Security and Defense: Delaying Iran's nuke program

The disagreement between the US and Israel on striking Iran seems to be about trust and timing.

August 16, 2012 21:51
Uranium-processing site in Isfahan

Uranium-processing site in Isfahan 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

There are those who call it a “strike,” while others refer to it as an “operation.” What exactly it will entail no one really knows, although most assessments stress that there will be surprises – and lots of them.

Either way, when Israel decides to launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities it will be looking to inflict as much damage as possible with the aim of preventing Tehran from rebuilding its nuclear program for years to come.

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The question is, how far can Israel set back Teheran’s nuclear program? While the media have played up reported disagreement between the IDF and the government over the effectiveness of a strike, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey made made his position clear on Tuesday when telling reporters that Israel cannot “destroy” Iran’s nuclear program but can, at best, “delay” it.

The disagreement between Israel and the US seems to be about trust and timing and, more specifically, about whether Israel should attack Iran now or wait and give US President Barack Obama time to do the job on his own.

While both Israel and the US agree that Iran is not yet building a nuclear weapon, Jerusalem argues that if it waits too long it might miss the point when assembly begins and will no longer be able to attack. The US dismisses the argument and believes that it has a strong handle on what is happening in Iran and that missing the point is not an option. Unfortunately, due to North Korea, history is not on America’s side.

The conclusion that a strike can be effective is based on the answer to four key questions: Does Israel knows the location of all of Iran’s nuclear facilities? Can Israel reach all of them with either air force jets or surface-to-surface missiles? Can Israel overcome Iranian air defense systems? And can Israel penetrate some of the hardened/underground facilities?

The potential targets might vary, but the main targets appear to be Natanz and Fordo, the two uranium enrichment facilities – both buried underground.

In addition, Israel would likely want to destroy Parchin, a military base near Tehran where Israel and the US claim Iran has been working to develop a nuclear warhead, as well as Esfahan, the main uranium conversion plant that feeds Natanz. Another target would likely be Arak – a heavy water facility that could one day refine plutonium (although it is still a couple years away from becoming operational).

Iran has additional facilities that are less known, where, for example, the weapons group – a team of scientists tasked with assembling a warhead – work. These could also be targets even though some of them are located in population centers.

But these are only the facilities affiliated with the nuclear program.

Military planners would also likely want to try to destroy Iran’s long-range missiles and associated launchers to prevent, or at least minimize, the regime’s ability to retaliate. The same would apply to the Iranian air force and a strike against Iran’s oil plants may also be considered as a means of preventing the regime from financing the rehabilitation of its program.

Getting to Iran, though, will not be simple. When former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz was once asked how far Israel would go to stop Iran, he responded: “Two thousand kilometers”, roughly the distance it would take to reach Iran’s nuclear facilities.

IAF fighter jets could take three possible realistic routes from Israel to Iran: The first route – to the north – skirts along the Turkish- Syrian border into Iran. This route entails several risks and needs to take into account Syrian air defenses and Turkish opposition to violating its airspace.

Unlike in 2007, when Israel flew through Turkish airspace to bomb Syria’s nuclear reactor, Jerusalem and Ankara no longer have close ties that would enable the toleration of such a violation once again. On the other hand, it would be hard to see Turkey – a member of NATO – intercepting Israeli aircraft even if they flew over unannounced.

In addition, the threat of Syrian air defense systems might not be as serious today, as President Bashar Assad appears to be preoccupied with trying to hold onto his power. In 2007, Israel also reportedly used impressive electronic warfare technology to hack into Syria’s network and blind its radar systems, something it could potentially try to do again.

The central route would take IAF jets directly over Jordan and Iraq. While this is the most direct route, it would require overcoming serious diplomatic obstacles and potentially undermine Israel’s peace with Jordan, which could then face the brunt of an Iranian reprisal.

The last route would be from the south, and would take the aircraft over Saudi Arabia and into Iran. While this path is significantly longer than the one over Jordan and Iraq, Israel, according to a number of media reports, has discussed this possibility – including landing in the Saudi desert to refuel – with the Saudi kingdom. One report claimed a number of years ago that Saudi Arabia had even conducted tests on its air defense systems to ensure that they would not engage IAF fighter jets in case such a strike takes place.

A recent report in one Israeli newspaper, claiming that the Saudis have threatened to shoot down IAF aircraft, could be looked at in two ways. If it is genuine, then, despite the Saudis’ obvious strife with Iran, they will try to intercept IAF aircraft.

Alternatively, the report might be an intentional leak aimed at setting up the Saudis’ excuse for the day after Israel flies over their country. This way they will be able to say to the Iranians, “We tried to stop them and even threatened, but we didn’t succeed.”

