Monday, July 17, 2006

Israel is in the best position militarily in its history to mount air strikes against Iran, after a decade of buying U.S.-produced long-range aircraft, penetrating bombs and aerial refueling tankers.

Tel Aviv has ratcheted up the volume in attacking the hard-line Islamic regime as it fights the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. In the past, Israeli politicians have talked openly of attacking Iranian nuclear sites to prevent the U.S.-designated terror state from building atomic warheads.

Israel has purchased 25 $84 million F-15I (I for Israel) Ra’am, a special version of the U.S. F-15E long-range interdiction bomber. It also is buying 102 of another long-range tactical jet, the $45 million F-16I Sufa. About 60 have been delivered.

The Jewish state also is buying 500 U.S. BLU-109 “bunker buster” bombs that could penetrate the concrete protection around some of Iran’s underground facilities, such as the uranium enrichment site at Natanz. The final piece of the enterprise is a fleet of B-707 air-to-air refuelers that could nurse strike aircraft as they made the 900-mile-plus trip inside Iran, dropped their bombs and returned to Israel.

“They have the capability to strike Iran,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, a former fighter pilot who has trained with Israelis. “It would be limited, though. They could do 30 to 40 ‘aim points’ in the array. I’m not worried about them hitting the targets. They will suffer losses, but they are capable of doing it.”

He said Israeli fighter pilots are “the best in the world. I’ve flown against them. They train better. They get more flying time.”

Perhaps just as important as weapon systems is airspace.

The most direct route would be through Jordanian and Iraqi airspace. Two Israeli pilots showed that they could navigate both without being shot down in 1981, when they flew the 600 miles to the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad, dropped their bombs and returned over Jordan to an air base in southern Israel.

Today, the United States, not Saddam Hussein, controls Iraq’s vast airspace. Military analysts suggest the United States might approve the mission passively by letting the jets fly both ways unencumbered.

Gen. McInerney said the United States must grant airspace rights. “They really can’t do this without us,” he said. “I wouldn’t have them do it. We can do it much more aggressively and more decisively. We shouldn’t force the Israelis to do it when we should do it.”

The retired pilot called Iran’s air defenses “1960s vintage” and not as good as the Iraqi defenses that Israeli pilots avoided in 1981.

Vice President Dick Cheney last year revealed Bush administration suspicions that Israel may take pre-emptive action.

“One of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards,” he said on the “Imus in the Morning” radio show.

In the Osirak strike, both F-16s made the round trip without aerial refueling, but targets in Iran are at least 300 miles farther away. Although the F-15Is and F-16Is have a combat radius of more than 1,000 miles, the numbers would indicate that the mission might require aerial refueling, thus complicating an already daunting operation.

However, the Web site says the F-15Is and F-16Is “extended flight range reportedly allows Israeli forces to attack targets well within Iran without having to refuel.”

Israeli political leaders have pressed the Bush administration to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. At the same time, some have publicly stated that Israel will take unilateral action to destroy Iranian facilities if Washington fails to stop it.

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