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 credit: REUTERS)
Drone (illustrative)
(photo credit: 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 take-off again.
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.
In 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 Iran.
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.
According 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.
If and 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 count.
ULTIMATELY, THERE are three major questions Israeli military planners need to ask themselves before embarking on such an operation.
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.
This is 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 operation.
Firstly, Ya’alon said, Israel would need to attack a few dozen sites.
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.
Thirdly, 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.
Ultimately, Ya’alon concluded, such a strike would be difficult but feasible.
Ya’alon holds by this assessment today even though some six years have passed since the Hudson lecture.
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.
While the 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 second-strike capabilities.
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 decision.
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.