In 2009, amid seriously heightened tensions between Turkey and Israel, I performed an analytical study while at Columbia of each country’s air force in the context of a hypothetical Turkish attack on Israeli air force bases as a way of incapacitating the latter’s air defense capabilities. The conclusion of my analysis was that Israel’s air force was not only fully prepared to withstand a surprise attack by Turkey but that Israel’s firepower and superior training would lead to the total destruction of an attacking Turkish force.
You can read the study below but if you want to see the sources, you can visit the original document here.
Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, it has enjoyed a special relationship with the West. This has been partly due to its prime geostrategic location, and it has been partly due to the intent of its founder, Mustafa Kemal, to reorient this remnant of the Ottoman Empire toward the western world. Over the years, this relationship has been extended to include military cooperation, leading to Turkey’s membership in NATO during the Cold War. As a result, Turkey’s military has been modernized to meet the specifications of NATO, making it one of the most advanced armed forces in the world.With the support lent to it by the West, there was an implicit agreement that Turkey would behave as a western country and, doubly, adhere to the secular principles established by Kemal. This had not been a source of concern for most of the latter part of the 20th century but, soon thereafter, in 2001, a change was nigh.
With the founding of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, there was a new rhetoric that was introduced into the national discourse – that of a moderate Islamist party that was soon to become the ruling party of the country and the voice of the over 70 million Muslims in the officially secular state. Initially, the AKP proceeded with caution, aware of the tenuous relationship of political parties with the country’s considerably strong military – a military which had intervened to, ostensibly, protect democracy from the increasingly authoritarian and self-aggrandizing policies of Turkey’s elected leaders. In a country where the idea of secularism was guarded as part and parcel of nationalist identity – according to the intention of the country’s founder, Mr. Kemal -, the founding and popularity of the AKP was a startling development that called for scrupulous monitoring, not least by the military, the self-appointed guardian of the Turkish republic.
The AKP party grew stronger with electoral victories but, more importantly, with policies that appealed to the masses. Most poignantly, in a significant shift from its typical posture, the parliament of Turkey narrowly rejected a U.S. request to allow its troops to use Turkey as a staging ground to enter Iraq. Although in Turkey this was viewed as an example of their functioning democracy, some in the U.S. considered it to be an unwelcome shift in the usually warm relations between the U.S. and Turkey, especially when it came to military issues.
Although a lull followed Turkey’s unusual behavior and the temporarily strained relationship subsided, a certain impatience seemed to progressively grip the country’s leaders. It may have had to do with what seemed to them as continuous and unfounded rebuffs by the European Union to Turkey’s attempts to accede to the bloc. Whatever it was and whatever was the cause, it resulted in a new image of Turkey and, seemingly, a new direction.
ISRAEL AND TURKEY
The relationship between Israel and Turkey has been exemplary since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two in 1949. Turkey, in fact, was the first majority Muslim nation to recognize Israel as a state. Since then, strong bonds have been formed and promoted through cultural exchange and general support of each other’s policy goals.
Along with this amity have come very close military ties between the two countries. Israel, after the establishment and maturation of its defense industry, has provided Turkey with weaponry produced in Israel and, with upgrades for its outdated equipment. For example, insofar as their air force is concerned, Turkey has received from Israel upgrades for its fleet of F-4E Phantoms, delivery of AGM-142 HAVE NAP “Popeye” air-to-ground missiles, and access to training in Israel. This is, of course, in addition to the immense military aid and trade coming from the United States. The whole of Turkey’s fighter jet fleet is comprised of the previously mentioned F-4Es and F-16s sold from the United States, with munition sales that followed. In all, Turkey has benefited greatly from its relationship with both Israel and the U.S.
