Report: Israeli fighter jets, refueling planes hold massive drill aimed at Tehran

Maneuvers seen as intended to plan for strike on Iran, Saudi-owned Elaph claims, month after New York Times reveals new tankers seen as key to threat won’t arrive before late 2024

Boeing 707 and F-15 demonstrate mid-air refueling, December 1, 2014. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
Boeing 707 and F-15 demonstrate mid-air refueling, December 1, 2014. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

Israeli fighter jets carried out a large drill over the Mediterranean that included practicing mid-air refueling, according to a report in a Saudi-run news outlet Thursday.

The unverified report in London-based Elaph described air maneuvers on Thursday by “an unusually large” contingent of F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighter craft, as well as Boeing mid-air refueling tankers, in what would likely be seen as a warning beacon to Iran amid Israeli threats to take military action in order to stop Tehran’s nuclear program.

Citing an unnamed Arab source, Elaph reported that the “wide” maneuver took place over the Mediterranean. Israeli defense officials, who rarely comment on foreign reports, could not be immediately reached.

The use of Israel’s aging mid-air refueling fleet would be the strongest indication that Israel is planning for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or would like to project to Tehran and the rest of the world that it is preparing.

Israel rarely advertises its use of the refueling craft in drills publicly, but they are occasionally used for exhibitions.

In 2013, mid-air refueling tankers were used publicly as part of a large drill involving nearly all air squadrons practicing for an attack on a long-range target, against a similar backdrop of tensions with Iran.

That time, the Israel Defense Forces uploaded videos to YouTube showing F-15 and F-16 fighter jets refueling mid-air over the water, following the exercise, which reportedly took place near Greece.

According to reports at the time, the clips marked the first time the IDF had ever published videos showing its mid-air refueling capabilities.

Because of the distance, carrying out an airstrike inside Iran and having enough fuel for the return trip would require Israeli planes to refuel in the sky or find a friendly airbase to land at.

A report in the New York Times last month, however, indicated that Israeli plans for a possible strike on Iran had been set back by delays in the delivery of eight new Boeing KC-47 supertankers, with consignment expected to take until late 2024 at least.

A US Air Force Boeing KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling plane connects to an F-35 fighter jet over California, January 22, 2019. (US Air Force photo by Ethan Wagner)

Current and former officials quoted in the report said Israeli military planners believe that any strike on Iran will likely require multiple sorties against some sites, such as the underground Fordo uranium enrichment facility, necessitating speedy refueling.

The $2.4 billion deal for the eight planes was signed in March.

Israel is vocally opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, which US President Joe Biden has said he wants to rejoin after his predecessor Donald Trump withdrew the US from the pact in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. Tehran has since steadily increased its breaches of the accord.

Elaph, owned by Saudi businessman and journalist Othman Al Omeir, is seen by some as a conduit for Israeli messaging into the wider Arab world. The outlet regularly features news out of Israel and has interviewed a number of top defense figures over the years, including former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, former IDF head Gadi Eisenkot and others.

This photo released Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, by the Iranian Army, shows a missile being fired during a military drill at an undisclosed location in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

The reported drill comes as talks aimed at bringing the US back into the deal have foundered, with officials in the US and Europe saying that time for reaching a renewed pact is running low.

Israel, which has largely opposed the agreement, has said that it reserves the right to take military action to protect its citizens regardless of what happens in Vienna.

On Wednesday, Biden said progress in nuclear talks was being made and advised against cutting them off.

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