Israel has requested the expedited delivery of advanced KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling aircraft. The request was made directly to the U.S. Department of Defense. Manufactured by Boeing, the KC-46 Pegasus boasts several advanced features that will significantly enhance Israel’s air refueling capabilities. Israel was slated to purchase up to eight of these aircraft with deliveries to begin in four years but the Israelis have requested that they be delivered in two. The KC-46 will complement and eventually replace Israel’s existing fleet of converted Boeing 707s and KC-130 Hercules air refueling platforms.
The Israeli request should be viewed in the context of a series of explosions, fires and “accidents” that have rocked Iranian industrial and military facilities in recent days. Two of the more significant incidents occurred at the Natanz nuclear site and the Khojir missile production complex in eastern Tehran.
At the Natanz site, a massive explosion and subsequent fire obliterated a building where Iran was conducting research and development on advanced centrifuge designs. The Iranians have belatedly acknowledged extensive damage to the site and some experts have surmised that the “accident” has retarded Iran’s advanced centrifuge program by as many as two years. Israel declined to comment on whether its security forces were involved in the explosion, a standard response to such queries but there is speculation that it was caused by an Israeli cyberattack.
In May, Israel launched a cyberattack on the Shahid Rajaee port facility in the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas that completely shut down the facility. The attack was in retaliation for a failed Iranian cyberattack on Israel’s water infrastructure, which if it had succeeded, would have poisoned Israel’s water supply and resulted in mass civilian casualties. For Israel, the Iranians had crossed a red line that could not go unanswered.
Iran’s northern neighbor, Azerbaijan, denied that any aircraft flew from its territory to attack Iran. The denial was prompted by reportage from a Russian news source, which claimed that drones had attacked Natanz and were detected by Russian radar. Israel maintains excellent political and military relations with the largely secular, Shia Muslim nation with trade between the two nations reaching nearly $3.5 billion annually.
Centrifuge machines enrich uranium by spinning gaseous uranium hexafluoride at very high speeds. These centrifugal forces cause heavier molecules containing U-238 isotopes to separate from the lighter U-235 isotopes. The result is an increase in the amount of the fissile isotope U-235 within nuclear material, and the complex process of uranium enrichment is central to nuclear bomb production. Iran has thousands of older IR-2 centrifuges but is working on newer IR-6 and IR-8 designs which can enrich uranium at much faster rates than the older designs.
If this was indeed an Israeli attack, cyber or otherwise, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Natanz site had been targeted. In 2010, malicious software known as the Stuxnet virus infected the machines that controlled and monitored the centrifuges causing thousands to be damaged. Stuxnet was a successful joint U.S.-Israeli venture, which caused mayhem at Natanz.
At the Khojir missile complex, commercial satellite images revealed significant charring at the secretive site, indicating that damage was extensive. As is their wont, the Iranians initially lied about where the explosion took place, claiming that it occurred at the Parchin military base and was the result of a gas leak. The Iranian obfuscation efforts represented a clear attempt by Iranian officials to deflect attention away from the missile facility.
The Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program is integral to its militarized nuclear program. Iran is seeking to develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action shockingly neglected to address this threat giving the Iranians a free hand in advancing this element of its nuclear ambitions. The Trump administration saw things differently and cited Iran’s ballistic missile program as one of the reasons for its withdrawal from the JCPOA.
On November 12, 2011 a massive explosion rocked Iran’s Shahid Modarres missile base killing at least 17 Iranians associated with Iran’s ballistic missile program including Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, who has been referred to as the father of Iran’s ballistic missile program. The Iranians termed the explosion an “accident” but some observers believe that Israel’s vaunted intelligence service, Mossad, was responsible.
While the world remains largely distracted by the Chinese coronavirus pandemic and other social upheavals, Israel remains laser-focused on Iran’s nuclear program, which it views as an existential threat. As long as Iran continues to engage in malign activities, we can expect many more such “accidents” to occur in the Islamic Republic. But these “accidents” are merely a temporary stopgap. Ultimately, unless Iran changes its behavior, some form of more overt activity may be necessary, with the KC-46 in the thick of it.