Skip to comments.Bibi's Choice (Israel to Attack Iran with Land Based Missiles instead of Airstrike?)
Posted on 07/04/2009 1:00:27 PM PDT by GOPGuide
Conversations over the last few weeks with more than a dozen members of Israel's larger national security community--right and left, scholars and military men and women, some coming out of the army and others the air force, some with decades of experience in military intelligence and others in clandestine operations, some former Knesset members and others former, current, and soon-to-be advisers to prime ministers--suggest it is fair to conclude that the professionals agree with the public that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is a game changer. Among them, there is a consensus that Israel has the technological capacity to undertake a military strike that would inflict heavy damage on Iran's nuclear program. Such a strike, they also believe, would involve unprecedented challenges and risks, including the likelihood of a significant military response by Iran and its allies. Accordingly, an urgent internal debate is well underway in Israel concerning the circumstances in which the country should strike, alternative options, and, in the event that Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, the structure of an effective containment regime.
Israel being Israel, for every three experts you talk to on any particular issue you will hear at least four aggressively argued opinions. Nevertheless, a fairly consistent picture emerges, if not of a single proper Iran policy, then of the constellation of factors that Israel must consider in forming one.
Most countries are reluctant to discuss the details of their offensive capabilities because they don't want to provide useful information to their enemies. Israel is no different. Nonetheless, the experts with whom I spoke were willing to discuss in broad outline Israel's capacity to destroy or substantially degrade Iran's nuclear facilities. All would be delighted to see engagement, diplomacy, or sanctions succeed. All emphasized that a military strike must be the last resort, chosen only after every other option has been fully exploited. All believe that a green light from the United States, or at least a yellow light, would be indispensable. And they seem convinced that Israel has good intelligence about vital Iranian targets and could, if necessary, with a combination of aircraft and ballistic missiles, bring enough firepower to bear to set the Iranian program back far enough to justify the substantial risks.
Certainly this is the view, in broad outline, of Isaac Ben-Israel, and he should know. After graduating from high school in 1967, he joined the Israeli Air Force and served for more than 35 years. Now a Tel Aviv University professor teaching strategic studies and the history and philosophy of science, Ben-Israel helped plan the attack in 1981 on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, rose to the rank of major general, holding positions as head of the operations research branch of the air force and as head of research and development in the Israel Defense Forces and the ministry of defense, and served in the Knesset as a member of the centrist Kadima party. He continues to advise defense industries in Israel and abroad about technological and strategic issues.
Ben-Israel went so far as to characterize as "very reasonable" Center for Strategic and International Studies scholars Abdullah Toukan and Anthony H. Cordesman's "Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran's Nuclear Development Facilities" published in March. Relying on open source intelligence, Toukan and Cordesman analyze in formidable technical detail Iranian nuclear targets, Israeli mission capabilities, Iranian defenses, Israeli defenses, and the military and political consequences of an Israeli attack. They conclude that an Israeli strike force would involve about 80 F-15s and F-16s (almost a fifth of their fighter aircraft); all 9 Israeli aerial tankers to refuel the fighters on their way to and from Iran; a likely flight route north over the Mediterranean, then east along the Syria-Turkey border, crossing briefly over Iraq, before heading into Iran. The strike would probably concentrate on three "critical nodes in Iran's nuclear infrastructure": the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, the Esfahan nuclear research center and uranium conversion facility, and the Arak heavy water plant and future plutonium production reactors. The authors stress that the mission would be complex, high-risk, and without solid assurance of success.
Another possibility is that Israel could attack Natanz, Esfahan, and Arak with approximately 50 Jericho III land-based long range ballistic missiles. This option has received relatively little attention even though, as Toukan and Cordesman point out, it may be "much more feasible than using combat aircraft" and certainly poses less risk to Israeli pilots and hardware. Still another possibility for attacking Iranian nuclear targets, though not discussed by Toukan and Cordesman, is some combination of combat aircraft and Jericho III missiles.
Even on the heroic assumption that the attack went exactly as planned, Israelis evaded Iranian air defenses and kept their losses to a minimum, and Iran's nuclear program was set back substantially, Israel would face considerable costs, both military and political.
