Friday, February 03, 2012

Israel Attack on Iran: Same BS Different Day

“Israel to attack Iran” is a hardy if never-blooming perennial.  I rerun this post (originally written on the occasion of Israel’s bombing of an alleged nuclear facility in Syria in 2007) every year as a reminder of the rather daunting technical issues involved in flying from Israel to Iran and blowing things up in a truly convincing fashion, even as the same threats are put forward again and again.

Blowing things up in a truly convincing fashion involves a) flying there b) getting refueled in mid-air c) getting rearmed d) going back and do it again and again against Iran’s dispersed and hardened nuclear facilities.

So it won’t be an orgasmic one-off like the Osiraq reactor strike against Iraq, a nice quasi-surgical demonstration of civilized Israeli warfare.  It would be a grinding, prolonged assault, presumably with plenty of Iranian casualties, and with the unmistakable, sustained assistance of a local ally to keep the planes in the air.

Iran’s nuclear facilities are beyond the combat range of Israel’s fighter bombers.  So Israeli planes would not only need to overfly Iraq or Saudi Arabia and/or Turkey with or without permission; they would have need to get refueled over Iraq or Saudi Arabia as well on the return trip.

It doesn’t look like the US is going to provide refueling facilities, leaving it up to local partners (unlikely/infeasible) or Israel itself.

This year, the presence of a pro-Iranian government in Iraq would make it necessary for Israel to cross Iraqi airspace without permission, and defy the Iraqi government in prolonged fashion by having Israel’s tankers hovering over Iraq for multiple bouts of mid-air refueling.

And I don’t think Turkey’s going to be keen about permitting overflight, since they aren’t even signing on to the proposed bilateral sanctions against Iran.

That leaves the Saudis.  Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an aggressive rollback against Iran in particular and Shi’ites in general, and the London Times quoted an anonymous Saudi source as saying Israeli jets attacking Iran would be waved through Saudi airspace.

Doesn’t quite pass the smell test for me, though.  I don’t think the Saudi government is happy to harass the Iranians, but I don’t think they have the stomach for taking the Israeli side in a full-blown war.

On the record comments in December from Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s top security honcho, will undoubtedly be dismissed as disinformation by Western observers because he’s calling for a nuclear-free Middle East (a slap at Israel!), but I think his statement more closely reflect Saudi reality:

Replying to a question about the possibility of an attack on Iran to force it to roll back its nuclear program and the impact of such an action, Prince Turki reiterated that the impact will be “calamitous … cataclysmic, not just catastrophic.”

He said that Iranian actions have provoked worldwide opposition but at the same time suggests that Iran's nuclear program is being singled out, while Israel is being given a clean chit. Any unilateral decision to launch a military attack aimed at halting the nuclear program of Iran could have huge consequences, he warned.

As to the technical issues of refueling, the IDF has made a big deal of demonstrating that it does not need US refueling services, as this report indicates:

In the last days of May and first week of June, 2008, Israel staged an impressive and well-reported exercise over Crete with the participation of the Greek air force. More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighter jets, as well as Israeli rescue helicopters and mid-air refueling planes flew a massive number of mock strikes. Israeli planes reportedly never landed but were continuously refueled from airborne platforms. Israel demonstrated that a 1400 km distance could be negotiated with Israeli aircraft remaining aloft and effective. Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility is 1400 km from Israel.

Early in 2011, the Jersusalem Post reported Israel took delivery of a 707 for conversion into a tanker for refueling its F15-I fighter bombers coming back for Iran.  How many additional tankers Israel has is “classified”, but an unsourced thread puts the total number of converted 707s to eight.

The JPost article went on to say:

The air force has conducted a major upgrade of its tanker fleet in recent years and now plans to wait for the US Air Force to choose its future tanker before buying additional aircraft.

Reading between the lines, maybe the United States is not particularly keen on delivering tankers and enhancing Israel’s capability to conduct unilateral air operations against Iran.

Accordingto Karl Vick at Time magazine, Israel doesn’t have the tanker capacity or, for that matter the ordnance, to devastate Iran for weeks:

What everyone agrees, however, is that as formidable as the Israeli Air Force is, it simply lacks the capacity to mount the kind of sustained, weeks-long aerial bombardment required to knock down Iran’s nuclear program, with the requisite pauses for damage assessments followed by fresh waves of bombing.  Without forward platforms like air craft carriers, Israel’s air armada must rely on mid-air refueling to reach targets more than 1,000 miles away, and anyone who reads Israel’s order of battle sees it simply doesn’t have but a half dozen or so.  Another drawback noted by analysts is Israel’s inventory of bunker-busting bombs, the sort that penetrate deep into concrete or rock that shield the centrifuge arrays at Natanz and now Fordow, near Qum.  Israel has loads of GBU-28s, which might penetrate Natanz. But only the U.S. Air Force has the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator that could take on Fordow, the mountainside redoubt where critics suspect Iran would enrich uranium to military levels.

So, why do we keep talking about Israel’s threats to attack Iran?

