I have read some posts around the web about Israel’s “daring,” yet almost totally void of US media coverage, raid on a Sudanese weapons manufacturing facility. The reality is that such a raid may have been a bit less daring than some are making it out to have been. Here are a few thoughts on the scant amount of information we currently have regarding this shadowy event:
First, I really don’t think that IAF jets traversing the Red Sea would cause Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Egypt enough alarm that the IAF would have had to jam, hack or electronically attack their air defense networks to a large extent. Although a formation of IAF jets flying down the Red Sea channel may have been cause for some alarm to those in the “neighborhood,” actions such as putting their air defenses on high alert seems like the most likely security measures taken as long as the jets stayed in international airspace and stuck to their course. In other words, I think that the risk of the IAF causing a major international incident by executing such a maneuver is almost nill. Although some folks out there think that this raid would have required Israel to fly a low-level mission profile over the Red Sea, and possibly even into neighboring country’s borders without permission, I really don’t think such actions would have been necessary. In many ways a low-level interdiction profile would have shown hostile intent if detected by Egypt or Saudi Arabia and could have led to the mission being interrupted before it even neared its target. Furthermore, such a tactic burns a lot of gas, especially over hundreds of miles while laden with weapons. Seeing as the aircraft had to refuel somewhere at altitude in that confined part of the world, attempting to fly below radar only to pop up and get gas at a lumbering tanker (also a huge radar reflector) seems ridiculous.
In my opinion, Israeli fighters most likely took off from bases in the Negev Desert, traversed the Red Sea channel at altitude in close formation with an escorting KC-707 tanker, possibly while spoofing Saudi and Egyptian radars as to their true identity and number, and then detached from their tanker escort and pressed inland towards their target. It is also possible that if the IAF fighters and tanker aircraft were operating “in the open,” the news that IAF jets were on the move could have been sent to Iran in near real-time by Iranian sympathizers within the Egyptian military, as any strange IAF movements could signal imminent attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Yet such a threatening act would be to Israel’s benefit as it would undoubtedly scare the hell out of Iran without ever materializing, although I highly doubt that such an occurrence would have happened as Egypt’s ties with Iran are mediocre at best. When it comes to Saudi Arabia and Jordan it is almost totally unlikely that either country would interfere in any way if they thought that an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities were underway. Regardless, if Iran had any warning that Israel was up to something is non-consequential as the raid was once again a showcase of Israel’s ability to project its power over ranges that are even farther than the distance between Israel and Iran, so score one for Israel’s psychological warfare campaign vis a vis Iran.
Once the Israeli fighter jets arrived at the Sudanese coast, it is not exactly clear just how far they pushed into Sudanese airspace to accomplish their mission, as we must remember that Israel possesses a robust standoff attack capability. IAF warplanes can carry weapons that sport an attack range of almost 200 miles, including the Popeye Turbo and Delilah air launched cruise missiles (ALCM). With this in mind, it is quite possible that the Israeli attackers may have not needed to get close to “downtown” Khartoum at all. Quite the contrary, by employing ALCMs instead of GPS or laser guided gravity bombs the IAF assault force could have only traveled half of the distance between the Red Sea and Khartoum before launching their missiles and abruptly returning to base. Such a tactic would substantially lower the IAF attack force’s vulnerability over enemy air space while also making a contingency combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission plausible if something went terribly wrong while Israeli pilots were over enemy territory. Such a CSAR attempt would most likely have been launched from an IAF Navy vessel operating in the Red Sea off the coast of Sudan, although it is also quite plausible that no CSAR capability was available for the strike at all. Finally, the reports that pieces of large “rockets,” of Israeli origin, were left behind at the point of impact lends itself much more to the use of air launched cruise missiles than to the use of GPS or laser guided high explosive bombs.
I also think that the purposed idea of Israel employing an elaborate strike package chalked full of support assets seems a little far-fetched for such a mission, especially seeing as all these assets would have to be stuffed in a relatively tiny airspace with potentially hostile and curious foes on all sides. Sometimes a smaller footprint is better, and in this case I believe that such a plan would be most advantageous. Additionally, Sudan has a marginal air force at best, and what they do have is in questionable operational status at any given time. Their air defense capability is even more rudimentary in nature, being composed of mainly anti-aircraft artillery and SA-7 short-range heat seeking surface to air missiles. In other words, Sudan represents a comparatively low threat environment and what capabilities they do have would have been mitigated by the fact that such a strike occurred by total surprise. As far as electronic attack/warfare, I doubt there was much need for extensive dedicated jamming aircraft, especially while over Sudanese airspace, as Elta makes electronic warfare pods specifically for this exact kind of mission. You can read much more about these incredible pods in a previous Aviationintel post linked here. Also, it is known that Israel’s unique electronic warfare systems installed in its most advanced aircraft can be programmed to a high degree to neutralize certain threats during a certain missions, and even their oldest F-15B and D models can carry purpose-built conformal “fast packs” with unique electronic support gear fitted. Of related interest are reports that the Khartoum’s main airport’s radar was jammed and telecommunications were blacked out across the city during the raid.
