Monday, February 06, 2006

Will Israel Strike Iran?

The X Factor: Israel's military planners say they know how to forestall Tehran's nuclear schemes. The options—and their cost.
By Kevin Peraino and John Barry
February 13, 2006

As scary as the idea may sound, the Israelis may not be bluffing. Their defense experts display no doubt whatsoever that Israel's Air Force can cripple Iran's nuclear program if necessary. The trick, they say, is to go after the system's weak spots. "You need to identify the bottlenecks," says a senior Israeli military source, asking not to be named for security reasons. "There are not very many. If you take them out, then you really undermine the project." Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli armed forces chief of strategic planning, says the destruction of two or three key facilities would probably suffice. He singles out the Natanz uranium-enrichment complex and the conversion plant at Esfahan as critical.

It wouldn't be as easy as it sounds. Tehran, taking obvious lessons from Israel's successful 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein's reactor at Osirak, has done its best to shield potential targets like Natanz. "They are dispersed, underground, hardened," says the senior Israeli military source. U.S. analysts say each facility would require multiple hits before serious damage was done. Still, the Israelis—who have an undeclared nuclear arsenal of their own, and refuse international inspections or oversight—insist they have all the firepower they need: more than 100 U.S.-made BLU-109 "bunker buster" earth-penetrating bombs. "I think they could do the job," says the senior Israeli source.

Logistics is a bigger hurdle. Each separate target would require a small fleet of aircraft. Israel's F-15s and F-16s would need advance escorts of "electronic countermeasures" aircraft to jam Iran's air-defense radars, and every one of those planes would need an entourage of fighter aircraft. At short range, Tehran's newly upgraded MiG-29 interceptors are a match for just about anything in the air. "To get there and bomb the facilities, that's the easy part," says Brom. "The difficult part is how to get back. We're not making kamikaze runs."

To hit Osirak in 1981, Israel's bombers flew in low over Saudi Arabia. In a study published late last year by the U.S. Army War College, Brom suggests that a strike against Iran's facilities could arrive by way of the Indian Ocean—roughly twice the operational radius of Israel's newest strike aircraft under optimal flying conditions. But Israel's fleet of specialized planes for in-flight refueling—five aging KC-130H tankers—doesn't have the capacity to get all those aircraft there and back again. The only way to manage it would be with a covert stopover midway—it's anybody's guess where.

The Israelis admit they can only disable the Iranian program, not destroy it. "The real question is what you achieve if the best you can do is to delay the project for a few years," says a senior U.S. administration official, speaking anonymously because it's a sensitive topic. The cost to the region's stability could be devastating. Meanwhile, Israel continues to upgrade its own arsenal, acquiring two new German subs that could launch nuclear-armed cruise missiles for a "second-strike" deterrent. Perhaps the threats are only a way of pushing the West to get tough with Tehran before the arms race gets even more heated. But if so, it's one hell of an act.


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