As the Obama administration continues to pursue a diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Israel in recent years has extended the range of its bombers, launched sophisticated spy satellites and developed a more accurate ordnance-dropping system.
The reasons are clear: Israel is now in a position to send scores of F-16Is and F-15Is on the 1,000-mile penetration of Iranian airspace to try to disable the regime’s far-flung network of nuclear research and uranium-enrichment facilities.
But a U.S. air-war planner in the Persian Gulf War tells The Washington Times he does not think Israel’s relatively small air force — compared with the United States huge bomber and cruise-missile fleet — has the firepower to properly hit all the necessary Iranian targets.
The only real way to stop Iran’s atomic bomb, said retired Air Force Col. John Warden, is for the U.S. to shut down Iran’s electric generation for the foreseeable future — a strategy not currently on the Pentagon’s table.
That Israel is now ready to make war with Iran, whose radical Islamic rulers have threatened to destroy the Jewish state, was announced earlier this month. Speaking to an air and space institute audience, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon bluntly spelled out the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) milestone.
“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. Yaalon, who was Israel’s top uniformed officer during the buildup.
Israel’s improved air-war prowess centers on three major achievements:
• Long-range bombers. Israel has purchased premier U.S. fighters especially configured for the buyer’s specific threats — read, Iran. The more than 100 F-15I Ra’ams and F-16I Sufas are equipped with special extended-range fuel tanks. Augmenting the supersonic strike jets is Israel’s perfection of aerial refueling from B-707 tankers.
• Armaments. Israel’s innovative avionics industry is fitting the jets with a new bomb-guidance system that can find intended targets easier. The defense force now owns scores of BLUs — the military acronym for “bomb, live unit,” which is also known as powerful “bunker buster” bombs capable of penetrating underground or hardened facilities.
• Intelligence. Israel now has in orbit a fleet of super-spy satellites, such as the Ofek-7 launched in 2007, that can regularly capture images of Iran’s nuclear and defense sites for the air force’s target list. With such constant satellite coverage, it is a safe assumption that war planners have studied Iran’s high-value facilities and have a tactic for how to strike each one. Israel has added expertise in analyzing such sites since it produces atomic weapons.
But Israel likely would face stiff challenges. There are at least two-dozen prime nuclear sites in Iran, some that would require multiple strikes, a feat Israel’s limited bomber fleet might not be able to achieve. It is one thing to take out Iraq’s nearby nuclear reactor — as Israel’s F-16s did in 1981. It is another to launch a much more massive campaign against fortified, dispersed targets more than 1,000 miles away.
“Given they can fly more airplanes longer distances, fine,” said Col. Warden, who worked with a team of air-war specialists to develop the unprecedented precision strikes on Iraq in 1991.
“It seems to me the real issue is, what are they going to do when they get there?” he said. “When they did that against Iraq, the Iraqis had focused a pretty significant part of their research program in that one place outside of Baghdad. So the targeting was fairly straightforward. You get a handful of airplanes there, and you have a pretty good chance of doing some work.”
“The Iranians have not been ignorant of that particular operation or what was done to Iraq in two wars,” he said. “It’s just inconceivable they would not have put all that stuff in fairly well-protected places, deep underground, a lot of dispersal. The ability of the Israelis, and us for that matter, to find that stuff and to hit it all with sufficient numbers of things to actually to bring it to a halt strikes me as an extraordinary challenge.”
Israel took out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. In a mini-display of what it might do over the skies of Iran, the Israeli air force on Sept. 6, 2007, bombed an under-construction nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert, 60 miles from the Iraq border.
Israeli news reports at the time said the IDF dispatched eight F-15Is and F-16s. It also sent an aircraft designed to detect nuclear activity and electronic jammers to foil Syrian radars. Subsequent satellite photographs showed the target destroyed. The CIA thinks the Syrians planned to produce plutonium for atomic weapons, all with North Korean assistance.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff has debated what to do about Iran’s atomic ambitions, but no member has endorsed a bombing campaign, according to a former senior official. The official said the dovish U.S. approach is based on two principal reasons: U.S. intelligence agencies do not know the degree to which Iran has buried some of its facilities and thus lack enough knowledge to target them, and the political fallout might resort in a wider war in the Middle East, as the Pentagon is already tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We might be able to do it with 20 B-2s with 200 bombs apiece. Four thousand bombs,” said Col. Warden. “Maybe that would do it. I don’t know. If you could get to them, how deep are they buried and whether you know where the darn things are.”
The only sure way to stop it is draconian. In the Iraq air war, planners took pains not to bring down the entire power-generation system so Baghdad could get electricity back postwar.
With Iran, if the United States wanted to absolutely ensure the Iranians could not build a nuclear arsenal, planners might opt to shut down all sources of power generation.
“Iran cannot sustain a nuclear research program if they don’t have electricity and oil and a bunch of other things like that,” Col. Warden said. “But that is a pretty draconian solution. We have the capability to do that. We could do that in 24 hours if we wanted to. But nobody else in the world is remotely close to being able to do it. And we wouldn’t.”
John Pike, a longtime analyst of the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, has a different view on Israel’s capability. He says the overt side of Iran’s program — facilities at Esfahan, Natanz and Qom, for example — represents the bulk of its atomic work, which includes enriching uranium and creating components for the actual bomb.
“Iran requires 100 percent of its program in order to build a bomb,” said Mr. Pike, founder and director of GlobalSecurity.org. “There do not seem to be any ‘spare’ or duplicate facilities. Israel does not need to destroy 100 percent of Iran’s infrastructure to disable the program. Israel only needs to disable a big chunk of the program, which would render the remainder worthless. The major facilities are isolated, so there is not much danger of significant civilian casualties.”
Mr. Pike said Israel might be considering another target: the nuclear workers and scientists themselves.
“Most of the people who work at these facilities live in housing that is more or less co-located with the facility,” he said. “This makes for a short commute, and facilitates physical and operational security. Bomb the housing, and you destroy the program for a generation.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has all but ruled out military action, but has said that all options are on the table for dealing with the problem.
U.S. intelligence analysts have said Iran could build its first bomb by 2012.