How Israel's Air Force Became a Dominant Force in the Middle East

September 22, 2021 Topic: Israeli Air Force Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: IsraelF-16F-35MilitaryDefense

How Israel's Air Force Became a Dominant Force in the Middle East

The IAF has matured into one of the most powerful air forces in the world.


Here's What You Need to Remember: The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been instrumental in Israel’s defense, providing air superiority over Israel, close air support over Israeli ground forces, and performing strikes against targets deep in the enemy’s homeland.

The Israeli Air Force was founded on May 28, 1948, exactly two weeks after the founding of the State of Israel. A motley force of veteran World War II pilots and obsolete aircraft, it has matured into one of the most powerful air forces in the world.


The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has been instrumental in Israel’s defense, providing air superiority over Israel, close air support over Israeli ground forces, and performing strikes against targets deep in the enemy’s homeland. Over the past three decades it has also taken on a counterterrorism role, using airstrikes to assassinate terrorist leaders and destroy caches of weapons from the Tunis to the Sudan.

The IAF has an estimated 648 aircraft of all types, manned and serviced by 35,000 active duty personnel. An additional 24,500 reservists can be called up during wartime. At total mobilization, the IAF enjoys a comfortable ratio of 91 personnel for every one aircraft, far above the Egyptian Air Force’s 30 to one ratio and the Royal Saudi Air Force’s 38 to one.

F-15A/C Baz (“Falcon”)

Israel received its first F-15 Eagle fighters as part of the “Peace Fox” program. Four F-15As—the precursor to the F-15C—were delivered on December 10, 1976. At the time, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Mordecai Gur said of the fighter, “A state with F-15s no longer resembles a state without them.” Israel would eventually be equipped with 58 F-15 fighters.

A lot was riding on the F-15, which the IAF anticipated would give Israel air supremacy over its territory and air superiority over the entire Middle East. They weren’t wrong. On June 2nd 1979, six F-15s escorting air strikes against the PLO in Lebanon shot down five MiG-21s in a single engagement. In September, four more MiG-21s were lost to F-15s. Between 1976 and the end of the 1982 Lebanon war, Israeli F-15s shot down 58 enemy planes with zero losses.

Israeli F-15A fighters have been progressively upgraded to the F-15C standard. Israeli F-15 Baz fighters continue to provide air superiority for Israel. Baz fighters would undoubtedly fly top cover for any Israeli air strikes against Iran.

F-15I Ra’am (“Thunder”)

Israel’s version of the F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-15I Ra’am is a multi-mission aircraft capable of air superiority and strike missions. Israel announced its intention to procure the Ra’am in 1994, a result of its lack of long-range strike aircraft capable of hunting down Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War.

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Twenty five Ra’am fighters were purchased, with deliveries completed by 1998. Air to air armament includes short-range Python missiles and medium-range AMRAAM missiles. Air to ground armament includes laser guided bombs, Joint Directed Attack Munitions, and Popeye missiles. Israeli modifications include an electronic warfare suite, GPS, communications, the helmet display system and a data collection and transfer system.

In the event of an Israeli air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the 25 Ra’am fighters will be tasked with striking Iran’s farthest and most heavily defended targets.

F-16I Sufa (“Storm”)

The F-16I Sufa is a derivative of the F-16 Block 52 multirole fighter. A two seat fighter also capable of strike missions, it is probably best described as “Ra’am Lite.”

Like other F-16 Block 52 fighters, the F-16I includes conformal fuel tanks added to the fuselage to increase range. Israeli technology on the Sufa includes the heads-up display, satellite communications, and the Litening II targeting and navigation pod. Armament includes the Python 5 short-range air to air missile, laser guided bombs, and JDAM satellite guided bombs.

Israel is thought to have 99-100 Sufa fighters. Israel also has 243 older F-16 A/B/C fighters, making Israel’s F-16 force the largest outside of the U.S. Air Force. In any Israeli attack on Iran, the F-16I fighters will likely fulfill two roles: first knocking out Iran’s air defenses and then supplementing the F-15I in striking targets on the ground.

AH-64 Seraph (“Winged Serpent”)

The Israeli Army is equipped with 42 AH-64A Apache attack helicopters. The “A” model is the original Apache helicopter, quite a bit older than the U.S. Army’s newest AH-64E Guardian. The AH-64As were purchased in the late 1980s, making the oldest at least 25 years old.

The Seraph has been used in anti-terrorism campaigns and recent conflicts, providing a hovering surveillance platform capable of executing its own anti-personnel strikes. Israel has used the Seraph to conduct strikes in urban areas, against terrorist targets hiding among civilian populations. The Seraph has assassinated Hamas and Hezbollah leaders, and provided fire support to ground forces in the wars against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008 and 2014.

Israel embarked on a program to modernize the electronics of its A models, bringing them to an “AH-61Ai” standard. This is alleged to be the equivalent of modernizing them to the more recent AH-64D standard. The upgrades include new electronic warfare, anti-missile protection systems, battle management and communications systems. The AH-64i is armed with the Spike long-range air to ground missile system.

Jericho III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile:

The Jericho III is the third missile to serve as Israel’s land-based nuclear deterrent. The Jericho III is believed to have a range between 4,800 and 6,000 kilometers, and is capable of carrying a 1,000 kilogram warhead payload. A range of 4,800 kilometers would enable it to strike from Morocco to eastern India, while an 6,500 kilometer range would enable it to target as far as western China.

The missile is reportedly solid-fueled, meaning it can be launched with minimum preparation, and reportedly based in silos capable of resisting attack. The Jericho III, as well as the older generation Jericho II missiles, may be based at Palmachim Air Base.

Jericho III is believed to carry a single nuclear warhead or three low-yield multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. The precise yield of Israel’s ICBM warheads is unknown but unconfirmed reports peg them at 20 kilotons. By way of comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 16 kilotons.

Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.

This article first appeared several years ago and is being reposted due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters