A unilateral strike on the Iranian nuclear program is not Israel's preferred option. As Netanyahu's comment illustrates, Israel is fully aware that it could not cause as much damage to the Iranian nuclear program as the United States could. A far more preferable option would be to persuade the United States to lead the strike. Not only does the United States have more military options available to it (including B-2 bombers equipped with the Massive Ordnance Penetrator), but it is also better positioned to respond to retaliation from Iran, including any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz. However, if Israel does decide to proceed with the mission unilaterally, the different routes the strike package could take each pose unique challenges.
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If Israel decided to attack the Iranian nuclear program, the most important component of the attack would likely involve a strike package of fighter-bombers supported by aerial refueling tankers and other support assets. Israel has roughly 100 F-16I aircraft that have greater range than earlier F-16 models due to their conformal fuel tanks. These combat aircraft, in addition to some 25 long-range F-15I strike planes, would constitute the core of the strike force.
Estimates vary on the number of aerial refueling planes that the Israeli air force operates, ranging anywhere from eight to 13 planes. These aircraft would be critical in providing the strike package with enough fuel to reach its targets and return home. Therefore, the number of aerial refueling tankers available would dictate the size of the strike package. The tankers, due to their lower speed and greater vulnerability, would not be able to accompany the fighter-bombers all the way to their targets in Iran but instead would likely have to loiter and refuel the main strike package on its way home.
Currently, the Israeli air force has three principal routes to its targets in Iran. Each option varies in operational and political risk. Some of the countries that could be traversed have capable and effective air defenses that could pose a serious threat to Israel's aircraft, and all of these countries would face significant diplomatic problems with Iran — and potentially the rest of the Islamic world — if they allowed Israeli jets to cross unchallenged.
The first route involves flying northward over the eastern Mediterranean Sea between Cyprus and Syria, and then proceeding eastward along the Turkey-Syria border, flying through northern Iraq and into Iran. This route circumvents Syria's air defense network, which was built to cover its western flank against an Israeli air attack. This is very similar to the path Israel is believed to have taken during Operation Orchard, when it struck at a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in the Deir el-Zour region in September 2007.
The second route is the shortest and involves flying directly over Jordan and Iraq to reach Iran. Due to the shorter distance, the likelihood that Jordan could be deterred from interfering with the strike package, and the absence of any viable Iraqi air defense, this route probably poses the least risk. However, Iraq has surveillance radars and could warn Iran of an incoming strike given the close relationship between the two countries' defense establishments. And even if Jordan were deterred from trying to counter the potentially overwhelming force of an Israeli strike, taking this route would likely lead to considerable diplomatic complications with Amman.
The third route takes the strike package through northern Saudi Arabia, over the Persian Gulf and into Iran. While most of Saudi Arabia's air defenses and air bases are oriented toward the Persian Gulf and the main cities to the south, an Israeli strike package would almost certainly be detected, especially since it would have to fly near Tabuk's air base. It is uncertain how Riyadh would respond to this scenario, but according to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Saudi Arabia has warned that it will intercept any Israeli fighters that enter its airspace to attack Iran. While Saudi Arabia would be happy to see Iran weakened, it does not want to be the target of an Iranian retaliatory campaign, especially if Iran were to attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz or to hit Saudi oil installations with ballistic missiles. If Riyadh did choose to intercept the Israeli aircraft, the Israeli air force would face serious complications because Saudi Arabia has a large number of advanced interceptor aircraft.
The risks involved in the options outlined above have shifted and changed over time. For instance, the first route was far more viable in 2007, before the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident seriously damaged Israeli-Turkish relations. On the other hand, an Israeli air force operation over Iraq was more politically complicated before 2012, when the United States assured the protection of Iraqi airspace.
As the war in Syria intensifies, another route may become viable. Rebel operations have already negatively affected the Syrian regime's air defenses somewhat. If this trend intensifies, the country's air defense network may be degraded to the extent that the Israeli air force would be able to fly directly over Syria without undue risk to its aircraft, particularly its slow and vulnerable aerial refueling tankers. This option would allow Israel to avoid the operational and political risks of flying over Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Turkey while maintaining a direct flight path to Iran.