Israel's air force is second to none among the countries in the Middle East, enabling the state to project power throughout the region.
When a nation is small and surrounded by states that have waged war against it in the past, a sharply honed air force is a vital security asset and a means of deterrence. In major conflicts like the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars, Israel's air force demonstrated daring and capability. And today, many analysts say Israel's air power can be projected far beyond the skies of Lebanon, where it is currently operating nearly without challenge.
Jane's Information Group is a leading source of information on nations and their military power. One of its divisions is Jane's Country Risk, whose Middle East Editor, David Hartwell, puts Israel's air force at the top.
"The Israeli air force is certainly the best in the region. It's one of the best in the world. They have the equipment. They have the technical know-how. They have the tactics. Israel possesses a full range of guided weapons. They certainly have radar-guided missiles, laser-guided missiles and TV-guided missiles as well. So they possess a full range of capabilities," says Hartwell.
Hartwell and other military analysts say that this edge has enabled Israel's air force to engage and defeat much larger adversaries. It has also emboldened Israel to take dramatic actions.
Lessons of Operation Opera
One such mission took place in June, 1981. Eight Israeli F-16 attack jets, protected by six F-15 fighters, streaked eleven-hundred kilometers across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to bomb Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in Operation Opera. The strike foiled Baghdad's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which Israeli leaders considered to be a deadly threat.
Alex Bigham at the non-governmental Foreign Policy Centre in London says that today, Israel remains willing to act decisively.
"Clearly, the experience of the bombing of Osirak in Iraq, the nuclear program there, shows that Israel is prepared to take unilateral action against what it sees as threats to its security," says Bigham.
The Israeli warplanes that flew the 1981 Osirak mission operated close to the limits of their range. John Pike, head of the Washington-based military analysis firm GlobalSecurity.org, says Israel now has special aircraft that can reach another country with nuclear weapons ambitions.
"The Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers have one important difference from their American counterparts. They're fitted with very large fuel tanks that enable both of these aircraft to fly unrefueled all the way from Israel to Iran and back. So it's clear that the Israelis have been laying the groundwork that would enable them to strike W.M.D. [i.e., weapons of mass destruction] facilities in Iran," says Pike.
Iran has repeatedly defied calls by the United Nations and the international community to stop trying to build an atomic arsenal. Additionally, Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction.
The Sunday Times newspaper in London reported last year that because of these factors, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave preliminary approval for a military strike against Iran if it did not end its nuclear program. Israel denied that such approval had been given. In the United States, former C.I.A. Director James Woolsey is one of several analysts calling for the destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities.
Targets in Iran
But David Hartwell at Jane's Country Risk says taking out Iran's nuclear program would be far more complicated than the 1981 attack on Iraq.
"Osirak was very, very simple. It was a very clear-cut target [and] very easy to knock out. To do that in Iran would be very, very difficult given the number of targets. You've got something like 20 [targets] all over Iran. So the Israelis would have to inflict enough damage in one strike to disable the Iranian nuclear program," says Hartwell.
Many analysts say Iran's nuclear reactor at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast and Esfahan, where uranium enrichment is believed to be taking place, would be top targets. Many military analysts say Iran is putting its nuclear weapons research facilities in hardened underground bunkers. But those analysts say that Israel has deep penetration "bunker buster" bombs capable of destroying such targets.
While Israel may have the aircraft and weapons to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, Michael O'Hanlon at The Brookings Institution in Washington says getting there would be anything but simple.
"It's not a question of just measuring the mileage from Israel to Iran. They're not going to get permission from Saudi Arabia, I don't think. Going over Jordan is complicated. They can try to sneak through Syrian airspace and then go through Iraqi airspace, and perhaps they would be prepared to do that. But when you think through all of the specifics here, I believe the Red Sea route would be the best. But it would be a huge detour," says O'Hanlon.
While such a route would be through international airspace, the long distance over the Red Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula and up into the Persian Gulf would require aerial refueling of attack aircraft to complete the mission. But such a route would provide the greatest measure of surprise, reducing Iran's ability to defend itself.
And Ivan Ulrich at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington says Tehran could not mount much of a defense.
"On paper, the Iranians have a lot of advanced fighter planes. But they're having problems with spare parts [i.e. to keep those planes flying]. So I don't think that there would be a robust defense from aircraft. They do also have surface-to-air missiles. Most of them are out-of-date, and probably could be jammed with modern technology," says Urlich.
Israel's ability to project its air power is the greatest it has ever been. And many analysts say the Israeli air force has become an even stronger deterrent to aggression by other states, as well as a means to strike pre-emptively in the face of what Israel sees as grave threats.