The military costs might be serious but would be manageable, Israeli experts believe. They envisage six possible responses to an Israeli attack.
First, Iran, lacking a capable air force, might launch Shahab-3 long range ballistic missiles at Israeli cities and probably at Dimona, Israel's nuclear facility in the Negev. Israeli experts are confident that their Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense system, which has performed superbly in tests, would destroy most incoming Iranian missiles. Those that got through would have no more explosive power than Iraq's 1991 Scud missiles, which killed only one Israeli and did little damage to infrastructure. Missiles tipped with biological or chemical weapons are a different story and would provoke a massive and remorseless Israeli response.
At the same time, it is by no means certain that Iran would launch a retaliatory missile strike. Some Israeli experts believe that Israel's capacity to attack decisively nonnuclear Iranian targets, including the power grid and oil refineries, might deter Iran.
Second, Iran might order Hezbollah into action. Since the 2006 Lebanon war, in which Israel killed one third of Hezbollah's fighters, that group has rearmed and upgraded. It has enlarged its arsenal of rockets and missiles from about 12,000 at the outset of hostilities in July 2006 (4,000 of which Hezbollah fired at Israel that summer) to roughly 40,000. In sufficient quantities, these can cause suffering in Israel. But in determining whether to attack, Hezbollah might take into account that Israel learned lessons from 2006 and that, in anticipation of another round of fighting, it has prepared to deliver a knockout blow.
Third, Iran might demand that Syria attack Israel. But given that Syria's conventional forces are no match for Israel's and that it did not respond militarily when Israel destroyed its partly constructed nuclear facility at Deir al-Zour in 2007, there is a good chance that Syria will decline to get involved.
Fourth, Iran might order terrorist cells around the world to attack synagogues, Israeli embassies, and similar targets. This would have the disadvantage for Iran of shifting the focus of international attention from Israel's preemptive air strike to Iran's criminality.
Fifth, Iran might attack American targets in Iraq and foment unrest among Iraqi Shia. This too might backfire, both because it would bring America into the fight and because the community of interests between Arab Iraqi Shia and Persian Iranian Shia is limited.
Sixth, Iran might attack Persian Gulf shipping. But the fragile Iranian economy is at least as reliant as that of any Gulf country on the free flow of oil. And American firepower would end Iran's ability to threaten shipping within days.
The political costs could prove greater for Israel. Whether an Israeli military attack failed or succeeded, and particularly if it succeeded, Iran and the forces of radical Islam around the world would vehemently argue that Israel's unprovoked aggression provided irrefutable proof that nuclear weapons are critical for Iran and for radical Islam, if only for purely defensive purposes. Europeans, moreover, would ramp up their condemnatory rhetoric, proclaiming Israel the paramount threat to international order and demanding that Israel, which took it upon itself to disarm Iran, itself submit to international inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Toukan and Cordesman stumble in asserting that Israel would pay a heavy cost among Arab states. It's true, as they write, that Arab states "will not condone any attack on Iran." Indeed, the Gulf Arabs would probably condemn Israel harshly. Egypt might mobilize troops and send some into the Sinai. And all Arab states would join the rest of the world in calling for the imposition of international sanctions. But that would be for popular consumption. Israeli experts are as convinced as they are of anything that behind closed doors, Sunni Arab rulers would breathe a huge sigh of relief at the destruction of what they regard as the principal strategic threat to their security, a nuclear armed Shiite Iran seeking hegemony in the Gulf and exporting Shiite-style Islamic revolution around the world.
Still, after the costs and benefits are weighed and the enigmas and imponderables are given their due, the Israeli experts come back to where they begin: Only after every other option has been exhausted should a military strike be launched. No one else went as far as former Mossad head Efraim Halevy, who warned that an Israeli attack would "change the whole configuration of the Middle East," producing "a chasm between Israel and the rest of the region" that would have "effects that would last 100 years." By far the dominant view in Israel is the view espoused by John McCain: The only thing worse than the consequences of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be the consequences of a nuclear Iran.
