Security and Defense: Taking a ‘bridge loan’
Most security officials agree the IDF can hit Iran’s nuclear program. But how close is Israel to attacking?
Drone (illustrative) Photo: REUTERS
Ramat David Air Force Base is located in the picturesque Jezreel Valley in
northern Israel. If it were not for the occasional F-16 fighter jet that takes
off there every few hours, a visitor would be forgiven for mistaking its rolling
green pastures for those in Tuscany.
Due to its proximity to the northern
border, Ramat David will be a prime target for Hezbollah and Syria in a future
war. For that reason the base has put a strong emphasis over the past year on
“operational continuity,” a new IDF concept aimed at ensuring that during a
future war, planes will be able to take-off, land to refuel and rearm, and
The base’s trademark, however, is the F-16 fighter jets
that are parked in its hangers and whose job it is to protect Israel from
threats originating in the North. Every day or so, the jets are scrambled to
intercept incoming civilian aircraft that fail to respond to Israel’s air
traffic control and raise concern of a potential 9/11-like attack.
July 1980, Israel received its first batch of four F-16s, which were flown to
Ramat David by American pilots.
The delivery of the planes was somewhat
of a fluke since they had originally been intended for delivery to
But in late 1979, then-US secretary of defense Harold Brown came to
Israel and offered his counterpart Ezer Weizman the opportunity to purchase the
jets, since they could not longer be supplied to Iran following the Islamic
revolution. Israel immediately agreed and later used the planes in Operation
Opera, the bombing in 1981 of the Osirak reactor in Iraq.
“At least we
gained something from the Islamic revolution in Iran,” a senior IAF officer
recently said in jest.
In 2007, Ramat David again played a key role in
the bombing of the second nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel.
to a report in Der Spiegel, the planes which bombed the al-Kibar nuclear
facility in northwest Syria also took off from there.
While the IAF still
has some of the old-model F-16s it received from the US in the early 1980s, it
has spent the past 15 years upgrading its fleet, the backbone of which consists
today of the F-16I known as the “Sufa” (Storm) and the F-15I known as the
“Ra’am” (Thunder). Israel has a total of 101 F16Is and 25 F15Is.
when Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities it will be looking to cause a
storm with a lot of thunder.
Ramat David’s location in the North could
make it the base the IAF would choose to use in the event that Israel attacks
Iran, enabling it to conserve fuel for a mission during which every drop will
ULTIMATELY, THERE are three major questions Israeli military
planners need to ask themselves before embarking on such an
Firstly, can IAF F-15s and F-16s fly to where they need to go
with the appropriate munitions? Secondly, will they be able to overcome Iran’s
air force and air defense systems? And thirdly, will they be able to penetrate
the facilities, some of which – like Fordow and Natanz – have been built deep
underground? This is why, when it comes to the viability of Israel’s military
option, the answer depends on who you ask.
Either way, the general
assessment within the IDF and shared by the three recent chiefs of staff – Dan
Halutz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz – is that Israel has the ability to knock
out some of Iran’s key facilities. However, they agree that the extent of the
damage would set the Iranian nuclear program back by only a few years, rather
than completely destroying it. For this reason, one IDF general has termed such
an attack a “bridge loan,” in reference to the short-term bank loan homebuyers
use to tide them over until they can secure permanent financing.
primarily because Iran has already mastered the technology. Even if Israel
causes significant damage to a number of key facilities in the nuclear
production line, it is just a matter of time before Iran makes the necessary
repairs and has the facilities up and running again.
In 2006, Moshe
Ya’alon, who had just stepped down as IDF chief of staff and was mulling an
entry into politics, gave a lecture at the Hudson Institute in Washington, and
provided crucial insight into how the IDF viewed such an
Firstly, Ya’alon said, Israel would need to attack a few dozen
Secondly, the strikes would need to be “precise, like a targeted
killing” – in reference to the IAF’s expertise in striking terrorists with
precise munitions in the crowded streets of the Gaza Strip.
Israel would have to “disrupt” Iran’s air-defense systems and could use other
capabilities to do so, not just aircraft, Ya’alon said without elaborating. The
assumption was that he was referring to Israel’s electronic warfare
capabilities, rumored to have been used successfully when IAF jets infiltrated
Syria in 2007 to bomb the country’s nuclear reactor.
concluded, such a strike would be difficult but feasible.
by this assessment today even though some six years have passed since the Hudson
While Defense Minister Ehud Barak has argued that just nine
months or so are left for Israel to stop Iran – before it moves into the
so-called “immunity zone,” following which a strike would no longer be effective
– Ya’alon has argued that this is not the case.
“Anything built by man
can be destroyed by man,” he said earlier this month, stressing that as a former
chief of staff he knew what he was talking about.
What is certain is that
Iran has learned the lessons from Iraq and Syria.
Instead of keeping all
of its eggs in one basket, it has scattered its nuclear facilities throughout
the country, some of them in eastern Iran, making the attack mission even more
difficult for Israeli aircraft.
Military planners would also likely feel
compelled to attack Iran’s centrifuge fabrication sites, since their destruction
would make it extremely difficult for Iran to reestablish its program – although
the destruction of Natanz, Arak, Isfahan and Fordow on their own would be enough
to set back the Ayatollah’s dream of obtaining the bomb. Other targets would
likely include Iran’s ballistic missiles and launchers.
operation would be done mostly by air, Israel could, according to foreign
reports, also potentially utilize its Jericho roadmobile, two-stage
solid-propellant missile, which has ranges varying from around 1,900 to over
4,800 kilometers and is capable of carrying a one-ton conventional or
non-conventional warhead. The latest version of the missile – called Jericho III
and tested in early 2008 – has enhanced accuracy and puts every Arab capital,
including Tehran, within striking distance of Israel.
Israel also has
three Dolphin-class German-made submarines, which according to foreign news
reports, can carry cruise missiles capable of delivering a large warhead to
ranges of over 100 km. Some reports suggest that the subs might be capable of
carrying nuclear-armed Popeye Turbo cruise missiles, granting Israel
But the question ultimately comes down to how
close Israel really is to attacking Iran. Judging by the events that preceded
the strike against the Syrian reactor in 2007, it is highly likely that the
meeting on March 5 between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President
Barack Obama will be critical for Israel as it nears a final
What the two leaders say to one another in the Oval Office will
have an impact not only on what decision Netanyahu makes but also what happens
the day after he makes that decision.
If, for example, Israel decides to
attack, Netanyahu will need to ensure that he can depend on US support –
diplomatic and military – in the aftermath. If Israel decides not to attack,
Netanyahu will need to walk away from the meeting with a commitment that Obama
will stop Iran at all costs, even with military force.