Saturday, March 31, 2012

Has Israel Found a FOB?

As we've noted in the past, two of Israel's biggest obstacles in attacking Iran are distance and fuel. With Iranian nuclear facilities roughly 1,000 miles from the Jewish state--and only a handful of aerial tankers in the IAF inventory--there are limits to the number of aircraft that could be dispatched for such a mission. From our analysis of the tactical problem in 2006:

Estimates vary on the exact numbers of tankers in the IAF inventory, but most analysts believe there are only 5-7 KC-707s. These aircraft would be an integral part of any long-range mission to Iran, providing aerial refueling and (possibly) command-and-control functions, such as radio relay. Israeli aircraft use the same "boom" refueling system as the USAF; fighters maneuver behind the tanker as the "boom operator" extends the refueling probe into the refueling receptacle of the receiving aircraft. Once contact is established, the tanker begins pumping fuel to the receiver, at a rate of several hundred pounds per minute.

The number of tankers available, coupled with their potential offload, will limit the size of any Israeli strike package. Again, estimates on the size of the formation vary (depending on the number of targets to be struck, fighter payload, target distance and airspeed), but many analysts believe the Israelis would launch 4-5 tankers, supporting no more than 30 strike aircraft, divided roughly between F-15Is and F-16Is (which would attack the nuclear facilities) and other F-15s and F-16s, flying air defense suppression and air superiority missions. Divide the number of "bombers" (say 15) by the number of nuclear complexes (four), and you'll see that the IAF has virtually no margin for error.

Over the past six years, Israel has made some upgrades to its tanker fleet, but the number of KC-707s has remained virtually unchanged. That means the IAF still has the same inflight refueling capability as it did in 2006, so the size the potential strike package would be largely unchanged. Israel has acquired better weapons in recent years (i.e., bunker buster bombs), so strike aircraft could target nuclear sites more efficiently, allowing individual fighters to carry fewer weapons, and possibly, add another F-16I (or two) to the package. But Israel's margin for error--in terms of tanking and targeting--remains razor-thin.

But the Israelis may have something else in mind: a plan that would allow them to utilize more aircraft, put more weapons on target and decrease their reliance on in-flight refueling. According to a new article at Foreignpolicy.com, Israel has reportedly secured access to airbases in Azerbaijan. Use of those facilities would allow for a number of options, from pre-strike basing, to ground-base refueling after the raid. These forward operating bases (or FOBs in military parlance) represent a game-changer for any Israeli strike against Iran:

Access to such airfields is important for Israel, because it would mean that Israeli F-15I and F-16I fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight during a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, but could simply continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Defense analyst David Isenberg describes the ability to use Azeri airfields as "a significant asset" to any Israel strike, calculating that the 2,200-mile trip from Israel to Iran and back again would stretch Israel's warplanes to their limits. "Even if they added extra fuel tanks, they'd be running on fumes," Isenberg told me, "so being allowed access to Azeri airfields would be crucial."

Former CENTCOM commander Gen. Joe Hoar simplified Israel's calculations: "They save themselves 800 miles of fuel," he told me in a recent telephone interview. "That doesn't guarantee that Israel will attack Iran, but it certainly makes it more doable."

Using airbases in Azerbaijan would ensure that Israel would not have to rely on its modest fleet of air refuelers or on its refueling expertise, which a senior U.S. military intelligence officer described as "pretty minimal." Military planners have monitored Israeli refueling exercises, he added, and are not impressed. "They're just not very good at it."

That last point is debatable; Israeli tankers have supported long-range missions in the past, including the raid on the former PLO headquarters in Tunis. They have also accompanied IAF fighters on deployments to Turkey, during times of better relations with Ankara. Israel's tanker issue isn't a question of skill, it's a matter of limited airframes and off-load capabilities.