Short of a full-scale military strike, Israel also has a clandestine option involving the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, sabotage of Iranian facilities, and targeted killings. Nor would this represent a new policy. As Ben-Israel, choosing his words carefully, pointed out, Israeli national security experts have been warning that Iran was 5 years away from producing a nuclear weapon for the last 20. Why do you suppose, he asked, it has taken Iran so long? After all, he observed, 60 years ago in the middle of World War II, it took the United States only a few years to produce the first atomic bomb, and no country that has set its mind to it has taken more than 5 to 10 years. Leaving me to draw the proper inference, Ben-Israel emphasized that clandestine operations can delay but will not destroy Iran's nuclear program. And the experts agree that time is running out: Absent dramatic action--by the United States, the international community, Israel, or some combination--Iran is on track to join the nuclear club sometime between 2011 and 2014.
For a variety of reasons--President Obama's attempt to engage Iran may prove futile, the international community may be unable to maintain effective sanctions, the mullahs may hang on to power, an Israeli attack might fail, Israel might elect not to attack Iran--Israelis are compelled to contemplate the structure of an effective containment regime. The challenges are immense. Realists argue that containment based upon the doctrine of mutual assured destruction worked for the 40-year Cold War and will work in the Middle East. But they overlook that in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 it almost failed.
The realists also rely on a facile analogy. The distinctive variables that Iran and the Middle East add to the mix cast grave doubts on any easy application of Cold War logic. Iran speaks explicitly about wiping out Israel; the Soviet Union never so spoke about the United States. Iran is inspired by a religious faith that celebrates martyrdom and contemplates apocalypse; the Soviet Union was driven by a secular ideology that sought satisfaction in this world. And Iran has no dialogue with Israel; the Soviet Union maintained constant communication with the United States.
These complicating factors make it all the more imperative for Israel, if it wants to construct a successful containment regime, to convey to Iran that it has a devastating second strike capability and is prepared to use it. In addition, it would be useful from the Israeli point of view if the United States were to make Iran understand that America would treat an attack on Israel as an attack on it. And it would provide greater assurance still if Russia were to deliver a similar message.
But because, as Ben-Israel observed, "a guarantee from another nation is not a reliable deterrence policy," the critical element in a successful containment regime would be Israel's own unambiguous and compelling promise of swift and devastating retaliation. The mullahs may reasonably think that if they detonate a bomb over Tel Aviv while possessing nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach London, the Americans might hesitate to attack Iran on Israel's behalf. Therefore, should Iran obtain the bomb, an effective Israeli deterrent, according to Ben-Israel, would require Israel to demonstrate publicly its ability to inflict catastrophic damage on Iran and at the same time remove any doubt about Israel's willingness, in the event of a first strike by Iran, to do so.
But deterring an attack by nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles is only the beginning of the challenges that a containment regime would face. What would be a proportional response if the Iranians or their Hezbollah fighters slipped a small boat within a mile of Haifa and detonated a small nuclear device killing 10,000 Israelis?
And how ought Israel respond to--and containment work against--the myriad other dangers spawned by a nuclear Iran? The moment that Iran announces its possession of nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps Kuwait, taking to heart Iran's declared hostility to Sunni Islam and determination to obtain hegemony in the Gulf, will go shopping for their own. Egypt and Turkey will not be far behind. As if a nuclear-armed Pakistan were not worry enough, the vulnerability of these regimes to overthrow by the forces of radical Islam heightens the possibility of the world's most dangerous weapons falling into the hands of many of the world's most dangerous actors.
Furthermore, once the Middle East went poly-nuclear, it would be only a matter of time until a suitcase nuclear bomb fell, leaked, or was placed into terrorists' hands. Even before that, radical Islamists throughout the Middle East--particularly Hezbollah and Hamas--would receive a tremendous psychological boost from a nuclear Iran and be emboldened by their patron's nuclear umbrella. A nuclear Iran would further undermine the chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria by tempting waverers in the region, those who had begun to abandon the idea that Israel might someday disappear, to once again contemplate an Israel-free Middle East.
