RAMON AIR BASE, Israel (Reuters) - Israel on Wednesday displayed air power it could use to attack Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons project if diplomacy fails to persuade the Islamic Republic to halt uranium enrichment.
Foreign news crews invited on a rare visit to the sprawling Ramon air base could not draw the pilots of specially adapted, long-range F-16I jets into naming Iran as their potential target -- but neither they nor those managing the military’s media message made any effort to quash the repeated suggestion.
“We are prepared and ready to do whatever Israel needs us to do and if this is the mission we’re given then we are ready,” said Colonel Amon, who commands the Negev Squadron of F-16I “Sufas” -- multi-role strike aircraft designed to both bomb and fight other air forces over long periods and distances.
“Air power has been a major player in every war we’ve fought since 1948,” the colonel, who in line with Israeli military rules did not give his surname, told reporters during the unusual opening of the desert base to the foreign media.
While Israel has fought all its immediate Arab neighbors, its pilots have had limited capabilities to carry out missions as far away as Iran. A strike on Iraq’s sole nuclear reactor in 1981 was an extraordinary exception at the time but analysts say the F-16I has made long-distance strikes more possible.
“This is the most capable aircraft in the Middle East,” said Captain Grisha, a fighter pilot in his early 20s.
The Jewish state, widely believed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, has said it will not tolerate an Iranian nuclear bomb and has refused to rule out a military option.
Speculation of a U.S.-approved Israeli strike on Iran, fueled by an Israeli attack in Syria last year and by reports of long-range bombing exercises this summer, has faded as the Bush administration prepares to take its leave in Washington.
Israeli leaders, preparing to fight their own election in February, are nonetheless anxious to keep their U.S. and other allies alert to what Israel perceives as the nuclear threat from Iran. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will spend next week in Washington. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be left in no doubt about Israel’s concerns over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Iran, which has called for Israel’s destruction, said on Tuesday it aimed to commission its first nuclear power plant in 2009. Tehran insists the program has only civilian aims.
The F-16I is the latest version of the U.S.-built fighter Israel has used since 1980. Its range has been extended by the addition of two fuel tanks which look like hamster pouches along the fuselage. Military analysts say Israel acquired the F-16I, and added modifications of its own, to give itself the capability to attack far-off targets in countries such as Iran.
Israeli pilots declined to comment on reports earlier this year that they had already conducted a training mission to practice for a strike at Iranian nuclear facilities: “We are always training for the whole range of missions,” said Grisha.
Editing by Andrew Roche