Sunday, July 5, 2009

Israel, Iran and Nukes

Flight distances via the Saudi option.  Assumes take-off from Negev bases. Israel has 25 F-15 variants with a range of 2,200km and a large number of F-16s with a range of 2,000km.  They have some aerial refueling capability, but not for the 100 planes thought necessary for an effective attack.

As discussed before, some people believe Israel can and should attack Iran to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons.  However, proponents rarely deal with the operational realities of such a strike.  The Israeli Air Force is brilliant, but not magic.  They can do no more than token damage to the Iranian nuclear program for several reasons:

A raid would push Israeli planes to their farthest range, leaving very little time to deliver weapons.  There would be no margin for winds, equipment variation, weather or other unforseeable variables.  Here is an article that discusses range in detail.

The route to Iran has to cross either Turkish or Iraqi airspace.  Also Syria or Jordan, but they don't matter.  The Turks have the means to see the Israelis coming, so use of their airspace would have to blessed ahead of time.  In addition, Turkey is a NATO country.  A violation of their airspace by the Israelis would theoretically put them at war with all the other NATO countries.  Not a happy option for anyone. 

Crossing Iraq is even more problematic.  Iraqi airspace is controlled by the US Air Force.  The Israelis can't sneak through unnoticed, and it would be political suicide for the Americans to allow it.   They can't even pretend not to notice.  A 100+ plane strike force passing twice through USAF defenses suggests that anyone can penetrate US controlled airspace any time they want.

Word surfaced today that Saudi Arabia might allow an Israeli overflight.  I don't know if I buy it.  Even if true, it doesn't do the Israelis much good unless the Saudis allow them to land and refuel.  The Saudi route is well out of the way and at least some Israeli planes wouldn't be able to reach their targets.  Also, the Saudis are a conservative bunch unlikely to take such a spectacular political gamble.

But, let's assume the IAF somehow gets to Iranian airspace and have to cross hundreds of miles to reach their targets.  All the time subject to Iranian air defense measures.  These defenses would be concentrated around the targets the Israelis want to hit.  Significant losses at this stage would jeopardize the effectiveness of the mission. Wrecked Israeli planes on Iranian TV would be bad.  Dead Israeli pilots on Iranian TV would be worse.  But worst of all would be Ahmadinejad on TV sitting beside a captured Israeli.  There are enormous political downsides for Israeli politicians. 

For the sake of argument, however, let's continue with our assumptions and say that the Israelis evade or neutralize Iranian air defenses.  Due to the size of the IAF and the range of their equipment, they would not be able to deliver an overwhelming amount of ordinance.  They could probably destroy the Bushir reactor and other targets.  But the most important sites, like Natanz are underground and would require multiple sequenced precision hits from bunker buster bombs.  And even then the damage might not be catastrophic. 

There are various estimates floating around the web of the total damage the Israelis could inflict.  They vary between no delay at all to the Iranian program up to a five year disruption.  The consensus is a 2 year delay would be the best case.  With conventional weapons, they can do no more. 

If they want to deliver a knock-out blow to the Iranian nuclear program, there is only one option, nuclear weapons.  By using a combination of ballistic and cruise missiles, they could completely destroy the Iranian facilities.  The cruise missiles could be launched by submarines in the Arabian Sea and the ballistic missiles go too high to violate anyone's airspace.  As well, these delivery vehicles are almost impossible to defend against.  So nukes would solve all the Israeli operational issues. Obviously, the use of nuclear weapons would  create significant political problems internally and with their allies.

One thing we learned from the Cold War is that people with nuclear weapons get really serious and really rational really fast. If the Iranians did obtain a weapon, the last thing they'd do is use it against Israel because the result would be annihilation.  As soon as the Iranians had a second-strike capability, the prospect of a nuclear war between the two countries would vanish.  Nuclear weapons are only good for one thing, keeping someone else from nuking you.  They can't be used against non-nuclear states for fear of world reaction.  They can't be used against nuclear states with a second strike capability because the result will be a black heap of rubble where your capital city used to be.  What if you attack and some or all of your weapons don't work?  Its just too risky.

But really, its hard to argue with Iran's ambitions.  Given what they've been through and the threats from Jerusalem and Washington over the last 8 years, they'd be fools not to proceed.  And Iran doesn't actually need a warehouse full of completed weapons.  It needs the capability and resources to assemble and deliver several bomb in a short period of time.   If we can live with a nuclear Pakistan, then we can live with a nuclear Iran.