The RAF compared with the Israeli Air Force

Streaking ahead: an Israeli F-16A

Streaking ahead: an Israeli F-16A

In a surprising upheaval of the global military rankings, it has emerged that Israel is set to leave Britain for dust when it comes to air power.

Cuts proposed in the Ministry of Defence's recent Strategic Defence and Security Review could mean that in five years, the RAF will be fielding roughly half the number of fighters of the Israeli Air Force.

The major difference in air force planning between the countries is a result of change in strategic thinking.

The SDSR is based on a shift in the vision of Britain's armed forces from fighting against well-equipped Cold War adversaries to a future in which their main role will involve peace-keeping missions and more focused campaigns. There will be less need for squadrons of expensive, fighter-bombers carrying out air and ground-attack missions.

The IAF, on the other hand, is geared to fighting a number of campaigns at the same time based on worst-case scenarios. These include long-range missions against an enemy such as Iran while taking out hundreds of missile launchers in Lebanon and simultaneously suppling air-support to IDF ground forces in Lebanon and in Gaza.

The RAF currently fields a fast-jet force of around 300 aircraft comprised of Harrier jump-jets Tornados and the new Eurofighter Typhoon.

The main implication of the SDSR for the RAF is a major cut in the number of fighters, with the force of 74 Harriers to be withdrawn in the coming year and the Tornados to be gradually withdrawn over the next five years.

The IAF currently operates around 400 fighters; various models of the American F-15 and F-16 fighters. All the fighters include multiple Israeli-designed systems and avionics tailor-made to the IAF's specifications and the older aircraft have been continuously upgraded.

Israel is also buying the F-35 with an initial order for the first squadron of 20 signed two months ago and the expected total order to be up to 70. While the overall number of fighters may be slightly smaller a decade from now, the IAF does not currently plan to change the number of fighter aircraft significantly.

Senior IDF officers have revealed that the army now has a "target bank" with thousands of Hizbollah launch sites, command posts and weapon dumps that would be attacked in stages in a future war. Similar lists of targets exist for the Gaza Strip and Syria which may also be involved in a future Middle East war alongside Iran and Lebanon.

While there have been grumblings among the higher echelons of the Ground Command and Navy regarding the preference of the air force in spending plans at the expense of more advanced armoured vehicles for ground forces and new ships, no major changes have yet been made in the allocation of the defence budget. A senior air force general said recently: "We have more than enough work for every one of our fighters and can see no justification in cutting their numbers."

Last updated: 9:56am, November 12 2010