But access to Azeri airfields changes the equation radically, as various experts told Foreign Policy:

Retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, who conducted a study for a think tank affiliated with the Swedish Ministry of Defense of likely Israeli attack scenarios in March 2010, said that Israel is capable of using its fleet of F-15I and F-16I warplanes in a strike on Iran without refueling after the initial top-off over Israel. "It's not weight that's a problem," he said, "but the numbers of weapons that are mounted on each aircraft." Put simply, the more distance a fighter-bomber is required to travel, the more fuel it will need and the fewer weapons it can carry. Shortening the distance adds firepower, and enhances the chances for a successful strike.

"The problem is the F-15s," Gardiner said, "who would go in as fighters to protect the F-16 bombers and stay over the target." In the likely event that Iran scrambled its fighters to intercept the Israeli jets, he continued, the F-15s would be used to engage them. "Those F-15s would burn up fuel over the target, and would need to land."

Could they land in Azerbaijan? "Well, it would have to be low profile, because of political sensitivities, so that means it would have to be outside of Baku and it would have to be highly developed." Azerbaijan has such a place: the Sitalcay airstrip, which is located just over 40 miles northwest of Baku and 340 miles from the Iranian border. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sitalcay's two tarmacs and the adjacent facilities were used by a squadron of Soviet Sukhoi SU-25 jets -- perfect for Israeli fighters and bombers. "Well then," Gardiner said, after the site was described to him, "that would be the place."

Some experts observe that bases in Azerbaijan could also be used by Israeli search-and-rescue (SAR) forces and special operations units that would support a potential raid on Iran. A few have even speculated that SAR assets have already deployed to the region, or will depart shortly, in anticipation of a Israeli raid in the coming months.

Israel's landing rights represent the culmination of 20 years of relationship-building with Azerbaijan. As ties with neighboring Turkey soured, ties between Tel Aviv and Baku took on added importance, as reflected by the number of senior Israeli officials who have visited Azerbaijan since the late 1990s.

What does Baku gain from this relationship? Israel is an important customer for Azeri oil, and the Jewish State has helped Azerbaijan upgrade its military forces. Tel Aviv may also provide intelligence information on their mutual foe--Iran. Baku has accused Tehran of meddling in its internal affairs, disrupting terrorist plots rooted in Iran, and expelling Muslim clerics with ties to the Iranian regime.

Interestingly, news of the "Azerbaijan option" was provided to Foreign Policy by a number of U.S. government officials, both civilian and military. Indeed, their sudden desire to speak publicly about military ties between Baku and Tel Aviv is merely the latest Obama Administration attempt to dissuade Israel from striking Iran. With the Azeri basing option now "out in the open," there will be pressure on the Baku government to deny Israeli access to their airfields, complicating potential strike planning.

But it may be a bit late for such tactics. Azerbaijan (along with other nations in the region) would privately welcome an Israeli strike against a growing regional menace. There's also the matter of Iran's long-standing mistreatment of its ethnic Azeri minority, a situation that doesn't sit well with Baku. Azerbaijan is also concerned about Iranian attempts to radicalize its Shia majority, who live under one of the few secular governments in the Muslim world.

Additionally, Israel may have other basing options in the region. During a 2007 military exchange, IAF officers told their USAF counterparts that basing rights had been secured in the Kurdish region of Iraq. One Israeli source suggested the Kurdish bases would be used as FOBs for SAR and special operations forces. Five years later, it's unclear if the Kurdish option is still available. But like the Azeris, the Kurds have their own axe to grind with Iran, and would probably be willing to provide limited support for an Israeli strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Don't bet against the Israelis. As FP.com observed, the U.S. didn't start paying attention to the ties between Israeli and Azerbaijan until 2001. By that time, the Israelis had been cultivating ties in the region for almost a decade. Likewise, there has been plenty of contact between Iraqi Kurds and various Israeli interests, including the Mossad. Attempts by the Obama Administration to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran appear clumsy, and too late. Indeed, the White House might be better served by determining what comes next--after diplomacy fails, and the Israelis strike.

2 comments:

Dymphna said...

this is the best I've read. If it's been on-going since 2001 and we weren't paying attention, I wonder if that was deliberate.

Just a thought.

Ray Klett said...

As an old NATO SOC guy the lack of intel has been the norm in the bureaucratic US intel community. Not paying attention or acting wisely was borne out by 9/11.