Unlike the US Air Force, the IAF does not have specially designated bombers or interceptors; instead, each of its F-15s and F-16s are expected to fill both roles as needed.

For that reason, an Israeli strike package would likely include a significant portion of the IAF’s combat fleet, led by the advanced F-15I and F-16I and complimented by an assortment of F-16 C/Ds and F-15A/B.

The IAF has spent recent years qualifying its older combat aircraft – the A/B and C/D models – for long-range missions like those to Iran as well as with carrying specialized standoff munitions, like Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs).

In addition to the combat aircraft, the IAF would also likely use its small but advanced fleet of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), based on Gulfstream G550 business jets. The aircraft can create an aerial image without relying on land-based radar systems and would help the IAF detect enemy aircraft as well as missile fire.

Hercules C-130 transport aircraft might also play a role in ferrying special forces – if needed to infiltrate and destroy some of the underground facilities and conduct poststrike assessments – as well as in deploying search-and-rescue teams nearby to be able to rescue pilots shot down over Iran.

The IDF has been working over the years to establish airborne hospitals inside a Hercules. One of those might come in handy, depending on estimates regarding wounded and casualties.

But now the question is whether Israel can penetrate the Iranian facilities. In recent years, the IAF has bolstered its arsenal of bunker-busters, some even supplied by the Obama administration. The GBU-27 and GBU-28 bunker buster bombs can carry anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 pounds of explosives and are believed to be capable of penetrating the main uranium enrichment hall at Natanz.

But even if the bombs on their own cannot penetrate the facilities, former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eitan Ben-Eliyahu explained in an interview a number of years ago that pilots could “guide other bombs directly to the hole created by the previous ones and eventually destroy any target” In addition, and in contrast to the 1981 bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq, nowadays pilots do not need to fly directly over their targets before dropping their bombs and can instead use standoff weapons like JDAMs, which are guided by GPS, or other laser-guided munitions.

Due to the complexity of such an operation though, it might be worth to expect some surprises.

Firstly, Israel could, according to foreign sources, potentially use the Jericho two-stage ballistic missile, whose range is reportedly thousands of kilometers, encompassing all of Iran with a high-degree of accuracy.

Israel does not publicly admit to possessing the missile, but the Shavit – a launcher developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and used to put Israeli satellites in space – is reported to be a copy of the Jericho. According to various reports, the Jericho, also believed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is stored inside an IAF base near Beit Shemesh.

The advantage in attacking Iranian facilities with surface-to-surface missiles is twofold: On the one hand, pilots are not in danger of being shot down, killed or captured.

In addition, there is no immediate proof that Israel is behind the strike since there won’t be any F-15s with Stars of David spotted flying over Iran.

The same thinking can be applied to IAF drones, some of which are reportedly capable of carrying missiles. In both cases though, the penetration capabilities of missiles carried by drones as well as the capabilities of the Jericho are unknown and might be limited, meaning that they might only be effective against targets located above surface.

While most assessments are confident in Israel’s ability to cause the required damage to delay Iran’s nuclear program, most also agree that its success borders on the extent of the IDF’s capabilities and possibly just beyond.

For that reason, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refers to the bombing of Osirak in 1981 – as he has done numerous times in recent weeks – it is not only a reference to the courage he sees in Menachem Begin’s decision to attack but also in the IAF’s ability to do things that appear to be impossible.

In 1981, the IAF F-16s returned from bombing Osirak on the fumes from their empty gas tanks. This time, most officers will be thinking about the day after the strike and the war that is expected to come.

But another question on Israel’s mind will be the price it will pay in the US if it goes ahead with unilateral and uncoordinated military action.

In 1981, after Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, the Reagan administration decided to delay the delivery of a batch of F-16 fighter jets to Israel.

How the Obama administration would react to uncoordinated and unilateral Israeli military action against Iran is unclear, although Israel is once again waiting for the delivery of advanced combat aircraft.

This time it is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet that the IAF looks forward to receiving in the coming years and which will help Israel retain its qualitative military edge in the region.

Delaying aircraft, though, is just one punitive measure that the US can potentially take against Israel in the aftermath of such an attack.

Other steps could include a general downgrade in Israeli-American intelligence cooperation, defense ties and even support for missile defense systems.

Just a few weeks ago, Obama signed a new bill to enhance Israeli-US security ties, which included an additional $70 million toward the Iron Dome counter rocket defense program.

These funds are critical for Israel, especially now, in the face of an economic downturn.

Israel has yet to decide what it will do, but Jerusalem has made one point extremely clear in recent weeks: time is running out.

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