Lately, commentators have claimed that the Israeli military might make a preemptive air strike at nuclear sites in Iran, to prevent the Iranians from building a nuclear weapon. The commentators point out that Israel did exactly that in June 1981 when it bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.
While the Osirak bombing was an unqualified success, and frightened the regime of Saddam Hussein into dropping their nuclear program, an airstrike against Iran would be impossible.
As an experienced military officer, when I take a cursory look at the map of the region the huge difficulties of making a strike like that jump out at me. First, that area of the world has one of the most heavily observed air spaces. Israel’s neighbors have been struck before in surprise attacks, and so have deployed some very dense air surveillance radar networks. Many of them are pointed directly into the Israeli heartland, which even today is very narrow. Additionally, since the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, intelligence and now even commercial satellites have been watching the ground below in good detail. If a country tried to mass aircraft for a strike, they would be seen.
If we take even a casual look at a map, any Israeli aircraft would be over a thousand miles from Iran at launch, and all of the countries between them have very sophisticated air defense networks. Could even a small aircraft take off from Israel, and fly over Jordan or Saudi Arabia without detection? Probably not. Then, maybe the aircraft would take off and turn further north or south? What country could it fly over – Egypt which suffered an embarrassing surprise attack in the Six Day War in June, 1967? Or Syria, which also was attacked and defeated by that surprise air attack? An air strike could go further north and cross over Turkey, but it also has a sophisticated air defense network and often conducts air strikes against Kurdish targets near its eastern border. So there is no clear path there.
If an air strike did pass over Syria, undetected, it would then have to pass over Iraq, which is watched very closely by US ground and airborne radars, and is ceaselessly patrolled by US aircraft. The US aircraft also could not allow a strike package to pass undisturbed, since it would then have to penetrate the meticulously watched border into Iran. Anything which looked like an incoming air strike, using US supplied aircraft, would be interpreted as a US airstrike from Iraq. The results of that would be easily predicted, as it would cause an immediate retaliation against US assets in the region.
The other country that lies to the west of Iran is Saudi Arabia, and the two countries are highly suspicious of each other. Israeli aircraft such as the F-15 might be mistaken for the similar Saudi aircraft, but they would be seen as enemy just as quickly.
Even if the intervening countries were not so prepared to stop a transiting aircraft, and so disposed to do it, still the distance is just too far. The main strike aircraft would have to be the long range F-15E model, but its ferry range (with extended tanks and no bombs) is about 2400 miles. That distance, by coincidence, is the round trip shortest route from the central Israeli airfields to the Iranian nuclear facilities. So with a load of heavy bombs, and no auxiliary tanks, the F-15E could not fly a round trip mission. So now could Israel consider aerial refueling? That would be a trick, to station some large, easily observed, extremely valuable targets along the route so that the strike aircraft could refuel!
No, the Israeli and Iranian governments have already done the math, looked at their charts, and concluded that this is not a mission that could be done – even sending their aircraft on a one-way trip. However, the discussion still keeps the world on alert.