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For 2nd time in a month, IDF fighter jets escort US bombers through region

Israeli F-15s accompany American B-1 heavy bombers coming from Gulf; joint flight comes amid growing threats by Jerusalem and Washington over Iranian nuke program

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli F-15 fighter jets escort American B-1B bombers, on November 11, 2021. (IDF)
Israeli F-15 fighter jets escort American B-1B bombers, on November 11, 2021. (IDF)

For the second time in a month, the military said Thursday that Israeli F-15 fighter jets escorted United States B-1 bombers through the region, in a tacit threat to Iran.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, the fighter jets accompanied two B-1B heavy bombers and an American KC-10 refueling jet through Israeli airspace as they headed west from the Persian Gulf.

“The joint flight demonstrates our continued cooperation, which is crucial to the security of Israel and the Middle East,” the IDF said in a statement.

The Israeli military shared photographs of the flight, showing the American bombers — capable of carrying heavy bunker-buster bombs that would be needed for a strike on Iran’s largely underground nuclear facilities — alongside the Israeli F-15 jets.

Late last month, Israeli F-15s escorted a B-1B bomber as it made its way to the Gulf.

The escort missions come as Israeli and American officials have increasingly threatened to act against Tehran’s nuclear program, ahead of the resumption of indirect talks with Iran aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Also Thursday, the navies of Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced that they had launched a joint exercise in the Red Sea, in another apparent threat to their shared adversary, Iran.

The exercise comes just over a year after Israel normalized ties with the UAE and Bahrain, a move seen as having been driven in large part by the countries’ shared concerns about Iran and its regional ambitions. Though Israel has conducted exercises alongside the UAE in the past, the drill represents the first ever public military cooperation between Israel and Bahrain.

The joint exercise serves as a direct response to the Iranian navy’s presence and aggression in the waters of the Middle East, a senior Israeli naval official said Thursday

“This presence is something that we need to push back as much as possible from the State of Israel, from the Red Sea, from the areas that harm our freedom to sail… in order to do that, we need to make our partnerships tighter,” the senior officer told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since February, Iran and Israel have been accused of engaging in what analysts have called a naval “shadow war,” in which vessels linked to each nation have come under attack in waters around the Gulf in tit-for-tat exchanges.

A US Navy Martin UAV drone flies over the Gulf waters as the Royal Bahrain Naval Force (RBNF) Abdulrahman Al Fadhel takes part in a joint naval exercise between the US 5th Fleet Command and Bahraini forces, on October 26, 2021. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)

Israeli officials have explicitly threatened a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, while Americans have discussed the matter more circumspectly, referring to “other options” beyond diplomatic negotiations in order to halt Tehran’s atomic aspirations.

In the beginning of this year, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi announced he had instructed the military to begin drawing up fresh attack plans for such an operation, and last week the government reportedly allocated billions of shekels toward making those plans viable.

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared that “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning… We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”

The Times of Israel has learned that the Israeli Air Force plans to begin simulating strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the coming months and that some aspects of the Israeli Air Force’s strike plan, which is still in the “draft” stage, could be ready within a short period of time, while others would take more than a year to be fully actionable.

Israel has twice conducted airstrikes on enemy nations’ nuclear programs, bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007.

However, an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is widely expected to be far more complicated as Tehran has spread out its facilities throughout the country, buried them deep underground, and funded a number of powerful proxies throughout the region who would likely retaliate against Israel if such a strike should be carried out.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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