Late in the summer of 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked the Air Force to plan a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union. The plan involved 55 B-52 bombers hitting 80 targets to degrade Soviet Long Range Air Force and Strategic Rocket Forces by 80 to 90 percent. Since these bases were located in remote parts of the USSR, estimated casualties numbered less than one million. Having lost over 20 million people in their recently concluded Great Patriotic War, the thinking was Moscow might not respond, especially since its vastly degraded nuclear forces would render any response uncoordinated and ineffective while the United States retained a full counter-strike force able to obliterate the Soviet Union. President Kennedy thought the unthinkable 51 years ago.
Today, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) considers various strike options against Iran. Striking Iran confronts the IAF with the formidable operational challenge of hitting targets across 1,000 miles of hostile airspace. Israel has no long range-bombers. Its relatively small force of F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers will have to refuel at least once during the 2,000-mile round trip.
Distance is only part of the problem. To reach Iran, the Israeli strike force must fly over hostile territory. One possible route involves traversing Syria, which has the capability to respond. Another route takes the IAF over Saudi Arabia; the Saudis might acquiesce, given their apprehension of a nuclear-armed Iran. The other possibility is to fly over Iraq, whose air defenses are incapable of impeding such an operation, but Baghdad may warn Tehran of what’s headed its way.
The Iranian air assets consist of American F-14 and Russian MiG-29s, generational equals of the Israeli F-15s and F-16s. Iran also has a few obsolete American F-4 Phantoms and F-5s. The Israeli planes are newer, have enhanced capabilities, and are flown by superior pilots. Iran possesses an array of surface-to-air missiles, including the SA-5 for high altitude threats, SA-15 to meet lower-level penetrators, and U.S. Super Hawk missiles. It also has a number of Russia’s newest air defense missiles, the S-300. Since Israel doesn’t have the resources to soften up this air defense system, it would have to deal with it during a strike. The IAF faces the prospect of possible high losses.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.