Is Israel equipped to win a war against Iran?

While Israel's Air Force is strongest in the region, it's old.

By
October 29, 2019 10:21
IDF weapons

An IDF weapons cache. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

As tensions mount between Israel and Iran, with senior defense officials warning of increased threats posed by the Islamic Republic, does the IDF have what it takes to win the coming war?

In an attempt to degrade Iran’s weapons, Israel has been carrying out a “war-between-wars” campaign since 2013 against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. This past year saw the most operational activity in that campaign since it began, on all borders and beyond.

While the campaign has been effective, the increased instability in the Middle East, as well as Iran’s continuous progress on its long-range precision missile project, has led the IDF to reassess the chances for direct confrontation.

Despite the fact that Israel’s enemies are not interested in war, the IDF has “increased its pace of preparations” for confrontation, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi told journalists on Wednesday. “On both the northern and southern fronts, the situation is tense and fragile, and could deteriorate into a confrontation.”

In response, Israel has increased its defenses. The IDF has also published its new multi-year plan, called the “Momentum Plan,” which aims to make the military deadlier, faster and better trained to go up against the threats facing it. The IDF is planning to procure significant amounts of precision guided missiles and mid-sized drones, as well as additional air defense batteries, using the $3.8 billion a year defense allocation Israel receives from the United States under the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding.

But the heavy cost of the multi-year plan needs a budget to pay for the new weapons and defensive systems. And with no government sitting in the Knesset, the Finance Ministry has not approved the necessary budget increase.

The IAF – the strongest air force in the region – needs to procure new fighter jets, helicopters and refuelers to win a war against a foe more than 2,000 km. away.

The majority of the IAF’s aircraft are between 30 to 50 years old, and a deal to purchase new planes will reportedly cost $11 billion.

First used by the IAF in 1969, the Yas’ur helicopters are the IAF’s primary helicopter used regularly to transport soldiers and equipment. While the aging helicopters have been upgraded with 20 new electronic and missile defense systems, the IAF will still need to replace them by 2025, when they will be more than 50 years old.

In March, the annual State Comptroller’s Report recommended that the IAF replace the aging aircraft as soon as possible, as “prolonging the life of the Yas’ur is liable to endanger human life and may have significant operational implications and substantial maintenance costs.”

The IAF plans to buy some 20 new heavy-lift helicopters – in other words, one squadron – to replace the current CH-53 Sea Stallion squadron at the Tel Nof base, Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion, the same maker of the Yas’ur, and Boeing’s CH-47F Chinook helicopter.

But the decision hasn’t been made yet. The longer it takes to sign a contract to replace the Yas’ur, the possibility of a failure in the platform increases.

In parallel to the helicopters, the IAF needs to retain its qualitative military edge and modernize an essential squadron of its fighter fleet. The IAF is also set to decide on a third squadron of F-35I jets or Boeing’s latest F-15I fighter jets.

The IAF has already received 12 F-35I “Adir” stealth fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin, and is expected to receive 50 of the aircraft to make two full squadrons by 2024.

In addition to the fifth generation F-35I, Israel is in dire need of new fighter aircraft before the current ones reach the end of their life cycle, which is creeping ever closer. Most of the IAF’s F-15s are more than 30 years old. The majority were acquired in the second half of the 1970s while a more advanced squadron of F-15s arrived two decades later.

The IAF is leaning toward a mix of both the F-35s and F-15Is, allowing them to carry out multiple complex operations, including any possible confrontation with Iran on its borders.

While it is considered one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets, the stealth F-35I aircraft is limited in the weapons it can carry, as they have to be stored in internal munition boxes to minimize the plane’s low radar signature.

Israel is interested in purchasing an upgraded F-15I model that can carry large quantities of various types of munitions, and advanced radar systems. Since it is not a stealth plane, Boeing has designed its wings to carry additional bombs and missiles.

In addition, the IAF is also leaning toward purchasing the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft for use in special operations.

But if a confrontation breaks out far from Israel’s borders, the IAF will require new refuelers for its jets on long-range missions. Many of the current refueler aircraft, including the Re’em (Boeing 707) tanker, are nearing the age of 60. Due to their age, Israel has been forced to scavenge replacement parts by dismantling older planes bought from countries like Brazil.

While the IAF is said to be considering buying used Boeing 767 commercial aircraft and converting them for airborne refueling of combat planes, it is also considering Boeing’s KC-46 tanker, which has a range of 11,830 km. and the capacity to upload 207,000 pounds of fuel to more than 64 different types of aircraft.

The decisions on procurement need to be made as soon as possible. To do so, Israel needs to form a government, which will allow the military to make a proper budget.

There’s no more time to waste.

A comparison by international defense site Global Firepower (GFP) found that Israel’s military has slipped below its arch-nemesis, Iran, in the ranking of military powers, coming in at 17 versus 14.

The site allows one to rank two countries in terms of military data, such as active personnel and manpower in the reserves. The site also documents the total strength of aircraft, tanks, naval assets and artillery.

According to GFP, Israel’s military personnel stands at an estimated 615,000 compared to Iran’s 934,000. But Iran’s population at 83,000,000 is nearly 10 times larger than Israel’s 9,100,000.

A comparison between Iran and Israel shows that while Iran had significantly larger naval assets than Israel (398 versus 65), while Israel had far greater tank strength (2,760 versus 1,634) and has some 6,541 armored fighting vehicles, compared to Iran’s 2,345. According to the site, the total amount of aircraft between the two countries is close, with Israel having 595 versus Iran’s 509.

Iran has been working to bolster its aging naval fleet and has commissioned its first indigenously developed Fateh-class submarine, outfitted with a guided-missile system capable of launching cruise missiles, as well as anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

While Tehran has said that its missile program is defensive in nature and provides deterrent capabilities, Israel and the United States have repeatedly warned that the missiles being tested by Tehran may carry nuclear warheads.


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