The first indication that Israel has resorted to military action against Iran's nuclear program would be explosions across the Islamic republic.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) — with its vaunted pilots and American-supplied warplanes — are so adept at surprise that Iraq and Syria never knew what hit them until their nuclear facilities lay smoldering.
But Iran and its scores of buried and cemented nuclear sites present a much more daunting campaign — one of days, not hours, and multiple weapons, not a few laser-guided bombs.
And unlike Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, Iran can be expected to launch a fierce counterattack that likely would draw the United States into a low-level war with Tehran.
The strikes and counterstrikes could unfold this way:
If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persuades his Cabinet to approve strikes, long-range F-15Is and F-16Is ("I" for Israel) would take off from the Hatzerim air base on a moonless night.
Israel's most advanced warplanes, the "I Team" would carry U.S.-made, 5,000-pound bunker-busting bombs that drill below ground before exploding. Israel's older F-16s and F-15s would stay home to deal with anticipated reprisals.
Israel has been revising its target list for years as it has gained intimate knowledge of Iran's infrastructure and military installations via U.S. intelligence-sharing and its own network of spy satellites.
The low-flying "I" jets could take one or more routes to penetrate Iranian airspace on flights as long as 1,000 miles or more.
Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as the biggest threat to Persian Gulf oil states, might allow Israeli jets to access its airspace to cross into Iran from the southwest.
Israel also could opt to fly over Iraq, given that the U.S. and its warplanes have left and Baghdad has not rebuilt an air defense force.
'Difficult, but not impossible'
Iran's thick network of radars and anti-aircraft missiles would be attacked first, perhaps by cyberwarfare viruses or some type of electronic jamming that makes the bombers invisible.
Analysts presume that Israel has probed Iran's computer networks and has a plan to disable them with viruses and worms that would break down communication lines and disrupt electric power.
Once Israeli jets have penetrated Iranian airspace, their target list undoubtedly would include the large uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz and the nuclear reactor on the Gulf coast at Bushehr.
Israel has tracked the whereabouts of Iran's atomic scientists and also would target their homes.
Israeli pilots have practiced long-range missions, complete with in-air refueling via sophisticated aerial tanker-fighter maneuvers to extend their aircraft's range of operation by hundreds of miles.
"The United States has provided the airplanes, bombs and missiles, and the aerial refueling tankers to support the kind of sustained strikes that would be required to attack the known sites inside Iran," said James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who worked at the Pentagon on arms transfers to U.S. allies.
"This is not a matter of blowing up a reactor in a single mission," he said. "Iran's infrastructure is spread out over the country. Some of the sites, like Natanz, are said to be deeply buried and built to withstand aerial bombing by the kinds of bunker-buster bombs the United States has provided.
"Conducting these strikes would be difficult, but not impossible."
Israel would position diesel-powered Dolphin-class submarines within missile range, perhaps in the Arabian Sea. Sub-launched Harpoon cruise missiles could strike Iranian radars, air-defense jets and nuclear sites.
"I think a lot of it is going to be done through the use of submarines," said Michael Maloof, a former Pentagon policymaker who focused on the Middle East and Central Asia. "They have very capable missile submarines."
Israel also has an arsenal of Jericho surface-to-surface missiles that were built primarily to carry nuclear warheads. The Jewish state is estimated to own about 85 nuclear weapons.
It is likely that Israel's military, which is skilled at adapting multitask weapons, has reconfigured the Jericho to carry conventional explosives.
Two years ago, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon boasted of the IDF's combat readiness.
"This capability can be used for a war on terror in Gaza, for a war in the face of rockets from Lebanon, for war on the conventional Syrian army and also for war on a peripheral state like Iran," said Mr. Ya'alon, who served as IDF chief of staff in the 2000s.
Israeli officials reportedly are mulling a military attack on Iran's nuclear program, which they regard as an existential threat, given the Islamic republic's calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israel and Western nations suspect that Iranian atomic research is geared toward bomb-making, despite Iran's assertions that its nuclear program is only for peaceful, civilian uses.
A question of capacity
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula knows how to conduct an air war.
He is a former fighter pilot who ran the air-operations center during the early days of the Afghanistan War. He ended up as the Air Force's top uniformed intelligence officer. He can find and hit a target.
Gen. Deptula asks a key question: Does Israel own the military capacity to inflict sufficient damage to set back Iran's nuclear program for several years?
For instance, a U.S. campaign would unleash an airborne armada of B-2 stealth bombers, Air Force and Navy strike fighters, sea- and air-launched cruise missiles, and electronic jammers to blind radars. It also would field command-and-control aircraft to synchronize flights and warn of threats.
Israel has some of those assets, but in much smaller numbers — a combined total of about 100 F-15 and F-16 I's. That means it could not hit as many targets as a sustained U.S. air war would.
"Israel has one of the most capable militaries in the world, and they have one of the most innovative and creative sets of planners, as far as nations around the world are concerned," Gen. Deptula said.
"The issue is not whether they are capable of conducting selected strikes inside Iran. The issue is the capacity of their forces to inflict enough desired effects on the weapons-production facilities to accomplish whatever the endgame objective is.
"Yeah, they would conduct a couple of strikes. But the question is, to what end?" the general said.
The task is even more difficult, he said, given Iran's widely separated nuclear facilities that are "deeply hardened and buried."
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has taken note of Iranian defenses as challenges to U.S. forces, let alone Israeli forces.
Asked in December how long military action would set back Iran, he said: "It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that they're after. Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at."