In sum, containment is a grim option. So is a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. And relying on prayer for Mousavi and the Iranian people to overthrow the mullahs is no option at all, at least not for the state of Israel, the front line in Islamic radicalism's war against the West. Thus, in the short time left before Israel is compelled by an Iran fast closing in on a nuclear capability to choose between two grim options, Israel's highest priority will be to persuade an equivocating United States, a dithering Europe, and an obstructionist Russia that a nuclear Iran is not just an Israeli problem or a Middle Eastern problem but a problem for the United States and the world.
Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Iran is controlled by a barbaric bunch of mullahs and one “Chief”, I believe that cowboy and Indian strategy is going to be the result.
“The Jericho III is supposed to be for nuclear attacks but Israel could just change the nuclear warhead to deliver a conventional payload.”
Why? think for a second the Iranian Whack Jobs would do that given the chance??
So ya wait til the group of crazy chiefs get together and launch a whole bunch of tom cruise missiles at the lot.
I think with the smart GPS technology and one MOAB,
the problem is solved
Israel knows that it cannot count on our Hussein for assistance. He will criticize any attack on Iran. And should Iran launch terror operations against the US, here or abroad, Hussein will excuse them as necessary/reasonable or God knows what, laying the blame squarely on Israel.
Another strategic move by Israel would be to leave one warhead on a Jericho III missile, take out Qom and the Mullahs at the same time they take out the nuclear sites. That would be an excellent way to straighten out more than one problem in Iran....
Israel doesn’t need Hussein’s assistance, nor does his criticism matter. The rest of the world has taken his measure and they see Jimmy Carter.
Israel will go strong. It’s going to be a coordinated attack with ballistic missiles and fighter/bombers and special ops. To reduce Iranian responses re: the Straits of Hormuz, they will also take out a significant chunk of Iran’s navy. Then they will hunker down and let Obama and others criticize them (while all in the West will be secretly thanking them).
The most pressing question is whether Obama will take action if Iran tries to block the Straits of Hormuz. He won’t want to, but he has no choice.
“Iran is controlled by a barbaric bunch of mullahs and one Chief, I believe that cowboy and Indian strategy is going to be the result. “
Unfortunately, I don’t think Iran is reliant only on one or few madmen (like Nazi-Germany). The goal for nukes is widely shared among the ruling elite and also by the masses. The masses are probably not interested in nuking Israel, though, but they want the nukes nevertheless.
Anyway, this was one of the best articles I have read for a long time about Israel’s option and capabilities. Only thing missing was the submarine option (also posted on FR today).
The attack would probably start with fighter jets, ie initial strike with ~80 jets bypassing radar systems. Then, the surprise element is lost, and subsequent F15/F16 strikes would be much more dangerous. Instead, the second phase would involve ballistic conventional missiles (Jericho) and missiles from the submarine(s) on the Red Sea.
I’m not sure if commando operations are possible (sounds like a suicide mission).
One of the pictures I most remember out of the Gaza strip was when Israel decided that the best course of action was to target the leadership, there was some blind Sheik that they targeted in a wheelchair and all that the Palestinians could parade around was his head.
After that the leadership maintained a very low profile, what was demostrated the past week is that there really is not as much support for this regime as we are led to believe.
I still envision the Michael Corleone offense
“today I took care of all family business”
being the result.
It was just announced the other day that one of Israel’s submarines has been transferred from the Med to the Red Sea, which puts her in play for any ops against Iran.
I think they took a sub through the Suez last week, just to show they could.
The MOAB requires a big airplane, not a good option.
this is actually interesting approach (I’m sure Israel is also debating that).
Targeting Iranian leadership would be more complicated and led to more international condemnation (formal heads of state). On the other hand, recent events in Iran have shown that the leaders are not legitimate. They are also not popular among Iranian people. Mullahs are not even formal heads of the state.
So, I think that targeting the Supreme Leader Khamanei and the leaders of the IRGC and Basij would make a lot of sense. In fact, the first strike should target them. Israel can state the reasons that they are personally responsible of genocide attempt.
President Ahmadinejad is irrelevant and formal head of state so maybe better to leave him alive. His hate speeches and racist rants actually help Israel in international arena.
So I hope that Israel has extra 10 missiles reserved for Khamenei and other mullah leaders.
How about “All of the above, and p*ss on the rubble”?