While an attack by Iranian proxies is a major concern for the IDF, it’s Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs that worry Israel’s defense establishment the most.

By: Anna Ahronheim

Outlet: The Jerusalem Post

Date: July 1st, 2019

On Monday, two weeks ahead of the four-year anniversary of the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran announced that it had breached the agreement and had exceeded the 300 kg. limit on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.

Tehran might be testing Washington, but it’s Israel which is keeping a close eye on the recent developments.

In late June, the IDF was reported to have stepped up its alert status amid concern that Iran might try to attack Israel through one of its proxies, as tensions increased between Tehran and Washington.

Israel is surrounded by Iranian proxies: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, militia groups in Syria, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Among them are tens of thousands of rockets which can strike deep into Israel’s home front.

While an attack by Iranian proxies is a major concern for the IDF, it is Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs which worry Israel’s defense establishment the most.

During his tenure as IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot was cautiously optimistic about the deal – with all its faults – noting several times that Iran had not violated the JCPOA and that if it would violate the agreement, Israel would know.

But in an interview with Haaretz last year, Eisenkot said that Israel “assumes that Iran can operate secretly. Therefore, keeping watch on developments there is the No. 1 mission for both the IDF and intelligence agencies. We are investing vast resources in obtaining the best intelligence about Iran and its operational ability.”

The announcement by Iran on Monday came shortly after Mossad Director Yossi Cohen said that Iranian claims that enriching uranium is just for medical research or energy are “flat-out lies,” stating that the Iran deal was a bad deal. “Only clear determination to stop it from getting a nuclear device can stop it.”

He illustrated his point by pointing out that Iran is “obsessive” about ballistic missile developments, and that the nuclear deal has an end date which permits Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

In June, the head of IDF Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heiman, said that even if Iran leaves the 2015 nuclear deal, it may still fail to obtain a nuclear bomb, but already before the deal was signed, Israel’s military had plans ready to go.

Different plans had been readied over the years, including when Ehud Barak served as defense minister in the Olmert and Netanyahu governments (2007-2013) and had ordered then chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi to prepare a plan for a “surgical strike” to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But according to Barak’s autobiography, Israel did not have the capabilities to carry out a successful strike: it lacked bunker busting bombs that could take out Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility located deep underground at Natanz, and aerial refueling aircraft.

Two years after Barak left office, plans were once again on the table. But Israel still did not have those bunker busting bombs or aerial refuelers. Nevertheless, Israeli military planners were confident that military intelligence and the air force had the strength necessary to damage Iran’s nuclear plans.

Four years later, Israel has strengthened its military might and via its war-between-war activities in Syria has confronted Hezbollah, Iran and Iranian-backed militias numerous times.

Israel has also been able to use new military equipment in the war-between-wars, including the stealth F-35i Adir fighter jets of which the IAF currently has 14, and was the first to use the jet in combat operations.

The stealth jets have an extremely low radar signature allowing the jet to operate undetected deep inside enemy territory as well as evade advanced missile defense systems. With close air-support capabilities and a massive array of sensors, pilots of the stealth jet have unparalleled access to information while in the air.

On Monday, Marillyn Hewson, chairman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, said that the F-35i has “proven its value as an elevated sensor for coordinating advanced air and missile defense systems,” and is “particularly critical to countering Hezbollah’s vast rocket threat through rapid identification and prioritization of targets for the IAF.”

The stealth jets complement Israel’s other fighter squadrons of F-15 and F-16 jets during missions deep in enemy territory, including any possible attack against Iran.

“In the early phases of a conflict, F-35s can fly as the first fighters to penetrate contested airspace and destroy multiple air and ground threats. This then clears the way for the F-35 to enter the battle space carrying up to 18,000 pounds of internal and external ordnance, in a mix that can include 5,000-pound-class weapons and beyond,” Hewson said.

In addition to the latest jets, the IDF has also the supersonic Rampage stand-off air-to-surface missiles which feature a warhead designed for optimal penetration capabilities, allowing for the destruction of targets inside bunkers.

Dubbed “The Rampage” after a popular video-game, the missile developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Israel Military Industry Systems (IMI) is a supersonic, long-range accurate air-to-ground assault missile with a warhead, rocket engine and advanced navigation suit that allows for precision targeting.

The missile can be fitted to the IAF’s F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighter jets, and is meant to be dropped outside areas protected by air defense systems.

“If you take the Middle East arena and areas protected by air defense systems, the whole point of this missile is that it can target within standoff ranges” without threatening the launching platform, Amit Haimovich, director of marketing and business development for IAI’s MALAM engineering told The Jerusalem Post last year.

Due to the combination of the Rampage’s speed and physical form factor, “it can be detected but it is very hard to intercept,” he added.

According to foreign reports, the Rampage was used in April to completely destroy a possible Iranian surface-to-surface missile factory in a Syrian base in the country’s Masyaf area.

So is Israel now ready? Will it change its strategic risk management and place Iranian nuclear facilities in the crosshairs once again? They may be that perfect target for Israel’s F-35 jets fitted with Rampage.