No, U.S. Tankers Didn’t Refuel Israeli Jets Taking Part In Iran Strike Exercise

Israel’s largest training exercise simulates an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The U.S. is watching, but not taking part.

byHoward AltmanMay 18, 2022 7:51 PM
Israel Chariots Of Fire 707
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Despite some Israeli media reports to the contrary, there was no connection between a U.S. Air Force refueling training flight off the coast of Israel Wednesday and a major Israeli training exercise simulating an attack on Iran, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command tells The War Zone.

“The tanker refuel (it was actually a dry refueling mission - no actual fuel was delivered) was not tied to” the Israeli exercise called Chariots of Fire, Army Col. Joe Buccino told The War Zone. 

There is no direct U.S. military involvement in that exercise, Buccino said. That sentiment was echoed by Army Maj.  Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesperson.

"DoD is not directly participating in the exercise," Lodewick said Wednesday afternoon in an email to reporters. "A small number of personnel from across U.S. Central Command are observing portions of the exercise." 

Earlier Wednesday, some media outlets in Israel reported that the U.S. military was taking part in the exercise for the first time.

“The United States will participate in Israel’s largescale drill simulating a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities as part of the broader Chariots of Fire exercise later this month, Channel 13 reported on Tuesday evening,” according to The Times of Israel.

“According to the unsourced report, the US Air Force will serve as a complementary force, with refueling planes drilling with Israeli fighter jets as they simulate entering Iranian territory and carrying out repeated strikes,” the newspaper reported.

In addition to the media reports, there were a number of Tweets suggesting a connection between the U.S. Air Force refueling exercise, captured by flight tracking software, and Chariots of Fire.

"The U.S.A airforce is taking part in the Israeli military’s Chariots of Fire drill," Twitter user @warmonitor2 reported. "The drill simulates a multi-front war against Lebanon, Gaza, and eventually Syria/Iran."

Despite people drawing a connection, the timing of the U.S. Air Force refueling exercise was coincidental, Buccino said.

He said that the exercise involved "dry" refueling of two U.S. Air Force F-15s and four Israeli Air Force F-16s.

“We routinely do these kinds of operations with partners in the region,” Buccino said. “For us, this kind of training builds interoperability and familiarity with partnered forces.”

Buccino declined to say if the U.S. military would offer Israel any refueling capabilities should it attack Iran.

"Any war plans involving such things are classified,” he said.

Questions about U.S. military involvement in Chariots of Fire come as Army Gen. Michael Kurilla, who only recently assumed the role of CENTCOM commander, is visiting Israel.

The issue of any American involvement in an Israeli attack on Iran has long been a sensitive one.

U.S. military officials have constantly decried what it considers “malign actions” by Iran in the region, including supporting extremist groups like Lebanon's Hizballah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as well as the Houthi rebels in Yemen. But actually taking part in a long-threatened Israeli attack has been questionable.

That's why the issue of aerial refueling has stirred so much interest. While Israel has the region’s most capable military, one of its weaknesses is not being able to provide enough fuel for sustaining a major air campaign over Iran.

Tehran is about 1,000 miles east of Israel, far beyond the outer limits of Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak (Tamuz) nuclear reactor near Baghdad, a round trip of about 1,000 miles.

That strike was executed by F-16A Netz fighters, which are now long gone. Israel's F-15A/B/C/D Baz and F-15I Ra'am fleet is its well-established long-range strike cadre. In addition, Israel also fields F-16Is, which sport conformal fuel tanks that expand their unrefueled range, alongside more traditional F-16C/Ds.

The Israeli Air Force F-35I Adir stealth fighter has a robust combat radius of about 650 miles, and Lockheed Martin, as well as Israeli manufacturers, are looking at adding drop tanks to increase that distance, but that would likely diminish its stealth capabilities. You can read more about that here.

The point being is that Israel has a longer-range optimized tactical fighter force than ever before, but it will still need aerial refueling, and possibly forward basing, to accomplish a major sustained air campaign over Iran.

Israel has a limited number of 707 aerial refueling jets. (JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

​​But the Israeli Air Force's tanker capacity remains quite limited.

The IAF has to rely on an aging fleet of just seven Boeing 707-based tankers that first rolled off the assembly many decades ago. The IDF already retired three of these aircraft that are generally used to support its fixed-wing tactical jets. The KC-707s also provide command and control and networking functions. As with the U.S. Air Force, the problem-plagued KC-46 Pegasus would provide a more modern, capable jet with greater refueling capacity and it could fulfill other roles.

The New York Times last year reported that the U.S. government had declined Israel's request to speed up delivery of the new refueler, even though they would give Israel “far more range and ability.” In addition to carrying more fuel farther, the KC-46 can be refueled in the air itself, keeping more gas in the sky longer. You can read more about Israel's KC-46 saga in our full report here.

So without additional capacity, there are geopolitical considerations and risks Israel must calculate with its current relatively tiny refueling fleet.

Some IAF 707 tankers also execute other missions, including networking and command and control functions. Tomás Del Coro — wikicommons

Israel shares a deepening wariness over Iran with Sunni Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This common enemy has created new bonds amongst once bitter foes.

But while conducting a training exercise with UAE is one thing, actually openly cooperating in an attack on a fellow Islamic nation may be a bridge too far for those countries. But with the threat of Iran's warfighting capabilities and proxy forces growing, this may be changing. It is possible that if Iran was attacked by Israel, they will draw Arab countries that support U.S. military operations and are friendly with Israel into a conflict regardless. This potential reality could see IAF jets flying out of Arab bases, or at least using them in emergencies, during a major air campaign against Iran.

One sign of closer relations between Israel and Arab nations is that CENTCOM last year assumed combatant command control over U.S. forces in Israel.

That realignment "strengthens the strategic U.S-Israeli defense relationship and offers opportunities to deepen operational collaboration between the Israel Defense Forces and CENTCOM's many partners in the region," the command said in a statement last year.

With its limited refueling capacity, however, reliance on such unpredictable cooperation has to be part of Israel's strategic and tactical calculus.

Still, the IDF has extensive experience conducting complicated long-range strikes and have continued to bolster those capabilities significantly. But strikes are different than a protracted air campaign. So more tanker capacity, of course, is massively beneficial for the kind of operation Chariots of Fire is designed to train for.

The Times of Israel reported that dozens of Israeli fighter jets will take part in a simulated attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Whether it can actually pull off such an attack with its limited refueling capacity, and without the help of the USAF, remains to be seen.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

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