Almost all reports out of Sudan state that people heard, and even may have spotted, four aircraft during the raid. I think this size of a force sounds very pleasurable against a single lightly defended target, although these “aircraft” could have been cruise missiles streaming into the area and not actual fighter jets. Assuming there was in fact IAF fighters over the Yarmouk weapons factory in Khartoum, and that GPS or laser guided missiles were used instead of standoff weaponry, four strikers and four counter air aircraft orbiting nearby, with many carrying a mix of jamming pods, sounds like a force size that would have been more than adequate for the task at hand. In fact, I would not be surprised if only four jets were used over the target area in total, two to hit the target and two to provide air cover, with all four aircraft able to fight their way out after the strike if need be. Basically, I just don’t see a single target, that would most likely have been struck by complete surprise, in an airspace that is almost totally benign in nature, as requiring more than a handful of tactical combat aircraft, a single tanker aircraft for refueling support and possibly to act as a non-threatening decoy “radar contact” to facilitate traversing the Red Sea airspace without raising any alarms.
Another potential attack method that Israel could have used in this situation, although very much less likely, could have come via the Israeli Navy’s Dolphin class submarines. These highly capable diesel subs have been known to sail into the Red Sea from time to time and they are capable of launching cruise missiles, most notably yet still officially unconfirmed, a highly evolved and larger evolution of the Popeye Turbo air launched cruise missile that is capable of delivering a substantial warhead over 900+ miles from its launch point. This same missile, larger than a US Navy Tomahawk cruise missile dimensionally by a large margin, is said to be the vanguard of Israel’s “2nd strike” nuclear deterrent, although that does not mean that such an air breathing missile system cannot be conventionally armed as well. Of special note is that Israel’s Dolphin class subs have four unique 650mm torpedo tubes, much larger than the standard 522mm tubes used by the US Navy, which are said to be reserved to house the aforementioned cruise missile of indigenous origin. Could a single submarine have prosecuted this whole attack instead of a formation of Israeli fighters and tanking aircraft? Possibly, as it would have certainly lowered the risk involved with mounting such an endeavor. Furthermore, it would account for the four jets heard briefly over the target as well as the “rocket-like” pieces left behind after the deed had been done. Although such an application of submarine launched cruise missiles would be highly logical in such a circumstance, it would also be a first for the Israeli Defense Forces.
Finally, we also must remember that this is not the first time Israel is said to have attacked Sudan via air-power. As recent as April of 2011, Sudanese officials claimed that Israeli attack helicopters (I doubt it) had fired a missile at a vehicle in the main port city in Sudan, killing two occupants inside. Sudan claims the aircraft arrived in Sudanese airspace via commercial air traffic routes and then dropped below radar to prosecute their attack. Also, Sudanese air traffic controllers once again claimed to have had their radars jammed during the attack. Also, in 2009 the Sudanese Government that Israeli aircraft struck an arms convoy in the eastern part of their country. Later on it was leaked that this convoy was believed to be carrying Fajr-3 rockets on their way to the Palestinian territories.
In the end it all comes back to Iran and its proxies in the region. The factory that was attacked was said to have been a commandeered production facility under Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps control. The products that the factory builds have been speculated to include rockets and arms for Hamas to Shehab-3 medium range ballistic missiles for Iran. The Shehab-3 has over a 1000 mile range, thus it is a strategic centerpiece behind Iran’s long-range strike and counter-strike capability, as well as a potential nuclear delivery vehicle in the future. These missiles effectively put Israel within Iranian striking distance at any given time and could potentially be fielded in overwhelming numbers as time goes on.
I do have to say that I find it interesting that Israel chose to conduct this raid while one of the largest US-Israeli joint military exercises in history was taking place in Israel. Stay tuned guys, there is more to this story than what currently meets the eye…
UPDATE: After doing some light research I found out that the moon was 3/4 full on the night of the raid, and it also seems to have been fairly high in the sky at the time of the attack. Also, the weather appears to have been clear throughout the region. This is hardly ideal conditions for a nighttime raid, especially one where surprise is key. Then, when you take into account the fact that the strike force would have had to transit over long distances in sensitive and highly observed airspace, I the decision to strike under those conditions even more puzzling. Did a certain event or time-sensitive opportunity push the timetable for this attack hard enough to disregard the best possible conditions for success? Seeing as the target in question was fixed and that it was not “going anywhere,” why not wait for optimal conditions to attack?