I’ve frequently commented that the main purpose of the attack-Iran threat is to yank America’s chain, and forestall possible rapprochement between the United States and Iran.

The Obama administration knows this, I think, and I find its politically-motivated willingness to continue with the sanctions charade, and the low level but cruel and destabilizing program of assassination, sabotage, and economic warfare against Iran rather shameful.

Friday, October 05, 2007
The Mystery of the Dropped Fuel Tanks

An e-mail from a reader concerning the Israeli raid on a purported North-Korea-linked military facility in Syria stated:

FYI, the combat radius of an F-15 in deep strike mode is 1800km
The distance to the Syrian target is ~ 700 km.

No need for drop tanks........

Hmmm. Too interesting to pass up.

The Internet is a treasure trove for armchair commanders and aviation and weapons enthusiasts. Industrious googling yielded the following information:

During the raid, some Israeli aircraft jettisoned two external fuel tanks up by the Turkish border.

The tanks were from an F-15I fighter bomber , called the “Ra’am” or “Thunder”, itself the Israeli variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle.

In agreement with my correspondent, the Observer states the Ra’am is:

...the newest generation of Israeli long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km when equipped with the drop tanks.

But I think the Observer (and perhaps *gasp* a loyal reader) got it wrong. Either they confused cruising range with combat range, or confused the current F15I with its previous incarnations (for instance the F15C does have a combat radius of 2000 km).

The F-15E is a completely different animal from previous F-15s, which were sleek interceptors, designed “without a pound for the ground” i.e. no air to ground armament, for those days of air-to-air combat with the parfait knights of the Soviet bloc.

The F-15E is a big, fat hog of a plane, sometimes nicknamed the Flying Tennis Court, or Rodan for its resemblance to the ungainly b
ut murderous superpterodactyl featured in the Godzilla movies.

It’s meant to carry big bombs and missiles to blow up stuff on the ground and the people standing in it or next to it, and fight its way out if necessary.

So it’s got bigger engines and less range than previous F15s.

According to the data I dug up, the F-15E has a combat radius—the distance it can be expected to fly for a mission assuming high speed, fuel-consuming maneuvers--of 790 miles (see here and here ).

To achieve this radius, it needs its internal fuel plus external fuel.

Internal fuel capacity is 5,952 kg.

External fuel consists of two components:

Conforming fuel tanks or CFTs with a total capacity of 4500 kg. They are integral parts of the plane—one report I read said the plane isn’t really designed to fly without them—and can’t be jettisoned.

Then there’s another 5500 kg in conventional external fuel tanks—the kind that were dropped during the mission.

With a fistful of caveats, the combat radius for an F-15I without the external fuel tanks would be around 500+ miles.

Distance from the Hatzerim airbase (home of the F-15I-equipped 69th Squadron) near Beersheba to Dayr az Zawr: 420 miles.

So you might think that the conventional external fuel tanks weren’t needed for this particular mission, and the only reason to carry them was for road-testing prior to some Iran-related hanky-panky.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

If the Israelis really did bomb Dayr az Zawr, it’s unclear why they went barnstorming up to the Turkish border a hundred miles away.

But they certainly did go, and to fly that kind of mission including a flyby of the Turkish border, I think they would need the external fuel tanks.

Maybe the Turkey excursion was to test some fancy new electronic countermeasures equipment mounted on another plane, called “Suter”, to disrupt Russian air defense hardware recently supplied to Syria—and Iran, for Israel’s benefit and our own.

Aviation Week put out the story courtesy of “U.S. officials”:

A Kuwaiti newspaper wrote that "Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory. Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions."

We got a certain amount of military chest-thumping about how cool this new gear is, but these planes only jettison their fuel tanks if they’ve been engaged and need extra speed and mobility, which leads one to believe it couldn’t have worked too great.

As to Israeli insistence that they’ll take out Iran if we can’t get off our collective rears, I found this analysis interesting and persuasive.

It argues that the Israeli air force simply doesn’t have the horses to haul the armament needed to make a terminal dent in the hardened and dispersed Iranian facilities on a 1200-mile mission—remember, more fuel means fewer weapons carried--unless the U.S. either assists in the refueling of the Israeli planes or allows them to stage the assault U.S. from bases in Iraq.

And maybe not even then.

Bottom line:

Theoretically, the Israelis could do this, but at great risk of failure. If they decide to attack Natanz, they will have to inflict sufficient damage the first time - they probably will not be able to mount follow-on strikes at other facilities.

When all the analyses are done, there is only one military capable of the sustained widespread air operations required to eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons research program - the United States.

So it looks like the Israelis could start something—but it would be up to Uncle Sam to finish the job.

I take this as support for my thesis that a key data point for Israel from the Syria raid was the nature of the U.S. support it did—or did not—elicit, and what that would mean for Israel if it conducted a dramatic but less than conclusive raid on Natanz with the hope that the U.S. could be dragged into the campaign.

So: War with Iran—it’s up to us. Don’t know whether that’s reassuring or disturbing.


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