With all this in mind, it certainly came as a surprise when the Prime Minister of Turkey and the head of the AKP party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began to sound more like the leaders calling for Israel’s downfall than the leader of a friendly state. An eventful month began in January of 2009 when Erdogan stated that Israel should be barred from the United Nations so long as it continues its “savagery”. The statements were in light of Israel’s recent Operation Cast Lead, which was an attack on Hamas leaders and outposts in the Gaza Strip from late December of 2008 to 18 January 2009. About one and a half week later, while on a panel with Israeli president, Shimon Peres, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Erdogan fueled the drama by saying to Peres, “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill”, and then storming off stage angrily, promising never to return. It was not the type of exchange many people were expecting between the leaders of two historically friendly nations. Nonetheless, Erdogan returned home to a hero’s welcome, fanning suspicion that it may have been a ploy to gain votes in an upcoming election.
Though the AKP party did well in those elections, the rift between Israel and Turkey seemed to grow. As the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was preparing to visit Israel in September of 2009, he abruptly canceled his trip as a sign of protest when Israel informed him that he would receive no assistance on behalf of Israel in entering Gaza while he was there. The following month, in October, Turkey suddenly uninvited Israel to an annual war-games exercise called Anatolian Eagle, which takes place in Konya, Turkey. The last-minute cancellation was, according to government officials, due to the possibility of Israeli aircraft being sent to the exercise that had been used in the Gaza operation earlier in the year. Once the Israel’s invitation was revoked, the U.S. canceled its plans to attend, in solidarity with Israel and, it seems, as a sign of its disapprobation of Turkey’s newfound audacity.
Disagreement over Israel’s treatment of Gaza and Gazans is obviously the focal point of the row between Turkey and Israel. But, in December of 2009, Erdogan extended the dispute and added Iran to the equation, saying that if Israel used Turkish airspace for reconnaissance missions on Iran, it would have a reaction like an “earthquake”. Extrapolating from this statement, I use it as an indication of the lengths to which Turkey is willing to go in order to prove its seriousness in its criticisms of Israel. Because of the heavy rhetoric having to do with Gaza, I will assume that military action against Israel will have to do with helping Gaza. Accordingly, this analysis will focus on the ability of Turkey to attack Israeli air bases in order to destroy Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft and render them useless to prevent any future attack in the near-term on Gaza.
I will first explain which air bases in Israel will be targeted, and why. This will be followed by an illustration of how an attack may be organized. Then, I will discuss the weapons that will be needed to achieve the objective of destroying the Israeli aircraft. Next, Israel’s defense capabilities will be discussed, especially its air force’s air defense aircraft. Finally, combat scenarios will be considered, followed by my conclusions.
An air attack by Turkey would have to focus on two types of Israeli targets: first, attack-ready air force squadrons with proximity to Gaza – the bases from which attacks on Gaza would likely be launched. Second, air defense and combination air defense and attack squadrons throughout the country that would be dispatched to neutralize an imminent Turkish air attack. Because of Israel’s relatively small size – approximately 262 miles from the northernmost to the southernmost point – the capabilities of air force bases throughout the whole country to threaten either Gaza or attacking Turkish jets must be considered. There are six air bases in total – Hatzerim, Ramon, Hatzor, Nevatim, Ramat David, and Tel-Nof – which will be considered for attack.
Israel’s attack squadrons closest to Gaza are located at Hatzerim and Ramon. At Hazterim are stationed the 69th Squadron of F-15Is and the 107th Squadron of F-16Is. Ramon, approximately 32 miles southeast of Hatzerim, has three attack squadrons: two F-16I squadrons, the 201st and the 253rd and, one AH-64 Apache attack helicopter squadron, the 190th.
Two other bases, at Hatzor and Nevatim, have either dual-purpose attack and air defense or dual-purpose attack and SEAD squadrons. Hatzor is where the 101st Squadron of F-16Cs and, the 105th Squadron of dual-purpose and attack F-16Ds are stationed. Nevatim is where the 116th and 140th squadrons of F-16A attack and air defense fighters are located.
