The Eitans take off first. They’re the slowest, only 220 knots flat out, and for best endurance, they’ll cruise at 180 knots. It’s 800 miles to their stations, just outside the range of Iranian air defense radar, south of the Saudi coast of the Persian Gulf.
Operated by the 210th Squadron of the Israeli Air Force at Tel Nof airbase, the Eitan (Hebrew for “steadfast”) is a big UAV, with a twenty-six meter wingspan. It has a reduced radar signature, although it’s probably not stealthy. It can carry different payloads: EO/IR imagers, synthetic aperture radar, ELINT or COMINT gear.
The two aircraft taking off now, at H-minus six hours, will relieve two already on station over Saudi airspace. Those birds carried ELINT and COMINT gear, monitoring Iranian radar and communications. At this point, there should be no surprises, but they’ll keep watch all the same.
The four-and-a-half hour flight there barely dents the Eitan’s twenty-four hour endurance. On-board satellite communications allow controllers to monitor the relief and make sure both new aircraft are good to go.
The tankers have to take off early as well. The refuel point, “Delek Station,” is located just short of the IP, over Saudi territory, but close to the coast.
The Saudis, like all the Persian Gulf nations, do not want the Iranians to have nuclear weapons, but they lack the ability to physically stop development. If the Iranians get close to actually assembling a bomb, the Saudis might agree to an Israeli campaign to destroy their nuclear program, especially if the Israelis offer a significant political concession as part of the deal.
That agreement allows the Israelis to operate freely over their “associate’s” territory without the risk of being intercepted, or even reported. A reasonable, if inconvenient Saudi proviso is that Israeli aircraft cannot operate from Saudi bases.
The first Israeli raid is a big one, four squadrons, and will need eight of Israel’s nine Boeing 707 tankers to refuel it. The ninth one was only purchased in 2010, a Boeing 707 airframe converted by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). They will be wheels-up from Nevatim airbase at H-minus four hours.
Next to take off, at H-minus three hours, is a single Shavit aircraft, also flying from Nevatim. The 120th Nachson (‘Pioneer”) squadron operates the Shavit (“Comet”) Special Electronics Mission aircraft. That uninformative title describes a Gulfstream G550 business jet converted by IAI to carry SIGINT and ELINT gear, a communications suite, and space for a command staff. It can monitor and control the Eitan UAVs launched earlier, as well as all the aircraft involved in the raid.
At 480 knots, the Shavit will be on station in two hours, but the raid commander is already working – tracking the strikers’ preparations and probably holding the hands of some nervous government officials.
It will also make the first offensive move in the Israeli attack on Iran. The “special mission” in its name comes from the ability to make Suter attacks. The term “Suter” comes from a United States program called Senior Suter, which is in turn part of another program called Big Safari, which is all about attacking an enemy’s information systems.
By feeding Iranian radar and communications antennas false data, the electronic attackers create fake contacts, delete real ones, insert false instructions, and possibly even crash the entire air defense network. At a minimum, a successful Suter attack allows the Israelis to see the status of the Iranian air defenses.
It’s a Jedi mind trick, cyber-style: “These aren’t the planes you’re looking for.” If the Israelis do their jobs really well, the Iranians won’t even know they’re being hacked until it’s too late.
Since the Shavit can monitor Iranian radar and communications directly, the two Eitan UAVs carry a different payload: electronics designed to support the intrusion effort by either locating emitters or transmitting signals at close range, without risking the Shavit directly.
The strikers, four squadrons of F-16I Sufas, take off half an hour after the Shavit. Slowed by ordnance and drop tanks, they cruise at 520 knots. It takes them an hour and a half to reach Delek Station, then half an hour to refuel. Because the target is just over 1,100 nautical miles (nm) away, the Sufas cannot carry a full load of ordnance – just two SPICE 2000 PGMs, as well as three drop tanks, targeting and navigation pods on the inlet stations, and two AIM-120 AMRAAMs on the wingtips.
Unlike most countries, Israeli squadrons have 24 planes instead of 12, so this first raid in the Israeli campaign will be sending 96 aircraft into Iranian airspace.
They aren’t all strikers. As insurance, in case the Suter attack is not completely effective, eight F-16s are armed with HARM missiles, decoys, and cluster munitions. They will suppress the enemy defenses in the general area, knocking out radars, command centers, and SAM batteries that could threaten the incoming raid. If the Suter attack is effective, they will either accompany the raid all the way to the target or perhaps prepare the way for the second attack tomorrow.
Another eight Sufas are dedicated fighter escorts. Instead of PGMs, they each carry four AMRAAMs and two Python 5 AAMs. With a range of 44 nautical miles, the AIM-120C-5 missiles they carry outrange everything in the Iranian inventory. They’re not as good as the “D” model AMRAAM (60 nm) used by the U.S., but the best the Iranians can put up is the Russian-made R-27R [AA-10 Alamo] with a range of 29 nm. With luck, the escort fighters won’t even have to use afterburner, which would be a good thing so far from home.
Finally, eight F-16s will be assigned to suppress the local defenses at the target. They also carry HARM missiles and a Sky Shield Jamming pod. Thanks to electronic reconnaissance, the Israelis know which SAMs are operating near the target and what their operating patterns are.
Of the 96 fighters, 72 will carry ordnance, while another twenty-four support and protect the rest. Altogether, the raid will be able to bring 144 precision-guided munitions to the target.
The next part of this series will show the Israeli approach to the target and the execution of the strike itself.