Amid escalating tensions in Syria, in light of both the growing Iranian military presence in the country and Russia’s decision to provide Damascus with advanced surface to air missile systems, Israel faces an imminent threat to its security and risks of its longstanding tensions with Iran leading to open conflict between the two regional powers remain high. Tel Aviv has thus withdrawn a squadron of its fighter jets, likely its elite 69th Squadron equipped with F-15I Ra'am strike fighters, from high profile U.S. military air combat exercises in Alaska which were set to begin on April 30th. While these Red Flag exercises are key to keeping Israel’s Air Force on par with their U.S. counterparts, familiarising them with the latest tactics and developments and imparting valuable knowledge gained for its ally's experience gained operating across the world, Israel has prioritised keeping its elite assets close to hope at a time when risks of open war breaking out are high. With such military exercises require extensive preparation, often for several weeks, Tel Aviv will not have taken such as decision lightly.
With Iran having recently deployed a Syrian based stealth drone on a reconnaissance mission which entered Israeli airspace, a drone which Israel’s U.S. made Patriot missile batteries reportedly had trouble neutralising, the country's Air Force soon afterwards struck Tiyas air base in central Syria. The attack took place in early April, and reportedly killed an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander. Tehran vowed retaliation, though what form this will take remains to be seen. With the vast majority of Israel’s Air Force comprised of relatively basic single engine F-16 fighters, enhanced by indigenous electronic warfare systems but otherwise somewhat unremarkable in their capabilities, the country relies on a small number of F-15 fighters to form the elite if its capabilities. These include approximately 60 regular F-15 heavy fighters, which Israel relies on for air superiority when engaging near peer adversaries in the air - the chances of which are unlikely in the near future, and 25 newer F-15I fighters - platforms based on the same airframe but specialised in long range strike operations. While the F-15I is one of the most capable strike fighters in the world, surpassed perhaps only by the South Korean F-15K, Russian Su-34 and Chinese J-16, its scarcity means Tel Aviv can ill afford to send the fighters to Alaska when risks of conflict are high.
Any Israeli strike on Syria, or on Iran for that matter, would rely heavily on the F-15I. The fighter’s high speed and high operational altitude, which far surpass those of the lighter F-16 and F-35, make it by far the most survivable against enemy air defences. Its high payload and long range meanwhile allow it to deliver significant damage to target across Syria and much of Iran, and the platform has been relied on heavily to operate against Damascus since Israel's lighter fighters begun to suffer losses to the country’s air defences. Given the advanced capabilities of Syrian and Iranian air defences, Israel's light fighters are ill suited for penetrative strike roles.
Highlighting the prevailing possibility for open conflict in future due to growing Iranian-Israeli tensions, former Mossad head Danny Yatom stated: “We are on a collision course with the Iranians and I hope that this won’t escalate into a direct confrontation. They have accused us of attacking Iranian targets and killing their people”¦ We must take the Iranian threats on Israel very seriously. My acquaintance with the Iranians and past cases tell me that when they issue threats, they follow up on them.” The former head of intelligence added: “We are in a tough neighbourhood where there is no mercy towards the weak, so we have to stay strong and ever grow stronger to maintain our deterrence.” He noted that Iran could well instigate an incident in the Golan heights, and would enjoy the support of (Lebanese militia) Hezbollah’s own formidable military might if it did so. Yatom warned of the sophistication of Iranian capabilities, taking the Iranian stealth drone, reportedly a clone of the U.S. RQ-170, as an example. Amid such dire warnings, and the growing capabilities of its adversaries, Israel is set to keep its armed forces on high alert and ensure the elite of its Air Force remain close to home and ready for combat should they be needed. Sparing key assets for exercises in Alaska, no matter how valuable the experience may be, is a luxury Tel Aviv can ill afford today.