Being the next closest base to Gaza – and considering the battle preparedness of the 101st and 105th squadrons – Hatzor would be an important target for a Turkish attack. This has to do mostly with the primary objective of removing Israel’s ability to stage an offensive against Gaza but, Hatzor’s squadrons’ dual role as air defense components that could be dispatched to counter a Turkish attack cannot be discounted by a Turkish plan. For much the same reason, the base at Nevatim, which is located east of Hatzerim, could be where F-16s could be dispatched to intercept enemy jets en route to either Hatzerim or Ramon. Based on these facts and assumptions, Turkey would necessarily have to disable these four bases in any potential attack.
The IAF bases at Ramat David and Tel-Nof are where Israel’s dedicated air defense squadrons are located. Ramat David, in the north of Israel, houses the 109th and 117th squadrons of F-16Cs and, the 109th Squadron of F-16D SEAD and attack-ready jets. Tel-Nof, 7.5 miles north of Hatzor, is where the 106th Squadron of F-15Cs and the 133rd Squadron of F-15As are located.
The significance of the squadrons at Ramat David and Tel-Nof is the likelihood that they will compromise the Turkish attack mission. Therefore, these bases would be added to the list of targets in order for the attack to be able to take place.
Additionally, there are two attack helicopter squadrons, the 161st of AH-1 Cobras at Uvda and, the 160th of AH-1s at Palmahim. Although this type of attack helicopter was used during Operation Cast Lead and would likely be used again, it is unlikely that a full-scale attack on Gaza would – or could – be waged just with AH-1 helicopters, especially considering the IAF’s tepidity in regard to them after an accident that killed two Israeli soldiers.Also, these attack helicopters would be mostly ineffective in a battle against fighter jets, providing another reason they should not be a priority in any Turkish attack.
In the course of the attacks planned on the Israeli bases, the main objective for Turkey would be to destroy any unsheltered attack jets that might be used to carry out sorties against Gaza. Although in reality Turkey might also consider bombing runways at the air force bases, this analysis will be based on destroying Israeli aircraft because if during an attack a choice had to be made, destroying the planes would better serve the objectives of Turkey. The reasoning behind this is that, although the runways would prevent Israeli planes from taking off for a period of time, the damage is more easily correctable, and less expensive, than the replacement of multi-million dollar jets. So, taking a long-term view, removing Israeli attack and defense jets from commission should be the preferred action.
As is obvious when considering the number of targets in Israel, the Turkish Air Force will have to expend a great deal of resources to accomplish its objectives. There are 9 combat-capable squadrons, with four of them being dedicated attack squadrons, in Turkey. The location from which the attack on Israeli bases is launched will depend on the location of those attack squadrons. Based on the number of targets, the attack will have to be launched from more than one base.
Turkey has two fighter jets, and their variants, that can carry out the mission: the F-4E Phantom II and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Two F-4E 2020 Phantom II squadrons, the 111th at Eskisehir and, the 171st at Malatya-Erhac, are the only F-4Es that are dedicated attack aircraft.
The remaining seven combat-ready squadrons are wholly comprised of F-16Cs. Six of these squadrons – the 161st and 162nd at Bandirma, the 181st and 182nd at Diyarbakir, and the 191st and 192nd at Balikesir – are of the 40-block variety. The sole remaining squadron, the 141st at Akinci, is of the 50/52-block variety.
An attack on the northern base of Ramat David should come from either Malatya-Erhac, which is approximately 430 miles away or, Diyarbakir, which is 460 miles away. If the attack originates at Malatya, F-4E 2020s would be sent but the short combat radius of these aircraft would require refueling at some point during the attack mission. Because of the strong possibility of engagement by Israeli fighters somewhere along the way, resulting in a deviation from a direct attack route, the range of the F-4E does not make it an ideal choice for such a mission.
Conversely, the F-16C Block 40 squadron at Diyarbakir should have a much longer combat radius. Although there is no information specifically on the Block 40, the newer F-16C Block 50, with two 2,000-pound bombs, two Sidewinders, conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), and 1,040 US gallon external tanks, has a radius of 845 miles. The same configuration with 1,464 US gallon external tanks has a radius of 972 miles. Further, if the F-16s were to drop the fuel tanks when empty, it would presumably increase the range of the aircraft, as the weight would be lowered. I assume here that the combat radius of the Block 40 is comparable to that of the Block 50. Therefore, I will carry on with the assumption that the attack on Ramat-David will come from Diyarbakir.
