It may be the most vexxing problem facing the Israeli Air Force, in preparation for a possible strike against Iran's nuclear facilities: how do you get the strike package--and support aircraft--through miles of hostile airspace, and still achieve some degree of tactical surprise?
After the fall of Saddam, it was assumed the Israel would cross through Iraqi airspace, now under the control of the U.S. military. In recent years, various U.S. officials have offered mixed reactions to that possibility, ranging from "hell no," to "we might intercept Israeli jets if they fly through Iraqi skies. Translation? If you're going after Iran, find another routing option.
And, for more than a decade, that "other option" was believed to be Turkey. The two nations had strong defense ties; in fact, IAF squadrons trained in Turkish airspace on a semi-annual basis, and Ankara's F-16s reciprocated, using electronic warfare ranges in Israel.
But with the Turkish government's steady march towards Islamic fundamentalism--and the recent showdown over the Gaza "aid flotilla"--the Turkey option is no longer viable. That development (seemingly) left the Israelis with two marginal options. First, route the entire package, including aerial tankers, around the Arabian Peninsula and up the Persian Gulf. Not only would that increase flight time and distance, it would also decrease the number of aircraft that could be assigned to the mission (based on tanker capabilities), and increase chances for detection before strike formations reach Iranian airspace.
The other alternative goes something like this: use deception tactics to "sneak" tankers and strike aircraft along an air corridor, most likely through southern Turkey. The refueling aircraft would mimic commercial aircraft, while the strike fighters fly in a close "resolution cell" formation behind the KC-707's, hiding in the radar "shadow" of the larger jets. This particular option would give the Israelis a more direct route, but there are risks as well. Something as simple as an aircraft slightly out of formation could give away the entire operation, and force cancellation of the raid.
But the Israelis may have other tricks up their sleeve. We've written previously about a possible "Kurdistan" option, with IAF support aircraft (and commandos) pre-deploying to the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq, using airfields in that area as staging bases.
And, according to the U.K. Times, Israel may have secured an even better routing option--through Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has conducted tests to stand down its air defences to enable Israeli jets to make a bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In the week that the UN Security Council imposed a new round of sanctions on Tehran, defence sources in the Gulf say that Riyadh has agreed to allow Israel to use a narrow corridor of its airspace in the north of the country to shorten the distance for a bombing run on Iran.
To ensure the Israeli bombers pass unmolested, Riyadh has carried out tests to make certain its own jets are not scrambled and missile defence systems not activated. Once the Israelis are through, the kingdom’s air defences will return to full alert.
“The Saudis have given their permission for the Israelis to pass over and they will look the other way,” said a US defence source in the area. “They have already done tests to make sure their own jets aren’t scrambled and no one gets shot down. This has all been done with the agreement of the [US] State Department.”
Sources in Saudi Arabia say it is common knowledge within defence circles in the kingdom that an arrangement is in place if Israel decides to launch the raid. Despite the tension between the two governments, they share a mutual loathing of the regime in Tehran and a common fear of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “We all know this. We will let them [the Israelis] through and see nothing,” said one.
If these reports are accurate (and they've been making the rounds for a while), it would represent the second time the Saudis have cast a blind eye towards an Israeli strike. When the IAF bombed Saddam's nuclear complex in June 1981, U.S. AWACS aircraft (then deployed to Saudi Arabia) were operating away from their usual "orbit" over the northern part of the kingdom--with the concurrence of the Royal Saudi Air Force. Urban legend also says the Israeli formation was challenged (in Arabic) by a Saudi ground controller. Prepared for that possibility, one of the Israeli pilots responded in the same language and the mission proceeded.
Three decades later, the Saudi air defense system is a bit more complex, built around F-15s, Patriot missile batteries, 3-D surveillance radars and computerized command-and-control nodes. Given the existing levels of redundancy, taking various sensors "off line" for a bit was probably necessary, to prevent an inadvertent engagement and (more importantly) provide plausible deniability. If the Israelis go after Iran--and fly through Saudi airspace--Riyadh needs a cover story, explaining why its multi-billion dollar defenses failed to detect and engage the IAF package.
Sometimes in the Middle East, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" isn't enough of an excuse.