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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Reports of an Israeli F-35 Operation in Iranian Airspace - Why the Narrative Remains Unlikely

March 31st - 2018

Image Credit : U.S. Department of Defence

A recent story published by a number of media outlets including Israel's Jerusalem Post has alleged that according to a reliable but anonymous source the Israeli Air Force made use of its newly acquired F-35A stealth fighters to conduct a mission into Iranian airspace. According to the source cited by a number of Israeli, Arab and Western media outlets, two of the U.S. made stealth fighters reportedly flew undetected over Syria and Iraq and entered Iranian airspace to conduct reconnaissance missions over the Iranian cities Bandar Abbas, Esfahan and Shiraz. The fighters reportedly went undetected by radar and were able to glean valuable information relating to a number of sites suspected of being associated with Iran's nuclear program. Reports further added that seven F-35 fighters are active service in the Israeli Air Force and have conducted a number of missions across the Middle East. They further stated that, according to the anonymous source: "the fighter jets can travel from Israel to Iran twice without refueling.”

The report demonstrated the reach of the Israeli Air Force and its ability using U.S. stealth technology to strike across the Middle East including against its primarily regional rival with impunity should open hostilities ever break out. Several aspects of the story as well as the timing of its release however indicate that its claims are somewhat questionable. The report emerged shortly after Israel's loss of an F-16 fighter in Syria to a Syrian operated surface to air missile dating back to the 1960s - the S-200. Israel has since then made a number of attempts to improve its image of strength, including declassifying reports on its flawlessly executed operation to neutralise a Syria nuclear reactor in 2007. Following the declassification of the report, a warning was issued to Iran that such action could potentially be taken against the country in future. It appeared clear that Israel sought to convey an image of strength. The report of Israeli stealth fighters infiltrating Iranian territory undetected serves this same purpose.

While Israel was one of the first states to receive the F-35A, the fighter is still in the very early stages of operational use and unlike the F-35B cannot be termed fully operational. A number of bugs and other system flaws continue to prevail, and even the U.S. Air Force has yet to deploy the fighters to any remotely dangerous theatre. The likelihood therefore for Israel to be using the fighters for missions as risk prone as entering Iranian territory therefore remain unlikely - particularly when considering the current state of Iran's air defences and demonstrated anti stealth capabilities. In 2011 a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone, one of the most advanced stealth platforms in the world with radar evading capabilities superior to those of the F-35, was not only detected during an overflight of Iran but was also successfully brought down using electronic warfare. The platform's technologies were subsequently studied and proved a major loss for the United States. The F-35, by contrast to the RQ-170, has often been derided as 'pseudo stealthy' by analysts and lacks the radar evading capabilities of larger and more costly U.S. combat platforms such as the B-2 and F-22. Iranian air defences have notably made considerable advances since 2011, meaning the likelihood of detecting the F-35 remain very high - though successfully targeting the fighters may prove more difficult. Some of the most advanced Russian made radar systems, which are reportedly able to track the far stealthier F-22 Raptor over Syria, have been acquired and deployed in large numbers as of 2016 alongside its other assets.

As a light fighter the F-35 is restricted to operating at a relatively low altitudes of approximately 15.2km, while the platform's speed of just Mach 1.6 means there are few modern combat aircraft which cannot very easily catch it. This means that a fast and high overflight of enemy territory beyond the reach of most retaliation as per the American U-2 during the Cold War is hardly a possibility, indeed the F-35 was never designed for a role and even the far more capable F-22 Raptor may struggle to fulfil it effectively. The Iranian Air Force meanwhile has experience intercepting far faster and higher flying combat aircraft. It is also important to consider that the F-35, as a short ranged light platform, retains a combat radius of just 1,239 km and as a result notably lacks the range to fly to Iran and back while retaining its stealth profile - meaning such an operation would necessitate the use of aerial tankers to refuel over enemy territory which are easily detectable.

Considering that the likelihood of the F-35 being detected remains high, something Israel's military leadership would have been well aware of, the likelihood of such a high risk operation taking place remains very much unlikely. The risks inherent to such an operation are far greater than the loss of two fighters and their pilots. The loss of F-35 fighters in combat could seriously compromise the entire $1.5 trillion program, diminishing the prestige of the United States' prime export fighter and undermining faith in the U.S. military and in that of Israel across the world. More seriously still, it would have risked Iran's military obtaining the chassis of the latest U.S. stealth fighter as they did with the RQ-170 - a platform which was reportedly studied by Iranian allies Russia and North Korea and developed into a formidable domestically produced stealth platform. Should the F-35 fall into Iranian hands, its technologies would almost certainly be studied for use in Iran's development of its own stealth fighter program currently under way and provided to Moscow, Pyongyang and possibly even Beijing for study. The result would be a disaster for the United States, making an operation over Iranian airspace seemingly not worth the risk - particularly important as the U.S. would have been well aware of and likely had to authorise such a deployment of its latest fighter. While it may serve the effect of projecting Israel's military as having major power projection capabilities unrivalled in the Middle East, an image which has long served the country and its allies well and which it remains critical to maintain, the reality is likely very different and the operation as reported by anonymous sources is most likely a largely fictitious one. While Israeli's Air Force may be up to any challenge, the F-35A at present most certainly is not.

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