Dozens of Israeli Fighters Simulate Mass Attack on Iranian Nuclear Facilities: How Likely is an Actual Strike?

The Israeli Air Force conducted a major simulation of a military strike on the Islamic Republic of Iran in mid-January, a number of local media outlets revealed, with several dozen aircraft involved in practicing a “massive” strike on the country’s nuclear facilities. Exercises involved aerial refuelling, standoff attacks, and thwarting of enemy anti aircraft efforts, with U.S. Air Force personnel reportedly having been present to witness the then-secret exercises. The revelation of these exercises comes as negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program have stalled, after the U.S. withdrew unilaterally from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal in 2018 and applied economic sanctions which led Iran to escalate its enrichment activities. Israel has notably opposed prior deals between Washington and Tehran, while the United States has indicated that it could consider military action including an attack on Iran should it fail to achieve its outcome through talks. America’s withdrawal from the previous deal notably undermined international support for its position, with either imposition of sanctions or military action both highly unlikely to be approved by the United Nations Security Council due to the veto powers of its two non-Western members China and Russia. Without such approval any attack on Iran will be illegal and a crime of aggression in violation of the UN Charter. 

Israel’s ability to neutralise Iran’s nuclear facilities without using its own nuclear weapons has long been held in serious question, with the country’s distance from Iran meaning only its single unit of 25 F-15I strike fighters can operate for a significant time in Iranian airspace and bomb targets in the country’s central and eastern regions without refuelling in the air. The large majority of Israel’s fleet is comprised of Cold War era variants of the F-15 Eagle, with Israel being the last operator of the ageing F-15A/B, as well as even shorter ranged F-16s which it was for decades the largest foreign operator of. These fighters will all rely heavily on aerial refuelling to reach Iranian airspace, which presents a major weakness due to the vulnerability of airborne tanker aircraft to long range air to air missiles. Iran deploys a sizeable arsenal of ground based air defences including multiple long ranged systems such as the Russian S-300PMU-2, indigenous Bavar-373 and Khoradad 15, and heavily modernised Soviet S-200s which have a 300km engagement range unmatched in the region. The country’s F-14 heavyweight fighters can also comfortably outrange anything in the Israeli Air Force, with their Fakour 90 air to air missiles having an engagement range estimated at between 250-300km while Israeli fighters rely on the AIM-120C with just a 105km range. Many Israeli fighters even still use the ageing Cold War era AIM-7 Sparrow, which lacks active radar guidance and has just a 70km range. The F-14s in particular are expected to pose a major threat to tanker aircraft, as well as airborne early warning and electronic warfare jets supporting strikes, which are precisely the kinds of targets the aircraft were designed to tackle.

The Israeli Air Force does deploy a small number of more modern post-fourth generation fighters with AESA radars and longer ranged AIM-120D missiles, namely F-35 stealth fighters, but these are still relegated to an initial operating capability and are very far from ready for even medium intensity operations meaning they are unlikely to play a significant role in operations against Iran. Israel’s lack of penetrative munitions comparable to the American GBU-57, which is deployed by U.S. Air Force B-2 bombers, notably limits its ability to threaten more heavily fortified Iranian targets. This further restricts its ability to decisively set back Iran’s nuclear program without signifiant American participation in operations. 

Aside from its substantial capacity for retaliatory strikes, Iran’s air defences are expected to grow significant stronger with the integration of more capable combat aircraft and air defence systems including larger numbers of Bavar-373 and Khordad 15 systems as well as acquisitions of fighter jets with next generation capabilities. The Chinese J-10C is considered the leading potential candidate. The J-10C has signifiant advantages over Israeli F-16s and F-15s including considerably more modern avionics and electronics, an AESA radar which provides an situational awareness and electronic warfare advantage, and access to PL-15 air to air missiles which have an estimated 250-300km range. Israeli fighters’ overwhelming reliance on mechanically scanned radars remains an outstanding weakness that could quickly translate into a significant advantage for new Iranian fighter units, and already means they are arguably much less well suited to such high intensity operations than those of its allies and the U.S. in particular. 

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