June 22, 2008

Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options Update

This is an update to my March 15, 2006 article: Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options.

Last week's power projection exercise by the Israeli air force has been called a possible rehearsal for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. In this exercise, the Israelis flew more than 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft a distance of 600 miles from their home bases west over the Mediterranean Sea as far as Crete and returned. The exercise involved aerial refueling and practiced search and rescue for downed fliers.

Was this a message to the Iranians? Of course. It was also a message to the rest of the world that if the rest of the world is unable or unwilling to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, Israel may act unilaterally to counter what most Israelis believe to be an existential threat to the Jewish state.

As I wrote in my 2006 analysis, an airstrike from Israel to targets deep inside Iran is a very difficult mission. The main obstacle is the distance the aircraft would have to fly, almost if not all of it through hostile airspace. As I posited earlier, the two likely avenues of approach were either through Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

When I wrote that article, I assessed that attacking through Turkish airspace was not likely. Is that still the case?

Turkey and Israel have had a defense agreement since 1996 and have conducted joint military training exercises. During the Israeli attack on the alleged Syrian nuclear facility at al-Kibar, Israeli aircraft are believed to have used Turkish airspace.

Would such cooperation extend to allowing Israel to use not only Turkish airspace, but Turkish air bases for operations against Iran? Use of Turkish air space would require the attacking aircraft to fly over 1000 miles in Iranian air space.

Click image for larger view
Let's look at a map. Last week's exercise from Israel to Crete is about 1200 miles roundtrip. Note the similarities in distance from Israel to Crete and from eastern Turkey to the likely primary target at Natanz, the Iranian nuclear enrichment plant near Esfahan. There are numerous small remote Turkish air bases in eastern Turkey that could be used to stage Israeli tankers and search and rescue helicopters.

The distance from Israel directly to targets in Iran - meaning through Iraq or Sadui Arabia - is barely within the unrefueled combat radius of Israel's F-15I Ra'am and F-16I Sufa fighters. These aircraft were designed for long-range interdiction missions such as the one we are discussing. Using Turkish airspace is a much longer, but safer - flight route. To be able to reach the target, let alone carry meaningful ordnance loads, aerial refueling is key. However, refueling in hostile air space is a difficult operation with a low probability that they would escape detection. The fact that the Israelis practiced aerial refueling as well as search and rescue last week indicates to me that they have successfully acquired the use of friendly airspace.

Turkey is the obvious choice as an ingress route for attacking aircraft. Would Iran retaliate against Turkey if this scenario were to play itself out? Probably not directly - Iran still must consider the ramifications of attacking a NATO country.