The New York Times is reporting that the Israeli military carried out a large-scale exercise earlier this month that, in the words of U.S. officials, appeared to be a rehearsal for a possible attack on Iran.
According to the Times, more than 100 Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-15s and F-16s participated in the drill, which was conducted over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece during the first week of June. Officials who spoke with the Times (on the condition of anonymity) described the exercise as an effort to “develop a long-range strike” capability, and “demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program.”
We’d say it was more of an effort to practice long-range strike, since the IAF has had that sort of capability for decades. It’s been 27 years since Israeli jets destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, and more than a decade since the IAF flew across the Mediterranean and took out Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Tunis. In both cases, the Israelis achieved tactical surprise, demolished their targets, and suffered no losses of aircraft or crews.
As we’ve noted in the past, the IAF would almost certainly employ deceptive elements for a similar attack against Iran. That’s one reason that most analysts believe the strike package would be relatively small (no more than two dozen aircraft), with fighters flying in tight formation with their aerial tankers to minimize radar returns. The raid would likely follow an established air corridor, with Israeli aircraft mimicking the IFF “squawk” and radio callsigns of commercial aircraft.
By comparison, the “rehearsal” effort in early June was a much larger, and (arguably) more noisy effort, aimed at sending signals to the U.S., the Europeans—and Iran. As one American official told the Times:
“.. the scope of the Israeli exercise virtually guaranteed that it would be noticed by American and other foreign intelligence agencies. A senior Pentagon official who has been briefed on the exercise, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political delicacy of the matter, said the exercise appeared to serve multiple purposes.
One Israeli goal, the Pentagon official said, was to practice flight tactics, aerial refueling and all other details of a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and its long-range conventional missiles.
A second, the official said, was to send a clear message to the United States and other countries that Israel was prepared to act militarily if diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from producing bomb-grade uranium continued to falter.
“They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know,” the Pentagon official said. “There’s a lot of signaling going on at different levels.”
Officials interviewed by the NYT said they do not believe that Israel has concluded that it must strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, and do not view such an attack as “imminent.” But, it’s worth remembering the U.S. was surprised by past Israeli air missions. Incorporating the expected deception campaign, the IAF could likely mask strike preparations and launch the raid without detection by American intelligence assets.
One unique feature of the recent exercise was the incorporation of Israeli helicopters, which could be used to rescue downed pilots. U.S. or Israeli officials have not revealed the extent of rotary wing activity during the drill, or its proximity to operating areas for fighter aircraft. Israeli helicopter crews routinely participate in search-and-rescue training in the eastern Mediterranean with American and Turkish units.
But combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) represents only one potential mission for the choppers. Israel’s long-range helicopters are a primary insertion platform for commando units, which could be used to designated targets, assist downed aircrews, or recover material after the attack. There are reports that Israeli special forces participated in last year’s strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor, scooping up evidence that was used to confirm its purpose.
More than two years ago, we reported that IAF officers told their American counterparts that planning for an Iran mission had largely been completed. Given Israel’s long concern about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, that claim seems entirely plausible. That would also suggest that the recent exercise was something of a rehearsal, not the “long-range strike development effort” suggested by the Times.
During the same 2006 encounter, IAF officials also suggested that special ops planning for an Iran operation had also been concluded. Without going into details, they indicated that Israeli helicopters, C-130 tankers (for refueling the choppers) and commando teams would be forward deployed in support of the raid. Turkey, a longtime ally of Israel, might be a possible basing location for SOF teams and support elements. A forward operating base in northern Iraq is another possibility.
While the recent exercise clearly served training (and diplomatic) purposes, we’d say it meet other needs as well. Given the mechanics of an actual raid against Iran, we believe the package would be significantly smaller, and incorporate deceptive elements not seen earlier this month. That’s why the early June drill may also support a disinformation campaign, aimed at confusing Tehran (and western intelligence) over the size, composition and tactics of a potential strike formation.
Here’s a historical fact: virtually every major IAF operation has been preceded by a carefully planned and executed deception effort. That’s why it would be a mistake for Tehran, the Europeans and the U.S. to accept this month’s exercise as the template for an actual strike. If past performance is any indicator, the Israelis still have a few tricks up their sleeve.