Israeli Jets vs. Iranian Nukes
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[With slight differences from the NY Sun version]
Barring a "catastrophic development," Middle East Newsline reports, George Bush has decided not to attack Iran. An administration source explains that Washington deems Iran's cooperation "needed for a withdrawal [of U.S. forces] from Iraq."
If correct, this implies the Jewish state stands alone against a regime that threatens to "wipe Israel off the map" and is building the nuclear weapons to do so. Israeli leaders are hinting that their patience is running out; Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz just warned that "diplomatic efforts should bear results by the end of 2007."
Can the Israel Defense Forces in fact disrupt Iran's nuclear program?
Top secret analyses from intelligence agencies normally reply to such a question. But talented outsiders, using open sources, can also try their hand. Whitney Raas and Austin Long studied this problem at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published their impressive analysis, "Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities," in the journal International Security.
Raas and Long focus exclusively on feasibility, not political desirability or strategic ramifications: Were the Israeli national command to decide to damage the Iranian infrastructure, could its forces accomplish this mission? The authors consider five components of a successful strike:
Ordnance: To damage all three facilities with reasonable confidence requires – given their size, their being underground, the weapons available to the Israeli forces, and other factors – twenty-four 5,000-lb. weapons and twenty-four 2,000-lb. weapons.
Routes: Israeli jets can reach their targets via three paths: Turkey to the north, Jordan and Iraq in the middle, or Saudi Arabia to the south. In terms of fuel and cargo, the distances in all three cases are manageable.
Defense forces: Rather than predict the outcome of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation, the authors calculate how many out of the 50 Israeli planes would have to reach their three targets for the operation to succeed. They figure 24 planes must reach Natanz, 6 to Isfahan, and 5 to Arak, or 35 all together. Turned around, that means the Iranian defenders minimally must stop 16 of 50 planes, or one-third of the strike force. The authors consider this attrition rate "considerable" for Natanz and "almost unimaginable" for the other two targets.
In all, Raas-Long find that the relentless modernization of Israel's air force gives it "the capability to destroy even well-hardened targets in Iran with some degree of confidence." Comparing an Iranian operation to Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, which was a complete success, they find this one "would appear to be no more risky" than the earlier one.
The great question mark hanging over the operation, one which the authors do not speculate about, is whether any of the Turkish, Jordanian, American, or Saudi governments would acquiesce to Israeli penetration of their air spaces. (Iraq, recall, is under American control). Unless the Israelis win advance permission to cross these territories, their jets might have to fight their way to Iran. More than any other factor, this one imperils the entire project. (The IDF could reduce this problem by flying along borders, for example, the Turkey-Syria one, permitting both countries en route to claim Israeli planes were in the other fellow's air space.)
Raas-Long imply but do not state that the IDF could reach Kharg Island, through which over 90 percent of Iranian oil is exported, heavily damaging the Iranian economy.
That Israeli forces have "a reasonable chance of success" unilaterally to destroy key Iranian nuclear facilities could help deter Tehran from proceeding with its weapon program. The Raas-Long study, therefore, makes a diplomatic deal more likely. Its results deserve the widest possible dissemination.
Nov. 2, 2007 update: Aviation Week looks in detail at the Sep. 6 Israel mission to destroy a site in northern Syria; it certainly confirms the Israeli technical prowess assumed in the above analysis.
Mar. 14, 2009 update: Two staff members of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Abdullah Toukan and Anthony H. Cordesman, have compiled a 114-page study, "Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran's Nuclear Development Facilities," that goes over the same ground as the Raas-Long article summarized above. Toukan and Cordesman conclude that
May 24, 2010 update: "Israel arms may not be enough to stop nukes" reads an important analysis by Rowan Scarborough of the Washington Times. Excerpts:
Dec. 14, 2011 update: It's not generally realized, but the complete military withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq means the country's airspace will be basically open for at least a year, either to Israeli planes flying to Iran or the reverse, until the Iraqi air force is up to par. Presumably this fact reduces the obstacles to an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
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