Posted 12/11/2006 8:58 PM ET
'Distant threats' push Israel to boost warplanes' range
By Yaakov Katz, Special for USA TODAY
TEL AVIV — Israel's air force plans to enhance its air-refueling
capabilities, increasing the range of its warplanes. The changes
come as Iran emerges as an increasing threat.
Air force Brig. Gen. Yohanan Loker has said the program would
help Israel meet "emerging distant threats," though he did not
Iran's border is more than 700 miles from Israel. The range of
Israeli F-16s without refueling is about 1,300 miles.
One option the air force is considering is the purchase and
development of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to serve as
refueling tankers for attack jets and other aircraft used in
The air force also could modernize its refueling fleet and
convert U.S.-manufactured executive jets, such as the Gulfstream
G550, into airborne fuel tankers.
"If you have fuel, you can reach distant targets, better utilize
your assets and carry larger amounts of weapons," Loker has said.
Israel has reached distant targets before. In 1981, eight F-16
fighters escorted by six F-15s flew nearly 650 miles each way to
bomb the Osirak reactor in Iraq, just south of Baghdad. The
attack eliminated Saddam Hussein's nuclear program at the time.
Aerial-refueling aircraft were not used in the Osirak strike. The
F-16s were fitted with extra fuel tanks, so the planes had to
carry less ammunition.
In 1976, Israeli air force C-130 transport planes carried
commandos 2,500 miles to the Entebbe Airport in Uganda and
rescued 248 hostages taken captive aboard an Air France flight.
If Israel attacked Iran's nuclear sites, it would be primarily an
airstrike, said retired brigadier general Asaf Agmon, a former
Israeli air force commander now at the Fisher Brothers Institute
for Air and Space Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.
Israeli planes could reach Iranian airspace, but extra fuel would
be needed to allow planes to spend time over a target before
Iran's nuclear program is dispersed among a number of locations.
The planes might also be forced to use more fuel if neighboring
countries, such as Jordan and Iraq, refused to allow them into
"Osirak was a quick airstrike and was only one target," said
Yiftah Shapir, a former air force intelligence officer and an
analyst with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "Iran's
nuclear program includes dozens of targets that would all need to
be completely destroyed."
The quickest route to Iran would be over Jordan and Iraq. But
that way would be diplomatically tricky, Agmon said. "Israel has
a peace agreement with Jordan and cannot just violate their
airspace," he said.
The advantage of unmanned refueling tankers is that they would
minimize the risk to pilots and would be harder for enemy radar
to spot because they are relatively small. They would also be
able to spend extended periods in the air — some can stay
airborne for 24 hours — without the need to refuel or land to
"The UAVs can add tremendous capabilities to the piloted fighter
jets," Agmon said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.
Israel would be the first country to develop drone refuelers,
Israel's current refueling fleet consists of three Boeing 707
air-refueling aircraft and three KC-130 tankers. All were
purchased in the 1970s.
The Israeli air force inaugurated in September its first AWACS
(Airborne Warning and Control System) flight in 14 years.
AWACS planes are equipped with advanced radar systems and serve
as a substitute to land-based command-and-control stations in
The aircraft provide fighter pilots with a picture of enemy radar
and anti-air weapons before they reach the targets.
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