Press reports from Jerusalem have quoted Israeli officials as saying they will not tip off the Obama administration about any strike on Iran.
The U.S., however, is maintaining a large military presence in the Gulf, including a combined operations center at Al Udied, Qatar, that monitors all air corridors in the region.
"Israel's airplanes would be transiting over third-country airspace, not to mention having to de-conflict airspace management with the United States," Mr. Russell said.
What would the U.S. do if it detected Israeli fighters en route to Iran?
"It really depends on where, and what agreements have or have not been made in advance," Gen. Deptula said.
Israel likely has looked at an "Option B" for attacking Iran that would not involve the risky business of manned flights through inhospitable airspace.
Such "standoff" warfare would rely heavily on drones to deliver bombs, complemented by sea- and land-based missiles, cyberattacks and sabotage by Iranian dissidents trying to oust Iran's hard-line mullahs.
"They are probably pretty close to what the United States has in cyberwarfare," Mr. Maloof said. "If they, along with the United States, developed the Stuxnet bug, that shows they do have a high level of technical and cyberwarfare capability.
"They really focus on these things that give the greatest punch for the least amount of effort."
No one has claimed ownership of the Stuxnet worm, which can attack industrial machinery and processes that are operated by computers.
In Iran's case, the worm was designed to infiltrate and disable uranium-enrichment machinery in Iran, which discovered the sabotage in June 2010.
Suspicion immediately focused on Israel, perhaps in partnership with the CIA or the National Security Agency because precise knowledge of Iran's enrichment process would have been needed to design a successful worm. Iran last year acknowledged removing damaged centrifuges from its major plant at Natanz.
The question is, was Stuxnet an Israeli test? Will it send a barrage of malicious computer programs into Iran's nuclear complexes at some point?
"They can do this without airplanes," Mr. Maloof said. "Standoff warfare is the coming thing."
Someone is killing Iranian nuclear scientists.
Most recently, chemical engineer Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed Jan. 10 by a "sticky" bomb attached to his car by a motorcyclist who fled the Tehran neighborhood after the explosion.
Roshan was the fourth Iranian atomic scientist assassinated in the past two years. Coupled with the Stuxnet attack and various industrial explosions in Iran, the killings point to some sort of sabotage under way.
Iran blames Israel. So does NBC News, which reported that Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, is in cahoots with Iran's largest opposition group in a shadow war to disrupt Iran's nuclear-arms ability through assassinations, explosions and cyberwarfare.
Retaliation came last month. In New Delhi, a car carrying the wife of an Israeli diplomat was bombed, and she was hospitalized. A sticky bomb found on an Israeli diplomat's car in the former Soviet state of Georgia was defused the same day.
War planners at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command are trying to predict how Iran would counterattack if Israel launches a military strike.
An adviser to the command tells The Washington Times that Iran likely would fire missiles into Israel, possibly using chemical weapons. It also would launch missiles at U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Kuwait.
Iran also would activate its proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip to pinch Israel from the north and south.
Israel, which has used the Iron Dome system to deflect rockets fired from Gaza, thinks the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has stashed an arsenal of 50,000 rockets.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the army of more than 100,000 troops that promotes terrorism abroad and tamps down dissent at home, would spring into action.
Guard operatives would encourage Shiite extremists in Iraq to kill U.S. diplomats, advisers and security personnel.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps' naval forces would target shipping in the Persian Gulf, using speedboats to swarm around and blow up commercial oil tankers as its warships try to choke off the Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. would be in a naval and air war against Tehran, attacking Iranian vessels and launching strikes at Iranian military sites to stop the volley of land-based missiles at American troops.
Policy of reciprocity
Michael Eisenstadt is a retired Army Reserve officer who served in the Pentagon during the Afghanistan War and was deployed to Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries during the past decade.
Now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Mr. Eisenstadt has been brainstorming how Iran would react. He has concluded that the ruling mullahs would direct most firepower at Israel, launching Shahab ballistic missiles at population centers and at the military base in the desert at Dimona, the site for the Jewish state's undeclared nuclear arsenal.
Mr. Eisenstadt thinks Iran also would embark on long-term reprisals worldwide by attacking Israelis, one by one, in third countries.
"Any Iranian response would be guided by the perceived need on their part, first of all, to not let what they see as an act of aggression to go unpunished, and it's very important to them to respond in kind.
"First, they will respond to an attack on their nuclear infrastructure with an attempted missile strike on Dimona. The aspect of reciprocity is deep-rooted in Iranian policy," he said.
"Then I think there would probably be some follow-on operations, terrorist operations aboard," Mr. Eisenstadt added. "I think they will want to strike the U.S. in a way that does not draw the U.S. into a conflict, but enables them to get a cheap shot, to punish the U.S. for supporting Israel."
Mr. Panetta has warned of Iran's likely retaliation: "The United States would obviously be blamed, and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases."
The American who would have to deal with an Israel-Iran war is Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
He clearly does not want war, given his remarks this month to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He told senators that Western economic sanctions need more time to work, and perhaps turn the Iranian people against the mullahs.
"They're very much a problem, and I don't see this going in the right direction until the full effect of the sanctions can accrue," Gen. Mattis said. And I say 'until,' because even now … we see in inflation going up, unemployment going up [in Iran].
"The internal frictions have got to start telling here. At some point, I think the Iranian people are going to question, 'Is this the right direction?'
"So if we can keep this at a diplomatic, economic track and get full advantage of what these sanctions are doing and the international isolation is doing, this country basically lacks any significant strategic ally."
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