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Not F-35 Or F-22, This Is America’s ‘Super Aircraft’ That Israel Is Banking On To Neutralize Iranian Nuclear Sites

The top US envoy mediating between Washington and Tehran for reviving the Iran Nuclear Deal recently said that the prospect of a revival of the agreement was “tenuous at best.” Dismayed by Iran’s reluctance to accept all US demands, Israel is already hinting at a possible strike on its nuclear facilities. 

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz stated earlier this month that Iran was set to finish the manufacturing and installation of 1,000 IR6 advanced centrifuges for its nuclear development program.

Flustered by the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, Israel has been planning to bomb Tehran’s nuclear facilities, which it considers a severe threat to its national security.

Historical evidence indicates that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) could carry out a strike at Iranian nuclear facilities if matters were to escalate.

In June 1987, the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) F-16s went on a rampage and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear facility ‘Osirak’ that was being built with French assistance.

Formation of F-16A Block 10 (78-0335/233) and, a, Scharf F-16B Block 5 (78-0355/001) “Fighting Falcon”/”Netz” from the 140º Sqn. “Golden Eagle” (Nesher Ha’ Zahav) of the Israel Defense Forces/Air Force (via Twitter)

Preparing for a similar move against Iran, the IDF recently carried out a large-scale exercise simulating an attack on its nuclear facilities as part of the ‘Chariots of Fire’ military exercise.

The Israeli military stated on June 1 that dozens of its aircraft practiced long-range airstrikes, a thinly veiled hint to a prospective attack on Iran. Earlier in December, IDF had made several threats about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The military stated the exercise took place a day earlier over the Mediterranean and “included long-range flight, aerial refueling, and striking distant targets.” It didn’t disclose any other details, the Times of Israel reported. It was not immediately known which refueling tanker the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF used).

For a strike on the Osirak reactor in 1987, eight F-16s were heavily armed for the daring mission. Each fighter jet carried two Mk 84 bombs and two AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles.

The F-16 fighters were also loaded with a 300-gallon centerline fuel tank, and two 370-gallon wing tanks, so that the IDF warplanes could bomb and come back without the need to land anywhere. The mission undertaken by the IDF back then was a response to the perceived existential threat to Israel.

Iran Is Not Iraq

Now, the IDF is equipped with the most sophisticated fighters in the world – the stealth F-35 jets. However, despite having the best warplanes that can become invisible to enemy radars, Israel needs something ‘extra’ to neutralize the Iranian nuclear facility.

That ‘extra’ that IDF needs are mid-air refuellers.

Israel is in the process of procuring KC-46A refuelers from the United States. However, it has been anticipated that the delivery of these aircraft would begin only a couple of years later.

In the recently held drills, the US Air Force was reportedly expected to serve as a complementary force with its refueling planes for the exercise, according to Channel 13 news. The IDF, however, refused to confirm the report while the US Central Command disputed it, saying that “there is no direct US military involvement in that exercise.”

While Israel has issued several threats to bomb and irreversibly destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and its entire nuclear program, the lack of refueling aircraft from the US that it has been seeking for a long time has rendered this plan technically unfeasible.

Refuel, Bomb and Return!

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi revealed at the start of the year that he had ordered the military to begin drawing up new attack plans against Iran. By September, Kohavi claimed that the army’s preparations for action against Tehran’s nuclear program had “greatly accelerated.”

Defense officials estimate that while some components of the IAF’s strike plans, which are still in the early phases, could be ready in a matter of weeks, others will take more than a year to fully implement.

Even though there was no discussion about the long-term plan, it could point toward the lack of refueling options for the Israeli F-35 fighters, if it were to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.

KC-46 refuels F-35 fighter jet of the US Air Force- Wikipedia Commons

Israel, for now, refuels with old converted 707s and, the KC-46A refuellers would not arrive until 2025.

While Israel does have the F-35s (called the F-35I or Adir), the aircraft cannot fly to Iran and come back without refueling. The refueling would require the F-35s to either land at a friendly base near Iran or be refueled by a tanker.

Even during its mission to annihilate Bhagdad’s nuclear facilities, it had sent its F-16s for attack and F-15s for Air Superiority operations. Both aircraft had to fly low to evade the radars.

The Jordanian king, himself a pilot, had then spotted the aircraft flying towards Iraq and almost sabotaged the well-planned operation by tipping off. However, Israeli intelligence ‘took care’ and the mission proved to be a success.

If a friendly country provides a landing facility to Israel, that nation could be the first one to face the Iranian wrath before Tehran decides to attack Israel, through proxies or by raining thousands of missiles. The entire Middle-Eastern region would erupt in war, an event that the Arab countries and the US would want to avoid at all costs.

When Israel Wanted To Bomb Pakistan

In the 1970s, two Pakistani Presidents, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq regarded nuclear weapons as a way to improve the country’s standing in the “Muslim world”.

Islamabad touted its nuclear arsenal as an Islamic bomb to imply that it would be a shared property of the entire Muslim world – a precedent that would have threatened Israel’s existence.

File Image: IDF’s F-35 Adir

So, while there was little truth in Pakistan’s narrative of a shared Islamic bomb, Israel felt threatened. To eliminate any potential threat to its security, it had reportedly planned a strike on Pakistan’s nuclear facility. While everything was worked out, the Israeli fighters would need a place to land somewhere and India emerged as a natural choice.

There have been several accounts of an Israeli-Indian plan that would allow the IAF’s F-16s to refuel at Indian territory in the north from where they could fly into Pakistan by crossing the border.

The then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had cleared the operation, but the US government, under President Ronald Reagan, asked both countries to abandon their plans, according to former Pakistan Army Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan.

“..Israeli planes would take off from an Indian Air Force base in Jamnagar, refuel at a satellite airfield somewhere in northern India, and in the final stage, the planes would track the Himalayas to avoid early radar detection before penetrating Pakistani airspace,” Khan wrote in his book.

Perhaps, a plan to attack and alienate Pakistan did not fit into the American political calculus. Afghanistan was in turmoil, and the US military still needed Islamabad. Many political experts say Washington turned down the Israeli plan.

Not just that, it has been no secret that Pakistan’s nuclear scientist Munir Ahmed Khan met Indian Atomic Energy Commission chief-designate Raja Ramanna in Vienna and threatened a retaliatory strike on the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay.

This lends more credence to the argument that if Israel were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, US support, rather approval, would be vital. For now, if IDF needs to neutralize Iranian nuclear sites, it desperately needs mid-air refuellers from the US before things go out of control.

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