As for the attacks on Tel-Nof, Hatzor, Hatzerim, and Ramon, the Turkish jets should come from Akinci Air Base on the southwestern coast of the Mediterranean. The distance from Akinci to Hatzor is 487 miles and from Akinci to Ramon, it is 535 miles. Because the distance from Hatzor to Tel-Nof is less than 10 miles, I have excluded the calculation from Akinci to Tel-Nof. Also, because Nevatim Although this is over the combat radius of the Turkish F-16s, I will assume that it will give them more than enough leeway to carry off the mission, possibly deal with Israeli air defense fighters and, if the mission is completed, to be refueled along the way.
Turkey’s KC-135 refueling jets are located at Incirlik air base, ideally located for the F-16s en route from Diyarbakir to be refueled along the way, in the airspace over Iskenderun. Likewise, the KC-135 may be deployed to refuel any Turkish jets that are heading back to their bases.
Turkey has a limited number of air-to-surface missiles it can use to achieve its objectives. This may be due to what is only a recent move by TuAF to develop capabilities to operate in enemy territory, while establishing and maintain air superiority over Turkey. Despite lacking a grand arsenal, the TuAF has advanced weaponry it can employ to achieve the objective incapacitating grounded jet fighters.
Of the munitions available, the AGM-154/B – the Air Force variety – seems it would be the most ideal to complete the objective of the Turkish air strike as it is comprised of submunitions that will cover a larger area. The AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), a 480 kg unpowered, winged glide bomb with Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and International Navigation Systems (INS), is designed to be launched outside the range of enemy air defenses. From high altitudes, it has a stand-off range of 65 km (approximately 40 miles), which would allow Turkish jets to launch their weapons without being directly over the target site.
The AGM-154 is a cluster bomb and thus, within its body are contained six BLU-108/B bomblets, each with 4 Skeet warheads. This works out to each AGM-154/B carrying 24 Skeet submunitions.
Assuming that each F-16 can carry four (4) AGM-154/Bs, each weighing 480 kg, or about 1058 lbs., they would be carrying 4,232 lbs., in line with the previously stated weight assumption from which I calculated the combat radii of the attacking jets. Thus, each plane would have a total of 96 Skeet submunitions contained within it.
According to a study by Dr. Austin Long, the circular error probable (CEP) of a GPS munition is roughly comparable, or better, than an unguided bomb, whose CEP is between 8 and 12 meters. Based on this information, I will assume that the GPS-guided BLU-108s have a CEP of 10 meters. Information from Textron System, the manufacturer of the BLU-108 submunition, reports the weight of each Skeet warhead to be no greater than 7.5 lbs. I will assume that the weight of the warhead is 75% explosive and 25% mechanical parts. Thus, my calculation will be based on 5.6 lbs. of explosive being in each Skeet warhead.
Soft targets, such as aircraft, do not require large overpressure to create significant damage. Therefore, 5 pounds per square inch (psi) of overpressure should be enough to render an aircraft inoperable. According to the graph above, the distance needed for a 1 lb. explosion to cause that much damage is approximately 8 meters. Based on a cube-root of the 5.6 lbs. of explosive of 1.22, the lethal radius (LR) of the warhead comes to 9.8 meters, which I will approximate to 10.
This suggests that if the bomb is deployed over the target, it will be successful in destroying the aircraft.
Because there is no information to be found on the number of planes in each Israeli attack squadron, I will assume, based on U.S. Air Force organizational data, that each squadron contains 24 planes. This means the following amount of jets will be at the following air bases: Ramat-David, 72 F-16s; Hatzor, 48 F-16s; Hazterim, 24 F-15Is and 24 F-16Is; Tel-Nof, 48 F-15s; Ramon, 48 AH-64Ds and 72 F-16s; and, Nevatim, 48 F-16s. Also, I proceed with the assumption that these aircraft are unsheltered, therefore calculations on the bombing of hardened facilities in which the aircraft might be stored were not performed. This is primarily due to the scant availability of information about the store procedure for Israeli aircraft.
