busting bombs, the largest it has are a hundred GBU-28 5,000-pounders delivered by the U.S. but most of Iran's nuclear facilities are not yet situated in structures that can withstand such bombs.
There are a few, mainly isolated voices in the Israeli establishment who doubt the success of a large strike against Iran but the consensus is that while it would certainly would be a complex and difficult operation, it is well within the IAF's capabilities.