Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Iran's "Plan"

An Iranian F-4 Phantom, the likely candidate for any potential airstrike (read: suicide mission) against Israel.

It doesn't take a general to figure out that military plans are largely worthless, unless a nation has the doctrine, training, equipment and personnel to actually implement the plan, and successfully execute it.

As the world's only superpower, the U.S. (thankfully) has the resources to carry out its military plans, although we'd be hard-pressed under certain scenarios, say, fighting a war in Korea while continuing our current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, we've come a long way from the dark days just before Pearl Harbor, when our military forces were short of personnel and hardware. During the famous "Louisiana Maneuvers" of 1941, planes dropped sacks of flower (because there weren't enough bombs to go around), and trucks doubled as tanks. The exercise was something of a wake-up call for the War Department, emphasizing the gap between our operational plans and actual capabilities.

A similar gap is evident in Iran's announced plans to "bomb Israel," in retaliation for an IDF attack on its territory. Gen. Mohammad Alavi, Deputy Commander of the Iranian Air Force, told the Fars News Agency, "We have drawn up a plan to strike back at Israel with our bombers if this regime (Israel) makes a silly mistake." General Alavi's claim makes for an attention-grabbing headline, but a serious examination of Iran's military capabilities reveals that the "plan" is little more than an idle boast. 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.

Indeed, the Hamadan crews are (reportedly) among the few that have conducted long-range navigation training in recent years. But those flights are apparently few and far between, leaving the F-4 crews marginally capable in key tasks associated with long-range strike missions. Long-range flight and navigation training is virtually non-existent among other Iranian Air Force units--including its only squadron of SU-24 FENCER strike fighters. While the FENCERS have the range to reach Israel--and a "buddy" refueling capability--the lack of training in that squadron leaves it unprepared for the challenge of flying 1,000 miles (potentially through hostile airspace), and locating a heavily-defended target.

As we've noted before, Iran's problems are further compounded by its system of competing Air Forces. Tehran's 30 (or so) flyable Phantoms and the handful of airworthy F-14 Tomcats belong to the "regular" Air Force. Newer airframes, including the FENCERs and the small number of MiG-29 FULCRUMs belong to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Air Force. Cooperation between the two organizations has always been problematic, and both compete for limited resources, complicating training and planning for a long-range strike against Israel.

To reduce the "range" problem, Iranian jets could, potentially, operate from bases in Syria. But getting there remains problematic. The "central route" (through Iraq) is effectively closed, thanks to the U.S. military presence. That means a more northerly or southerly flight path, attempting to "sneak through" Saudi or Turkish air defenses. While that isn't an impossible feat, it does raise the possibility of detection and intercept.

Once on the ground in Syria, Iranian crews would be forced to launch their raid quickly. As evidenced by the recent air strike on that suspected nuclear facility, Israel has good intelligence about what's happening in Syria. The detection of Iranian combat aircraft--on the ground or enroute to Syria--would prompt a swift Israeli reaction.

As the AP notes, Tehran has long threatened to hit Israel if the Jewish State strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities, or if the United States attacks. General Alavi's comments were the first reference to specific contingency plans for striking back at Israel, but (given the current capabilities of his air force), they are little more than idle threats.

Needless to say, the Israelis aren't going to lose much sleep over a threatened strike by a handful of F-4s, manned by marginally proficient Iranian crews. Tel Aviv is more more concerned about Tehran's ballistic missile force, which is capable of delivering chemical or biological weapons against Israeli cities, from launch points in western Iran.


David Batlle said...

I guess you're ignorant of the fact that Iran has long-range missiles, possible tipped with chemicals. Lots and lots of them.

Unknown said...

Wrong--we've addressed Iran's missile force (in detail) during previous posts. The Iranian general referred specifically to his country's plans for an airstrike against Israel; this analysis shows that "plan" is little more than fantasy.

Unknown said...

Good response spook86...comment directly from IRIAF commander...also good luck dealing with Israel's outstanding missile defense system plus presumably at least three carrier battle groups in the Gulf.

David Batlle said...

Read the article again then. Because that general (Alavi) refers to missiles, not just bombers. Unless they get taken out first, Iran's missile attack will make Hesbollah's seem like a gentle breeze by comparison.

Unknown said...

David--read the last paragraph of the post; we address Iran's missile force--and we've discussed it in great detail in previous postings. A couple of points: as we noted the other day, Iran has less than 40 Shahab-3 airframes and probably no more than 18 BM-25s; the number of launchers for those missiles is even smaller, and that's the limiting factor in how many can be fired simultaneously.

In fact, no nation (or terror group) has an equal number of launchers and missiles. Mustering all available missiles that can hit Israel from Iran (plus their launchers), and factoring in launches from Syria and Iran, I still don't see how the Iranians can reach that magical "600" number. And, that doesn't accout for preemptive strikes by the IAF, either.