New U.S.-Israeli Air Exercises Could Train For Long Range Strikes on Iranian Nuclear Sites

Israel and the United States plan to hold discussions for possible joint military exercises simulating attacks on Iranian nuclear sites, which will be considered during a meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Pentagon officials on December 9. Israeli media reported this would involve “dozens” of aircraft including F-35, F-16 and F-15 fighter jets, various reconnaissance planes and aerial tankers, and  would be carried out far over the Mediterranean Sea in international waters to simulate the distance a fleet would travel to reach Iranian facilities. This follows reports from Israeli media on December 6 that Tev Aviv was planning to request that the U.S. consider strikes against Iran as talks in Vienna between the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal failed to gain progress. Israel notably opposed the JCPOA from the outset, and has stated strong opposition to its resumption without much harsher restrictions on Iran - restrictions there is a general consensus among analysts that Tehran would be unlikely to accept. While the JCPOA was originally signed in 2015 to remove both UN and unilateral Western sanctions on Iran, today the Western position is considerably weaker as only unilateral sanctions remain in place, leaving Iran’s economy much freer to trade with and receive investment from non-Western parties such as China. The final JCPOA restriction, a UN embargo on certain arms imports, was lifted in October 2020 meaning Iran current has no abnormal restrictions on its economy or military other than unilateral ones from the U.S. and some of its allies. 

The U.S. Department of Defence stated that it would not comment on possible joint drills targeting Iran, but American participation is seen as vital to such an operation’s success. Other than Israel’s small fleet of 25 F-15I strike fighters, no aircraft in its inventory can fly over Iranian nuclear sites with a weapons load without aerial refuelling unless using bases abroad. The U.S. not only deploys a strike fighter fleet several times as large, but also heavy bombers and a wide range of support aircraft for electronic warfare and airborne early warning and control. For heavily fortified nuclear sites, the only non-nuclear weapon that could penetrate them would be bunker busting guided bombs such as the GBU-57, which are deployed by American B-2 stealth bombers. No U.S. ally including Israel has any comparable assets. Iran has relaxed restrictions on its nuclear activities following the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, although it officially states that it does not seek to develop nuclear weapons. Its activities are seen by many analysts as intended to impose pressure on Washington to offer relief from unilateral economic sanctions.

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