by Stephen Bryen and Rachel Ehrenfeld
Reprinted from American Center for Democracy
Like it or not, the increasingly aggressive Iranian posture toward Israel suggests that sooner or later their conflict will develop into a ground and air war. Actions by Iran and its surrogates in the area of the Golan Heights already caused some Israeli land and retaliatory air moves, and more provocations could set off broader fighting. Israel has little choice but to deter the Iranian and Syria armies, and Hezbollah, from creating a security nightmare.
Iran has around 265 front line combat fighter aircraft. These consist of American F-14’s, F-4’s, F-5’s and 30 or more Hesa Saegeh locally made aircraft based on the F-5; Russian MIG 29’s; French Mirage F-1s, and Chinese F-7 Chengdu interceptors. The F-7s and F-5s are not a significant factor of any kind today. The F-14s and F-4s are old, but very capable, as are the Mirage and MiG planes. The Iranian F-4s have been upgraded and have new, modern radars and avionics from China. The F-4s also have the new Qader cruise missile which may also be usable on the other planes. The Hesa Saegeh F-5 knock off has engines that could have been smuggled into Iran from outside, no one is sure.
Of all these planes the most lethal is the F-14 because it carries Phoenix missiles. The Phoenix missile was the first true beyond visual range air to air missile with a range exceeding 100 miles. Such missiles were delivered to Iran under the Shah. But to assume they are not operational today would be a mistake because, in all likelihood, the Russians and Chinese have had their hands all over them. Can the Israelis knock such an improved Phoenix out? Possibly, if they use jamming. A better strategy would be to destroy the F-14s before they can do any damage. But this would depend on the quality of Iran’s air defenses, which have been improved lately by S-300 batteries that were delivered by Russia, and whether the Iranians can field an aircraft that can compete with Israel’s F-15s and F-16s.
Can the Israelis knock such an improved Phoenix out? Possibly, if they use jamming. A better strategy would be to destroy the F-14s before they can do any damage. But this would depend on the quality of Iran’s air defenses, which have been improved lately by S-300 batteries that were delivered by Russia, and whether the Iranians can field an aircraft that can compete with Israel’s F-15s and F-16s.
Furthermore, the possibility of a Russian sale of an advanced 4th generation plus fighter, like the Su-35 to Iran, could introduce a major problem for Israel, a problem that would not be solved by the F-35, which has such serious limitations and needs so many fixes that there is doubt it could be ever ready for combat. Because the F-35 cannot dogfight, the Su-35 has the key advantage especially in the role of territorial defense.
Before the F-35 sale to Israel, there was strong Israeli Air Force interest in the Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle, an improved F-15 with stealth features and the same (or similar) advanced electronics as in the F-35. However, Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35 conducted one of the best lobbying efforts in U.S. military history and convinced the government to pressure Boeing into halting the promotion of the Silent Eagle. So for the next 20 years, barring some drastic reversal there is no room for Boeing or anyone else but Lockheed, locking the US into a single, questionable solution. If Lockheed fails, so does America.
According to Dr. Michael Gilmore, the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “the F-35s will be non-combat-capable until at least 2023 and more likely 2024 or 2025.”
While a new U.S. Administration may be able to correct the F-35 problems, Israel does not have extra seven or nine years to find out whether the plane is battle ready. Anyway, the Su-35 is combat ready now.
Faced with the need to overcome the F-35 limitations, Israel may consider equipping its F-15s with new long range air-to-air missiles, if it can get them, and lots of jammers, and pray.