The graphic above illustrates what type of munitions might be needed to destroy a field of 96 F-15s spaced out as such. The above assumes that “the small filled circles represent the lethal areas of each individual 1-pound bomblet from the missile warheads” and that “the submunitions are dispensed with roughly 20 feet between the outer limits of each bomblet’s lethal radius.” Making the same assumptions, if Skeet warheads were to replace the 1-pound bomblets, two AGM-154s should be able to easily destroy all the aircraft.
Only the airbases at Ramon and Ramat-David have a comparable number of aircraft as the one in the example above – 120 and 72, respectively. With the objective of completely destroying all aircraft in a situation that none are in operation and have been parked on the ground, two AGM-154s for each squadron should suffice. There being 15 Israeli squadrons that Turkey would want to attack, a total of 30 AGM-154s would be necessary. With each attacking Turkish F-16 being able to carry four of the bombs, at least 8 F-16s with bombing capability will be required.
Moving forward with the expectation that Turkish jets will be met by Israeli resistance, especially in the form of air defense fighters, each Turkish jet carrying bombs will have two escorts armed solely with air-to-air missiles. The air-to-air capabilities of the Turkish escort F-16s will be made up of short-range AIM-9s Sidewinders and medium-range AIM-120A AMRAAM missiles. The Sidewinder if an infrared (IR) homing guided missile is used for close-range air combat with targets having to be in visual range. The AIM-120A, a radar guided, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile has a range of 50 km and would be used once incoming aircraft have been detected by the Turkish jets.
As for the bases, the attack on Ramat-David from Diyarbakir will require six Turkish F-16s. The remainder of the attacks would require the following Turkish formations: Hatzor, Hatzerim, Tel-Nof, and Nevatim would need one bomber and two escorts each; Ramon would require two bomber jets and four escort jets. Assuming a Turkish Air Force squadron is composed of 24 jets, these 18 attacks jets may be launched from the Akinci air base from its 141st squadron of F-16C-50s.
I assume that the attack mission to each base is a separate group of F-16s (i.e. no group is responsible for bombing more than one base). The reasoning behind this is that it will allow Turkey a greater likelihood of success if their jets were not playing a dual-role. That is to say, the dedicated escort jets will have a greater ability to dogfight with Israeli jets if they are not carrying bombs and will be at a greater liberty to do so without compromising the mission because of the limited combat radius of the jets with a full payload. That said, the bomber jets will be armed with two Sidewinder missiles each so they are not wholly dependent on the escort jets, especially in case the latter are shot down. Assuming a Turkish Air Force squadron is composed of 24 jets, these 18 attacks jets may be launched from the Akinci air base from its 141st squadron of F-16C-50s. This brings the total number of Turkish fighter jets attacking Israel to 24.
If all these missions reach their destination and drop their AGM-154s, there is a high likelihood that nearly all targeted Israeli jets will be destroyed.
ISRAELI DEFENSE CAPABILITIES
Israel’s Air Force, the IAF, is reputed as being the most advanced air power in the Middle East, and possibly one of the best in the world. Besides its formidable air force aircraft, it also depends on the Air Defense Corps (ADC), a ground-based force which includes surface-to-air missiles capable of intercepting incoming aircraft and ballistic missiles.
Incoming Turkish aircraft would undoubtedly be detected by Israeli radars although there may be some confusion about whether it is actually an attack mission. After verification of the nature of the Turkish attack aircraft, a decision will have to be made about how to use Israeli air defense capabilities to neutralize the attack. I postulate that the Israeli response will likely initially focus on destroying the Turkish jets by launching Israeli air defense F-15s and F-16s to engage them. My reasoning behind this is that once Israeli realizes the force with which Turkey is approaching, they will not want to waste any time with targeting and launching anti-aircraft missiles, with the possibility of failure. From an Israeli perspective, it would not be clear what the intention of the Turkish jets is and they may be headed for civilian populations, as well. Therefore, I believe they would prefer to engage Turkish aircraft directly, rather than depending on the questionable accuracy of surface-to-air missiles.
