Aircraft that could aid Israeli strike on Iran may not arrive until 2024

Israel has wanted KC-46A tanker aircraft for years, but Israel was also the one that procrastinated.

A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus sits on the tarmac at Boeing facilities at Boeing Field in this aerial photo in Seattle, Washington, U.S. (photo credit: REUTERS/LINDSEY WASSON)
A Boeing KC-46A Pegasus sits on the tarmac at Boeing facilities at Boeing Field in this aerial photo in Seattle, Washington, U.S.

Israel may have to wait several years for the KC-46A tanker aircraft, which would be crucial for long-range airstrikes.

This comes amid Iran tensions, and reports emerged about the slow delivery of the key aircraft as Defense Minister Benny Gantz went to Washington and was flying back.

Timing is everything in politics and sometimes in international relations. It appears these reports were timed to coincide with the Gantz trip. The first report was on Ynet, which claimed that “the Biden administration has rejected Israel’s request to expedite delivery of two KC-46 refueling jets out of four purchased, which would facilitate IAF flight to attack Iran.”

Now The New York Times says that “Israel asked the Biden administration last week to speed up the delivery of refueling tankers that could prove critical to striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, but it was told that the aircraft were back-ordered and it was unlikely that its first one would be ready until late 2024, according to US and Israeli officials.”

Nevertheless the US would try to “alleviate” the production backlog, the report said.

 Indian Air Force aircraft in Blue Flag exercise in Israel, 2021 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) Indian Air Force aircraft in Blue Flag exercise in Israel, 2021 (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

2024 is a long time away. Considering Iran’s advanced enrichment progress with uranium and the stalled Iran talks, Tehran could easily cross redlines toward a nuclear device before then. Either way, Israel has wanted these types of refueler aircraft for a decade.

Israel was the one that procrastinated. This was due to endless elections which former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stage-managed from the fall of 2018 to 2021.

It should be recalled that defense minister Avigdor Liberman resigned in 2018, setting in motion events that led to elections. Netanyahu then exploited the inability of opposition parties to unseat him, and endless elections resulted.

Israel lacked a budget for years. It wasn’t until February 2021 that Israel finalized the letter of acceptance and deal for two KC-46As. By March the necessary approvals were in line.

Remember the timeline here. Globes reported back in August 2018 that “Boeing is offering the Israel Air Force its new KC-46 tanker, which is also based on the 767. A first aircraft of this type will be delivered in two months’ time to the US Air Force, which will receive nearly 200 of them over the next few years.”

At the time reports also said that “Boeing will not grant [Israel’s] IAI permits to convert its planes to tanker configuration. Such a restriction means that IAI is liable to find itself out of the running for supplying the Israel Air Force’s new tankers, as its proposal is based on buying used Boeing 767 aircraft on the open market and converting them for airborne refueling of combat planes.”

Nevertheless, Israel waited and waited. In July 2020 reports said Israel had considered asking for a “swap” for KC-46s scheduled to be delivered to the US Air Force. The same report emerged in October 2021.

The Times reported that “US officials told Mr. Gantz that they would work to alleviate a production backlog. The timing of the delivery is a crucial issue: Biden administration officials are concerned that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is trying to revive the threat of a military strike against Iran.”

The timeline presented by the Times says that Boeing is expected “to provide eight of the aircraft, for $2.4 billion, with the first delivery scheduled for late 2024.”

The US Air Force is also excited to get a plethora of the aircraft, after various delays and other problems had emerged in 2018. Other countries, like Japan, may also be ahead of Israel, having ordered the planes back in 2017.

The report points out that while Israel has an aging fleet of existing tankers, based on Boeing 707s, long-range airstrikes might require landing in a third country. Israel has explored the chance of “borrowing US refueling capabilities,” the report said.

How that would work is unclear. Israel has been training more with US Central Command after being moved into the command’s area of operations. It has also been hosting more joint air force drills, such as the Blue Flag, Tri-Lightning and Enduring Lightning drills. This means Israel has a lot of close partners in the region.

Nevertheless, something about the issue of the KC-46s has always been a bit confusing. If Israel needs this capability so desperately to carry out basic long-range operations, why did Netanyahu ignore this need? He was the Godfather of Iran threat warnings. So why wasn’t Israel preparing itself more before or after the 2015 nuclear deal?

The article says that “training for strikes against Iran slowed.” This was after the Netanyahu “redline” speech. Considering how leaks usually work, it’s unclear why the issue of the KC-46s emerged only in the last two years.

Israel had a close relationship with the Trump administration, so it’s unclear also why this wasn’t smoothed over back then. Perhaps endless elections was one reason and the fact that the KC-46 has been plagued by delays. Delays were reported in October 2020 and again in April 2021, as reports said only two of the aircraft had been delivered in the first quarter of 2021.

The story about the KC-46s and Israel came out as reports said that Israel was preparing a “plan B” if Iran talks fail and that Israel would practice for potential Iran strikes in the next months. Clearly, if the aircraft were essential for the practice, they would need to already be off the production line, in Israel’s hands and with pilots trained on them so they could be declared operational.

Consider the fact that Israel received its first F-35s in 2016, and they were declared operational a year later, in December 2017.