For the second time in less than a year, Iran has boasted that its warplanes are capable of striking Israel. It remains a dubious claim, at best.
Last September, the Deputy Commander of the Iranian Air Force stated that his country had developed plans for bombing Israel, if the IAF made the "silly mistake" of striking Tehran's nuclear facilities. As we noted at the time, it was hardly a threat that would strike fear in the hearts of Israeli defense planners. Unfortunately for Iran, there was--and is--a sizable gap between their strategic planning and operational capabilities.
Fact is, the Iranian Air Force--or more correctly, Iran's two Air Forces have serious training, equipment, airspace and logistical issues that make a successful strike on Israel almost impossible.
We'll begin with the airspace problem. Getting to Israel from Iran means over-flying countries like Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Crossing Iraq and Jordan offers the most direct route, but that means a confrontation with the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy jets--a battle the Iranians would certainly lose. Turkey and Saudi Arabia would also oppose transit by Iranian fighters headed for Israel, and both have better jets and pilots.
In fact, Iran's most "viable" option for an airstrike against Israel would require a long, circuitous flight down the Persian Gulf, around the Arabian Peninsula, and up the Red Sea. That route would carry Iranian fighters through international airspace, but it would significantly increase flight time, in-flight refueling requirements and the probability of detection.
And, speaking of tankers, did we mention that Iran has only two--a KC-707 (similar to our own KC-135) and a modified Boeing 747. The older KC-707 flies on a periodic basis; as for the 747, there is some speculation that it has been converted for other missions, such as hauling cargo.
In any case, the lack of tankers would be crippling for any planned Iranian airstrike. Consider this; it is believed that Israel (which operates at least seven KC-707 tankers and a number of KC-130 airframes) has enough in-flight refueling capability to get two dozen fighter jets to Iran on a strike mission. With only one tanker, the Iranian Air Force could probably provide enough fuel for no more than three jets. Not much of a strike package--and one that would be mauled by the IAF.
As for the aircraft assigned to the mission, most analysts believe Iran would utilize its aging F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers, purchased from the U.S. in the early 1970s. Compared to the F-15s and F-16s of the Israeli Air Force, the Phantoms are decidedly low-tech, but their crews are among the most experienced in the Iranian Air Force.
However, experience levels (and proficiency) among Tehran's F-4 crews have dipped in recent years, with the retirement of pilots and WSOs who were trained by the U.S. Intelligence analysts suggest that Iran's most proficient crews at stationed at Hamadan Airbase, near the country's western border.
Eleven months later, there is nothing to indicate that Iran has overcome these deficiencies. Tehran's plans for an airstrike against Israel remain hamstrung by a shortage of tankers, a lack of experienced aircrews, and the formidable challenge of regional geography.
But Iran is bragging of new capabilities, which (supposedly) allow its warplanes to fly up to 3,000 kilometers without refueling. The claim came from the commander of the Iranian Air Force, who did not provide details on how the extended range was achieved. Israel lies 1,000 kilometers west of Iran, placing it within striking distance of Iran's long-range aircraft, at least theoretically.
Without in-flight refueling from aerial tankers, Tehran has three options for increasing the range of its strike aircraft: external fuel tanks; "buddy" refueling from other aircraft of the same type, or the purchase of new fighters, like the SU-30 Flanker.
We'll start with the latter option. While strike variants of the Flanker have a range of up to 3,000 kilometers, there is no indication that Iran has acquired--or is preparing to acquire--the fourth-generation fighter. Any purchase of that type would be accompanied by improvements at Iranian airfields (new hangars, fueling hydrants, etc) and the training of an initial crew cadre in Russia. To date, there have been no reports of such preparations in Iran or Russia, making a Flanker purchase an unlikely possibility, at least for now.
Among the fighter aircraft currently in Tehran's inventory, only three have the potential range to reach Israel, the U.S.-built F-4 Phantom II and F-14 Tomcat, and the Russian-made SU-24 Fencer.
As we've observed in the past, the venerable F-4 remains the backbone of the Iranian Air Force, despite its advanced age and growing maintenance problems. Most of Iran's air intercepts are conducted by F-4s, and the Phantom crews at Hamadan have staged occasional long-distance training flights in recent years. Some analysts believe the Hamadan unit represents Iran's only viable option for a long-range strike mission.
But, to reach targets in Israel, Iranian F-4s would need both drop tanks and in-flight refueling. According to Iran's Air Force chief, his jets can now reach Israeli targets without refueling, so that would seem to eliminate the Phantom as a possibility. Or, perhaps the Iranians have plans to hang fuel tanks on every available pylon, creating weight and balance problems, while greatly reducing the potential bomb load.
The F-14s combat radius (500 NM) also falls a bit short of a one-way flight to Israel. Moreover, the number of Iranian Tomcats still flying is probably no more than six, hardly enough for an effective attack against Israel, unless the jets were carrying chemical or nuclear weapons. But there are no indications that Iranian F-14s are conducting the type(s) of training needed to prepare for a long-range strike mission. For those reasons, the Tomcat is also an unlikely choice for the mission suggested by Iranian officials.
Tehran also has a small number of SU-24 Fencer strike fighters, including 18 that fled Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. Similar in design and function to the U.S. F-111, the SU-24 is a capable, long-range interdiction platform. But the Fencers in Iran have a checkered operational history; sortie totals remain low, despite the fact that the SU-24 has been in the Iranian inventory for years. There have been reports of maintenance problems, and long periods of inactivity among Iran's SU-24 units.
But, with external tanks and "buddy" refueling (from a pod-equipped SU-24), Tehran's Fencers have just enough range to reach targets in Israel. While the Iranian official didn't specify the type of aircraft that could fly long-range missions, the SU-24 represents the best candidate among aircraft that are now operational.
Still, there's that little matter of squaring Iran's grandiose plans against its actual capabilities. In that regard, Tehran's ability to mount an air mission against Israel is only marginal at best. And, we haven't addressed the likely reaction of the Israeli Air Force fighters and surface-to-air missile units. Together, they comprise some of the most formidable air defenses in the Middle East, capable of mauling any Iranian formation before it reaches Israeli air space.