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There is a popular belief that Israel would do anything to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. The deliberate slew of ambiguous statements by Israeli leaders and military commanders concerning a possible Israeli attack on Iran is for the most part fuel to help the Europeans and US pressure Teheran to quit their nuclear ambitions.
Now, a report by the US Army War College concludes that the Air Force could probably hit targets in Iran, but not maintain a sustained air campaign that would deliver a deathblow to their nuclear weapons program.
"The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has formidable capabilities and enjoys unchallenged supremacy vis- -vis the other Middle East air powers," the report said. "But Israel has no aircraft carriers and it cannot use airbases in other Middle East states; therefore its operational capabilities are reduced when the targets are located far from its territory."
The 320-page report was entitled "Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran" and put out by the Strategic Studies Institute of the influential US Army War College.
The chapter on Israel was drafted by Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom, a former head of strategic planning for the IDF and now a senior research associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.
The report did not mention other possible strike platforms such as Eritrea in Africa.
Brom said Israel's intelligence and military community was divided over the Iranian threat. He said IDF military intelligence and some MKs regarded Iran as a bitter ideological enemy determined to annihilate Israel. The other school is represented by the Mossad and National Security Council, Ministry of Defense and Foreign Ministry, who see Teheran as preoccupied with national defense and regime survival.
"While the first school assumes no political pressure can force Iran to stop its military nuclear program, the other school believes that political pressure can be effective in at least delaying the nuclear program significantly," the report said. "The second school believes that a nuclear Iran with a different regime will not pose a high risk to Israel and can be easily deterred."
But should Israel decide to attack, the report argued that to be effective it would "necessitate sustainable strikes on a relatively large number of targets that are well-defended." It said the nuclear power plant at Bushier was vulnerable to attack but not part of the military nuclear program. The centrifuge plant built at Natanz is underground, and it is defended by an extensive ground air defense system.
"It is very difficult to find in the Iranian nuclear program one vulnerable point that, once it is attacked and destroyed, the Iranian program is stopped or stalled for a long time," the report said. Brom noted that a successful strike on Iran required a sustained air assault on targets between 1,500 to 1,700 kilometers from Israel. He argued that it was "highly unlikely" that Turkey and India would let Israel use their countries as a launching pad.
He mentioned that flying directly would strain relations with Jordan and over Iraq could pit US interceptors against the IAF. A longer route over the Indian Ocean presents minimal penetration of air space of other states.
"This means that the Israeli attack aircraft would have to take off from air bases in Israel, fly 1,500-1,700 kilometers to the targets, destroy them, and then fly back 1,500-1,700 kilometers," the report said. Refueling would be problematic, since the few 707s are very vulnerable and shouldn't operate over hostile air space. At least two mid-air refuelings were considered necessary for a strike.
Detection and interception by the Iranian air defense were limited and there was a high probability the IAF aircraft would be successful in destroying their target by using a mix of tactics, smart munitions and electronic counter measures, the report said.
According to the report, Israel's deep-strike air capability was based on its 25 Boeing F-15I and 137 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D aircraft. The Air Force has already received more than 20 F-16Is, with longer range on the F-15I, but the report said the F-15I aircraft contained greater capabilities at long ranges.
The report said the F-15I had an operational radius of 1,270 kilometers. The F-16I has an operational radius of 2,100 kilometers while that of the F-16C/D is 925 kilometers.
But the report said the real operational radius was shorter because the planes would have to fly at low altitude to avoid radar detection. Also required was a large aerial task force composed of such support aircraft as air refueling, electronic countermeasures, support, communication and rescue.
"The conclusion is that Israel could attack only a few Iranian targets and not as part of a sustainable operation over time, but as a one-time surprise operation," the report said. "Even if Israel had the attack capabilities needed for the destruction of all the elements of the Iranian nuclear program, it is doubtful whether Israel has the kind of intelligence needed to be certain that all the necessary elements of the program were traced and destroyed fully." Nevertheless, he wrote that a government would not necessarily have much to lose domestically by a preemptive strike.
"It can be safely assumed that any Israeli action against the Iranian nuclear program would enjoy vast support by Israeli public opinion. Even a failure of the operation would not erode the support because of the almost general consensus of the public."
The Iranian reaction would also be severely limited. An Iranian air strike would be almost suicidal, and a Shehab missile strike would also not be terribly dangerous, considering its inaccuracy and the Israeli air defenses (such as the Arrow 2). Also, using its proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon would undoubtedly draw a severe Israeli retaliation against Syria, which could fall at this weak moment in Bashar Assad's regime. Iran does not want this.
This leaves attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.
Israel's Arab neighbors of the Middle East would likely condemn the action, but quietly breath relief and do nothing. The Europeans would bark, but also do nothing and relations with the United States would not be harmed.