The IAF squadrons charged with air defense are located at Ramat David, Hatzor, Tel-Nof, and Nevatim. In fact, as previously mentioned, Ramat David and Tel-Nof are where dedicated air defense squadrons are located and why there will be Turkish directed toward them. Launching aircraft from Ramat David, Hatzor, and Tel-Nof should suffice, especially as Nevatim is considerably more inland.
Since Israel has many aircraft available to it, I believe it will send as many as it deems necessary to completely prevent an attack from taking place, without leaving anything to chance. With this in mind, I envision Israel sending at least two of its fighter jets to engage each Turkish fighter jet. According to this calculation, 48 Israeli jets would be sent, 12 from Ramat-David and the remainder will be a mix from Hatzor and Tel-Nof.
Although Israel has a wider array of missiles at its disposal, primarily because of the advanced state of its domestic defense industry, they will also likely be equipped with the same air-to-air missiles as Turkey: AIM-9 Sidewinders and AIM-120 AMRAAMs. The other missiles in their arsenal, the variations of the Python missile and the Derby missile, all have ranges which fall within the capabilities of the Sidewinder and AIM-120. Therefore, I will not recognize any differences between them here and assume that the AIM missiles are equal, or superior, to the Israeli-produced ones.
The important consideration here is that there are many advantages that Israel will have. First, its fighter pilots are considered to be among the best in the world, due to the training that they receive. Second, as none of the Israeli fighters are flying bombing missions, their F-16 and F-15 jets will be solely armed with air-to-air missiles. This may not seem like a great advantage considering that there are the Turkish escort jets commissioned with protecting the bombers. But, the IAF has at its disposal the F-16I and F-15I long-range fighters. This would suggest that the Israelis can outlast the Turkish fighter jets, possibly causing them to retreat without having to shoot them down because of fuel considerations. Finally, the IAF will undoubtedly have all of its jets on standby, ready to be deployed to assist any of the ones that are already up in the air; there can be a constant stream of Israeli fighters engaging the Turkish attack aircraft.
For this last reason especially, there is no way for Turkey to successfully achieve its objective of destroying Israeli attack aircraft at Israeli air bases. This is because, despite the superiority of the Israeli fighter pilots, even if the Turkish escort planes were able to shoot down some of the Israeli jets that had engaged them, there would be numerous IAF aircraft behind them for support. Just to indulge in fantasy for a moment, in the very unlikely event that Turkish pilots were able to shoot down every single Israeli jet that came to neutralize them in the first attempt, there would still be 288 Israeli combat-ready planes, only from the bases that Turkey was planning on attacking, that could be launched against them.
As a matter of reality, it is impossible for the Turkish Air Force to in any way threaten Israeli air bases or aircraft, without being wholly destroyed in the process.
Although Turkey may be inclined to resort military action as a more definitive method of proving to Israel its seriousness about the rhetoric coming Ankara, this analysis suggests that it may be best for it devise a strategy not involving the military or, at least, not the Turkish Air Force. There is no doubt that the Turkish Air Force is one of the best in the region but, compared to the Israeli Air Force, its shortcomings become stark.
There are certainly more military options available to Turkey that may increase the chance of success during a confrontation with Israel. However, this analysis indicates that the effort by Israel to develop its defense mechanisms into a formidable force that is best not to be reckoned with has worked, at least insofar as Israel’s regional prowess is concerned.
Thus, based on this matchup between the region’s two strongest forces, it has become clear that Israel is by far the superior air power and possibly, by extension, the region’s strongest military. The latter statement is subject to another study but that would require an implication that Turkey is considering a battle on the seas or on the ground. As of now though, if Turkey insists on fighting a war with Israel, it is in its best interest to do it with words.