In a display of muscle-flexing to Tehran ahead of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, Israel made a rare announcement Thursday that its air force had conducted a series of drills in which fighter aircraft practiced midair refueling and a simulated strike on a distant target.
A video, unprecedentedly uploaded to YouTube by the IDF Thursday, shows F-15 and F-16 fighter jets refueling midair over the water. It was published shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a series of European TV interviewers, warning the EU not to ease sanctions against Iran. “When a murderous regime engages in soft diplomacy and uses calming words of peace, but nevertheless continues to acquire immense power — it must be stopped, immediately,” Netanyahu said.
According to the military, most of the Israeli Air Force squadrons, including all the combat ones, participated in this week’s drill. An IDF statement, highlighting the drill’s relevance for Israel’s capacity to thwart Iran by force if necessary, noted that the IAF “plays a central role in carrying out Israel’s military option if necessary” and had therefore been “exercising and strengthening its range of capabilities through long-range flights.”
The less-than-discreet message directed at Iran came as a series of Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman and Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, warned that Israel was ready to act alone to defend itself and prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Last week, speaking at the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu said Israel would “stand alone” against Iran if needed.
The exercises, which included midair refueling, exceptionally long-distance coordinated strikes, and dogfights, were carried out over Greek waters, according to a Channel 10 report. The station noted that the video of the exercises released Thursday by the IAF marked the first time the military had made such a clip publicly available.
“The Israeli message was clear,” the channel said, noting the announcement’s proximity to next week’s round of talks between world powers and Iran in Geneva. “Here is an attempt to show the world that, a moment before the talks, Israel is not giving up its military option.”
A commander who took part in the exercises “explained that challenges stemming from these long-range flights continue as the plane moves further from its point of origin. These challenges include difficult weather conditions, unfamiliar terrain and threats that could emerge during the flight,” according to the official IDF blog, which noted that “long-range flying demands several hours of concentration and exceptional physical preparation.”
The IAF, which “plays a central role in carrying out Israel’s military option if necessary… is exercising and strengthening its range of capabilities through long-range flights as well as other exercises,” the IDF said, though it also noted that the exercises were “no different from training exercises conducted in the past few years.”
The drill over Greek waters was the latest in a series of joint military exercises between Jerusalem and Athens. The navies of Israel, Greece and the US in March held a two-week joint military exercise for the third year in a row. There was no immediate indication, however, that the exercises — announced Thursday — involved Greek military forces.
Israel has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear production facilities if the Islamic Republic develops the ability to create a nuclear weapon. An aerial attack over such a long range — close to 1,000 miles as the crow flies — would necessitate midair refueling. In 1981, the IAF carried out a long-range airstrike to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.