Mulling the Military Option
The Associated Press suggests that Israel is moving closer to a military attack against Iran, noting that Tel Aviv is "building up" its strike capabilities. AP reporter Steven Gutkin notes that Israel has purchased 90 F-16Is from the United States in recent years, and 11 more will be delivered before the end of next year. He also observes that the Israeli Navy will soon have a floatilla of five, European-built Dolphin subs, believed capable of firing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
But there's a slight problem with that narrative. First, Israeli military preparations for a possible Iran operation have been underway for several years. Deliveries of the F-16I began in 2003 and will continue through the end of this decade. Purchase of the advanced F-16s was preceded by the acquisition of the F-15I Ra'am (or Thunder), a two seat strike variant similar to the U.S. Strike Eagle. The first F-15I arrived in Israel in 1998, and various IDF officials have commented that the Iran threat was a primary reason for the jet's acquisition.
Likewise, Tel Aviv has been working diligently to improve its offensive and defensive capabilities for at least a decade. Deployment of strike fighters and submarines has been accompanied by the installation of Israel's missile defense shield, encompassing early warning radars, battle management systems and Arrow II ballistic interceptors. So, the upgrades cited by the AP are merely the continuation of long-standing acquisition programs.
And what of that Israeli air combat exercise, staged over Greece earlier this summer? At the time, analysts noted the extended distances flown by IAF jets and the possibility that they trained against Greek SA-20 surface-to-air missile batteries--the same system reportedly being acquired by Iran. By some accounts, the Greece exercise was a dress rehearsal for a potential Israeli strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities.
But those claims may have been exaggerated as well. The Greek MOD claims that its SA-20s did not participate in the exercise and more importantly, the long-distance missions flown by IAF crews were nothing new. Israeli jets routinely train in Turkey, taking advantage of open airspace to fly extended range missions, under highly realistic conditions.
Additionally, the IAF has long operated its own SA-10 simulator, on a training range in Israel. True, the threat emitter may not be quite the same as a real SA-10/20, manned by a trained crew, but it provides familiarity with the air defense system and its capabilities. There is also the likelihood that Israel has benefitted from U.S. technical assessments of the SA-20, which provide detailed information on the SAM system and its potential weaknesses.
In other words, the recent air combat exercise was simply the latest chapter in the IAF's rigorous (and long-standing) training program. Certainly, recent actions by Iran have created a new urgency for the IDF and its planners, but the Israeli activities described by the AP do not represent a military escalation per se.
Truth is, Israel has been preparing for the Iranian threat for more than a decade--just what you'd expect from a modern military. Those preparations will continue until Israeli political leaders make a final decision on dealing with Tehran, a moment that may arrive sooner, rather than later.