Mystery jets hammer weapons packed for delivery to Gaza
A bombing raid on the Yarmouk weapons factory near Khartoum, Sudan, destroyed dozens of shipping containers thought to carry rockets and other weapons headed for Egypt's lawless Sinai Peninsula and Hamas-run Gaza.
About 200 tons of material, including rockets, were torched. Witnesses said they heard jet engine noises just before the explosions started shortly after midnight on Oct. 24. Multiple explosions that blew burning projectiles into adjacent neighborhoods were videotaped and quickly posted to the Internet. The fires, fueled by many small explosions within the plant's compound, raged for hours.
There has been an impressive string of anonymous attacks on military-related personnel and facilities in the region that are deemed to pose a threat to Israel and moderate Arab states. These include:
•The 2007 bombing of the al-Kibar Syrian nuclear reactor.
•The 2009 bombing of an Iranian-controlled convoy carrying arms across Sudan with the intent of smuggling them across the Sinai Peninsula.
•The Stuxnet and Flame cyber-reconnaissance and attack virus that may have begun probing and damaging automated industrial processes in Iran as early as 2007, even though they remained undetected until 2010 and 2012, respectively.
•The 2011 killing in an aerial strike of a Hamas arms smuggler in Port Sudan.
•The 2012 bombing of power lines to Iran's Fordow and Natanz uranium enrichment facilities.
The open questions include not only who launches these attacks, but what weapons are involved. Israel has both bomb-carrying, manned and unmanned strike aircraft. Moreover, the country now has four, cruise-missile-carrying, German-made, extra-quiet Dolphin submarines that could deliver stealth attacks from very long range.
The ground attacks in Iran could have involved special operations teams of Kurds, Iraqi Sunnis or dissident Iranians. No one has claimed credit for any of the strikes.
In analyzing the latest attack, a senior U.S. Air Force official suggested that the Khartoum attack—if it was conducted by—would likely have been carried out by Tel Aviv's longest-range aircraft— —for several reasons. The round-trip mission would stretch about 2,400 mi. Aerial raids by unmanned aircraft (stationed in the Negev) or cruise missiles (fired from submarines) on a facility in the middle of a built-up, high-density population area would have a high potential for creating collateral damage.
An un-sourced story in The Sunday Times of London states that the attack was conducted by eight F-15Is—with four of them carrying two 2,000-lb. bombs each—two combat search-and-rescue helicopters, an Israeli Aerospace Industries-modified Gulfstream 550 electronic-attack aircraft and a707 tanker.
“You certainly don't need eight F-15s to deliver eight Mk.84s,” says a veteran U.S. Air Force warplanner. Israeli officials agree, telling Aviation Week that they only used four F-15s for the raid in Syria, and far fewer than the eightand a covering force of F-15s they used to bomb the nuclear reactor in Iraq. Israeli airmen contend that precision weapons and sensors allow them to use much smaller attack units than in the past.
A veteran Israeli pilot says that the Israeli air force—despite its predilection to use smaller, low-profile attack packages—because of the distances involved, would be obligated to increase the size of the force to as many as eight fighters for redundancy. They had to ensure that despite mechanical problems, a sufficient number of aircraft reached the target.
Moreover the extra fighters, tanker and electronic-warfare aircraft would likely have orbited over international waters while only the bombing aircraft penetrated Sudan's airspace, the Israeli pilot says.
“You don't really need four F-15s, you only need two with four bombs and they could have used either [500-lb.] Mk.82s or (2,000-lb.] Mk.84s given the accuracy of the weapons now,” he says. “But you want to make sure, so there is no reason not to use Mk.84s [to ensure destruction of the target] if you are not worried about collateral damage. I don't think it would make sense to use UAVs or cruise missiles for this mission.”
Analysts contend that a number of buildings in the compound also were damaged and destroyed by flying debris. Videos of the fierce fires and a continuing series of explosions showed burning projectiles arcing hundreds of yards into adjacent areas.
While that possibility of collateral damage also exists with manned aircraft, “The IAF's confidence level in its air and maintenance crews and Sudan's insignificant air defense might well convince them to risk sending manned aircraft on a mission of that distance,” the first U.S. Air Force official says. “It depends on the planning factors and weaponeering. A UAV cannot carry as much as an F-15I and Israeli planners have a great deal of confidence in their aircrews to carry out such missions.”
The target site had contained dozens of silver shipping containers in a cleared area between warehouses and manufacturing facilities. Sudan has been fingered in the past for allowing trans-shipment of Iranian weapons via Port Sudan and looted weapons from Libya into Egypt. Israeli officials contend that Sudan ensures delivery of both arms to Islamic militants and the trafficking of African immigrants.
What has been identified in satellite pictures by a U.S.-based monitoring group (Satellite Sentinel Project) as six, approximately 50-ft. craters indicate the use of 2,000-lb. bombs, which would be too large to be carried long distances by known Israeli-build UAVs. However, Israeli Aerospace Industries and Elbit are both working on new and larger UAV designs, Israeli officials say. While the country's new cruise-missile-armed submarines make a formidable stealth weapon, revealing their conventional capabilities on such a vulnerable and unsophisticated target would not be a useful strategic move.
The F-15I also can carry the GBU-28 deep-penetrating bomb, which burrowed through 100 ft. of earth in its original test during the 1991 Persian Gulf war with Iraq. A third U.S. Air Force official—a former senior civilian decision-maker—says that 10 years ago, the National Reconnaissance Office conducted an intense study of an Iranian command-and-control center about 15 mi. north of Tehran as it was built. The 100,000-sq.-ft. structure was buried 35 ft. deep, as were the power and radio-frequency sensor transmission lines that could only be successfully attacked by very deep-penetrating weapons. The U.S. also produced detailed attack plans at the time. Because of the center's size and buried communications, it was considered a very complicated target that would have taken repeated strikes. But with the service's new and larger penetrating weapons, the site could be damaged beyond use with three or four bombs, he avers.