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If Israel does decide to bomb Iran, the U.S. government has made it a little easier.
The U.S. State Department has approved an Israeli request to buy eight KC-46A Pegasus aerial tankers. Including support equipment, spare parts and training, the deal is valued at $2.4 billion, with the first aircraft arriving in 2023.
The sale “supports the foreign policy and national security of the United States by allowing Israel to provide a redundant capability to U.S. assets within the region, potentially freeing U.S. assets for use elsewhere during times of war,” said the State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. “Aerial refueling and strategic airlift are consistently cited as significant shortfalls for our allies. In addition, the sale improves Israel's national security posture as a key U.S. ally.”
If approved by the U.S. Congress -- which is unlikely to block it -- the sale is notable on several levels. It’s the first time the U.S. has sold tanker aircraft to Israel. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) currently has 11 tankers, including seven American-made Boeing 707 airliners and four Lockheed Martin C-130H transports. But the Israelis themselves converted these planes into tankers.
The problem is that most IAF tankers are 60 years old: the 707, long retired from commercial air travel, dates back to 1958. The IAF is so desperate to maintain its aerial refueling capability – which allows its aircraft to fly deep across the Middle East – that in 2017, it bought an old Brazilian Air Force 707 just to cannibalize for spare parts.
The KC-46A Pegasus is a different beast. Based on Boeing’s 767 airliner, the twin-engine KC-46A can carry 106 tons of fuel to feed hungry jet fighters, and has a range of more than 6,000 miles. The Pegasus is replacing the 1950s KC-135 Stratotanker as the Air Force’s aerial refueler, with 31 currently in service.
A series of manufacturing defects led the U.S. Air Force in 2019 to briefly ban cargo and passengers from flying on the KC-46A, and there are still glitches in the remote-controlled refueling boom. Because the U.S. also flies the Pegasus, it’s reasonable to assume that the Pentagon will insist on ironing out the bugs, which will also benefit the Israeli models.
Also significant is that the State Department approval of the sale is deemed to “provide a redundant capability to U.S. assets within the region, potentially freeing U.S. assets for use elsewhere during times of war.” In other words, the U.S. is selling tankers to Israel with the expectation that they will be used to support American as well as Israeli forces during wartime.
However, the U.S. government also asserts that the sale “will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”
Iran may beg to disagree.
Israel is buying 50 U.S. F-35 stealth fighters, and has already stood up two squadrons. The U.S. Air Force’s F-35A model has a range of more than 1,350 nautical miles using internal fuel. While the Israeli-modified F-35I has special Israeli-designed external fuel tanks, a direct flight path between Jerusalem and Tehran is just under a thousand miles each way.
Israel has long threatened to attack Iranian nuclear sites if Tehran tries to build atomic weapons. Iran has more than a thousand anti-aircraft guns, several varieties of surface-to-air missiles, and has repeatedly asked Russia to sell it advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. Iranian nuclear facilities will certainly be protected by strong air defenses.
Which means that if Israel attacks Iranian nuclear sites, the IAF F-35’s – as well as additional F-15 fighters that it intends to purchase – would need mid-air refueling, and probably multiple refills. The KC-46A carries more fuel than current Israeli tankers, and it has better sensors and jammers to survive hostile air defenses.
New aerial tankers by themselves won’t guarantee the success of an Israeli strike on Iran. But they do make it a little easier.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest, and a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He can be found on Twitter, Facebook. or his Web site. This article first appeared in March 2020 and is being republished due to reader interest.