January 22, 2010

Israel's Military Option for Iran - "When" not "If"

I was asked for a few thoughts on Israel's options for the dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. Here is a link to the article. The text is reprinted below.

For at least the past four years, the senior Israeli civilian and military officials have been touting Iran as the “existential” threat to the Jewish state. Military officers at the Ministry of Defense have admitted to the existence of a variety of contingency plans to address that threat. As you would expect, they are vague about what those plans actually entail, but no doubt the cornerstone of any plan will involve the use of Israel’s key power projection capability – its air force, equipped with hundreds of state-of-the-art American-built, Israeli-modified F-15 and F-16 fighters.

Easy to say – hard to do.

The operational considerations of mounting an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities are daunting. The multiple targets that comprise critical elements of the Iranian program are dispersed, hardened and heavily defended – Iranian officers have learned the lessons of Israel’s attack on the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981. U.S. Air Force planners estimate that crippling the Iranian nuclear effort requires hitting about 550 aim points (a single target will have multiple aim points).

Iran is also much further than Iraq, in fact, the flight from air bases in Israel to the key targets outside Esfahan, Iran = over 900 miles each way - are almost twice as far as the flight route used against Iraq in 1981. Israel’s fighter aircraft would be operating at their extreme combat range, leaving little room for error or engagements along the way. The Israeli air force, as professional as it is, does not have the ability to fly that far carrying that many munitions.

The flight routes, once leaving Israel, are over hundreds of miles of hostile airspace. The Israeli air force has only a limited aerial refueling capability as well. There have been various analyses written of how the Israelis might reach the targets, but all of them involve considerable risk. There are options that use Turkish airspace, Iraqi airspace (controlled by the U.S. forces), Saudi airspace, or combinations thereof. None of the options are attractive.

Israel does possess a small but potent submarine-launched missile capability, and a respectable arsenal of medium range ballistic missiles. However, these systems cannot deliver the amount of weapons with enough precision to obviate the use of air power. If the Israelis are going to do this, it will have to include fighter aircraft in the mix.

In my discussions with senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, they insist that Iran is a world problem requiring a world solution, not an Israeli solution. Many of these officials have expressed frustration – they perceive that the West is waiting for them to solve what is an international issue. Most of them believe that the current American administration will not take the stern measures necessary to bring Iran to meaningful negotiations. While it may be an international issue, it does affect Israel the most. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has singled the Jewish state out in a variety of rants.

While the rest of the world tends to dismiss Ahmadinejad’s threats, the Israelis take them very seriously. They believe that a nuclear-armed Iran not only threatens the existence of the Jewish state, but possibly also the existence of the Jewish people.

Given the lack of any progress in the negotiations between Iran and the rest of the world, the question is soon becoming not if Israel will attempt a military operation to stop or obstruct Iran’s nuclear program, but when.