Israel’s new ‘quantum leap’ strike jets challenge Iran
Beirut - Israel recently took delivery of the first of 50 F-35I stealth fighters, considered the most advanced combat jet in the world, from the United States, an event that marks a new and potentially critical phase in the Jewish state’s dealings with Iran.
The December 12th arrival of two of the jets at Nevatim air base in the Negev Desert of southern Israel was greeted with great fanfare as tensions with Iran mount amid the violent upheavals sweeping the Middle East and the gathering momentum of the Islamic Republic’s expansionist strategy.
Iran’s large-scale military deployment in Syria to prop up its key Arab ally, President Bashar Assad, means the Islamic Republic has its forces, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, deeply entrenched on Israel’s northern border. This is causing unease in Israel.
The F-35I delivery will greatly extend the range and firepower of Israel’s air force, the strongest in the Middle East.
Brigadier-General Tal Kalman, the deputy commander of the Israeli Air Force, called it “a quantum leap” that “will allow the air force to do missions that its current aircraft are unable to do today”.
Israeli officers pointed out that the F-35I with its radar-evading capabilities and other technological innovations greatly enhances the Jewish state’s capability to launch pre-emptive attacks, presumably on Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities.
Israeli newspapers quoted a person only identified as Lieutenant- Colonel Yotam, who will command the first F-35I squadron, as saying: “We all understand that we bought this plane to attack places we were not always able to attack. This plane knows how to do that perfectly. This is our aim in receiving this plane.”
The Israelis have dubbed the F-35I the Adir, Hebrew for “the mighty one”.
The “I” designation means US plane maker Lockheed Martin has tailored the jets to Israel’s military requirements.
The Israeli air force will receive other F-35Is at a rate of six or seven a year beginning in 2017. Eventually, the Israelis will have two squadrons of the fifth-generation fighter. A third squadron of 25 aircraft is likely to arrive at a later date.
As Israel builds up its F-35I strength at a cost of about $85 million per aircraft, it is also seeking to acquire three advanced Dolphin-class submarines from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems under a $1.3 billion contract.
These boats can carry Israeli-built Popeye Turbo cruise missiles, reportedly armed with nuclear warheads. They will supposedly replace the first Dolphin variants bought from ThyssenKrupp, with the German government paying a hefty portion of the cost, in the 1980s.
Israel already has taken delivery of two Dolphin-2 boats, with a third under construction in Kiel and scheduled for delivery in 2018.
Israeli officials say these submarines give Israel a “second strike” capability to retaliate against a potentially crippling nuclear attack by an enemy. Left unsaid is that the submarines give the Jewish state a first-strike capability as well.
Israel is a very small country and thus vulnerable. Iran, on the other hand, is quite vast and its cities and strategic installations are spread over a large area, making it more able to survive a nuclear attack and thus retaliate.
Iran is believed to have more ballistic missiles than Israel but they do not have the range or accuracy of Israel’s weapons, although military analysts have said that, at the current rate of Iran’s missile development, that could change within a few years.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has directed the purchase of Dolphin-2 submarines and is locked in a bruising battle with his military chiefs and political rivals such as former Defence ministers Ehud Barak and Moshe Yaalon.
They oppose the deal, claiming the new subs are “not necessary” and, along with the costly F-35I acquisition, are straining the defence budget and denying funds for the army, which needs to be modernised for 21st-century warfare.
The primary mission of the advanced German-built boats is to zero in on strategic targets in Iran from the Indian Ocean, augmenting the land-based threat of long-range, nuclear-capable Jericho strategic missiles deployed in bunkers deep under the Judean hills and nuclear bomb strikes by the air force.
Israel wants the capabilities of the F-35I for one purpose: To counter Iran. Israeli leaders are convinced Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to carry them to obliterate the Jewish state and become the unchallenged paramount power in the Middle East.
Israeli concerns have heightened as the Tehran regime, buoyed what some estimates put at $100 billion in assets unfrozen by the nuclear agreement it struck with US-led global powers in July 2015, accelerates its military modernisation drive and continues to carry out missile tests in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
“Underlying the choice of priorities in Israel is the sensitive matter of how soon Iran will acquire a nuclear strike capability,” observed Stephen Bryen, a defence industry veteran and first head of the US Defense Technology Security Administration.
“There are differences in how the Israeli intelligence community and Israel’s prime minister assess the overall risk,” he wrote in the US weekly Defense News in November.
“Israeli intelligence does not think the Iranians are yet in a position to threaten Israel, even though they have long-range ballistic missiles. They also tend to think (as does the CIA) that the restraints imposed by the nuclear deal led by the United States will delay Iran’s deployment of nuclear weapons for at least ten years.”
But, Bryen concluded, “even if they’re right, Israel needs to be prepared for the end of that decade — when Iran can openly flout nuclear weapons without in any way violating the nuclear deal”, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Netanyahu, like most Israeli leaders, opposed US President Barack Obama’s push to strike the deal with Iran, claiming it does little to impede Tehran’s quest to develop its own nuclear arms.
They want to see the agreement scrapped. US President-elect Donald Trump vowed to do that during his election campaign, although whether that will translate into policy remains to be seen.
In recent months, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has boosted the country’s long-deficient air-defence network with advanced Russian S-300 PMU2 missiles capable of shooting down ballistic missiles and aircraft simultaneously at long range.
Iran has reportedly sited its first S-300 battery around the Fordow uranium enrichment centre, a vital component of the nuclear programme built deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom south of Tehran.
This, observed Behnam Ben Taleblu and Patrick Megahan of the Washington-based Federation for the Defense of Democracies, “sheds light on what the Islamic Republic believes requires defending” and “raises questions as to Tehran’s future nuclear intentions”.
Under the 2015 agreement, which bans all Iranian enrichment activity for 15 years, Fordow, built to withstand all but the most powerful conventional bunker-buster bombs, was supposed to be transformed into a research centre with international assistance.
That would not need air defences. So, Ben Taleblu and Megahan concluded, by deploying the S-300s around Fordow “Iran appears to be sending a message that despite the JCPOA it is keeping its nuclear options open”.
Iran is also looking at buying Russian Sukhoi Su-33 fighter jets to build up its dilapidated air force, which is largely equipped with Vietnam-era US jets inherited from the shah’s regime toppled in 1979 and no match against US or Israeli warplanes.
On December 13th, Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported that Iranian President Hassan Rohani ordered the technical development of nuclear-propulsion systems for ships.
It is not clear whether that order — which in its present version the United States concedes does not violate the 2015 nuclear deal — extends to naval vessels, such as submarines.
Iran announced in 2012 it was in the initial phase of building a nuclear-powered sub.
Nothing has been heard of that ambitious project since but Iran has long wanted to upgrade its naval forces and in recent months has talked of setting up bases across the region as the clerical regime seeks to expand the Islamic Republic’s power across the region.