Will Israel Attack Iran?

A Feasibility Study

The headlines have been filled with speculation of either a U.S. or an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. When George Bush was in the White House, many analysts had determined that it could go either way. However, the election of Barack Obama changed the odds in the minds of many.

One thought that did not seem to change was that no one wanted a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Iranians—especially under the watch of the current regime. So the focus of debate has been squarely placed on Israel’s newly elected Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his “war cabinet”—the largest cabinet in Israel’s political history.

Netanyahu is responding to the attention by keeping the nuclear issue at the forefront of world attention; albeit with an intriguing set of twists and turns. It was recently released to the Israeli media that the Obama administration has told Israel that it may not attack Iran without U.S. permission and that Israel had agreed to this requirement.

This sentiment was echoed in the intelligence community briefings. Many analysts have written that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is logistically impractical for the following reasons:

• Israeli Air Force (IAF) capabilities would be stretched to its limits.

• The effort would only “cripple” and not “destroy” Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

• Israel would require U.S. approval to fly over Iraqi air space, putting both Washington and Baghdad in complex and delicate negotiations.

While verbally seeming to be in agreement with these sentiments, Israel followed up their words with a different set of actions. Israel has recently completed very real practical and logistical practice runs over the Mediterranean to determine the challenges associated with an attack on Iranian nuclear sites.

One such long-range military air exercise was monitored by foreign intelligence agencies and involved more than 100 F-15 and F-16 fighters, refueling tankers, and helicopters to rescue downed pilots. The tankers and helicopters flew 900 miles from their bases in Israel—roughly the same distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) also completed exercises that tested against missile and jet strikes from Syria and Iran.

To further keep Iran (and the world) guessing as to Israel’s intent, these successful runs were followed up with the largest-ever five-day nationwide emergency exercise to prepare the country for a “doomsday scenario” of simultaneous strikes against Israel on all fronts. The exercise was called “Turning Point 3” and entailed:

1. A simulated Cabinet meeting, in which the ministers practiced rapid decision making on several scenarios, including a series of Palestinian suicide bombings; simultaneous war with Hezbollah, Syria and Hamas; and, conventional, chemical and biological attacks against large population centers.

2. Local officials, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), government ministries, Israel Police, the National Emergency Authority and the Home Front Command joined the exercise on the second day.

3. The entire Israeli citizenry was brought into the simulation on the third day—air raid sirens sounded at 11 a.m. for all citizens to find their way to bomb shelters.

4. The National Cabinet and the national information and data management system were tested on the fourth day.

5. IDB units and the Home Front Command conducted field exercises on the last day.

There were plenty of witnesses as seventy officials from France, the United States, Japan, Hungary, Germany and Uruguay were on hand to monitor the exercises. It was obvious to the witnesses that while Turning Point 3 had genuine utility as a civil defense exercise, there were also strong psychological operations elements that were directed at Iran. In the midst of these exercises, the Israeli media steadily leaked reports that hinted of a scenario in which Israel could become fed up with U.S. diplomatic efforts and launch a unilateral strike against Iran. While Netanyahu is sending a message that Israel is willing to take big risks and is preparing itself for the backlash that would accompany a military strike against Iran, Obama attempted to create the perception that his administration is not afraid to stand up to Israel on several issues.

It remains to be seen if this apparent struggle between Netanyahu and Obama represents a real change in the U.S. stance toward support for Israel, or if it is a political ploy of deliberate misinformation to keep Iran off balance.

In either case, a glimpse into Israel’s National Security Doctrine, Operation Military Doctrine and Nuclear Policy clearly leave no doubt as to its “intent” if pushed far enough by Iran. While Israel presently maintains its status as an Undeclared Nuclear Weapon State, it is universally recognized as possessing a very sophisticated arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Israel believes Iran will create a nuclear weapon before 2012. The U.S. assumes the time frame to be after 2013. Based upon its Nuclear Policy assumptions, Israel views Iran as an “existential threat” and must be dealt with before nuclear capability is achieved.

Israel may choose to stand alone in its attempt to contain Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The motivation for Israel to take the risk of a unilateral attack on Iran may be viewed within the context of Iran meeting the following factors:

  1. A reasonable expectation that by 2010 Iran could pose a serious threat to its neighbors and Israel by creating enough of an inventory of nuclear weapons to deter an Israeli strike.
  2. Iran obtains a modern surface-to-air missile (SAM) defense system, such as the Russian S-300 PMU2—Favorit (currently in negotiation)—giving Iran an advanced Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capability in addition to an advanced SAM Air Defense System.
  3. Development of a maritime capability to threaten commercial shipping and Naval Forces in the Persian Gulf and possibly interrupt the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz.
  4. Possession of highly accurate short, medium and long range ballistic missiles capable of carrying Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
  5. Use of a number of trained and controlled counter insurgency groups to increase the threat of asymmetric attacks against Israel (part of the scenario of the Turning Point 3 exercises).

A recent study indicates that although the task is daunting, a military strike by Israel is possible utilizing a flight pattern along the Syrian-Turkish border, then over a small portion of Iraq, then into Iran and back the same route.

The mission’s success would obviously be based upon utilization of the required number of aircraft, refueling capability en route, and getting to targets without being detected or intercepted.

Iran’s Main Nuclear Sites

The main facilities, which are critical sites in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that can stop or at a minimum delay its program, are the Nuclear Fuel Cycle facilities in Esfahan and Natanz; and the Plutonium Production Nuclear Reactor in Arak:

Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Esfahan: Nuclear Research Center/Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF);

• Industrial-scale Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF);

• U308 is transported to the site and converted to UF6

(Uranium Hexafluoride);

• Buildings cover approximately 100,000 sq. ft. above ground.

Natanz: Uranium Enrichment Facility;

• Underground facilities where the centrifuges are installed for uranium enrichment; covers some 670,000 sq. ft. total;

• Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) complex was built some 8 meters deep into the ground and protected by a concrete wall 2.5 meters thick—it is protected by another concrete wall;

• By mid-2004, the Natanz centrifuge facility was hardened with a roof of several meters of reinforced concrete and buried under a layer of earth some 75 feet deep;

• It is reported that this facility will eventually house some 50,000 centrifuges.

Plutonium Production Nuclear Reactor

Arak: Heavy Water Plant and future plutonium production center;

• Contains heavy water reactor and set of cooling towers;

• all above ground; buildings cover approximately 55,000 sq.ft.

A glimpse at the target facilities provides a picture of what is required to destroy or incapacitate them for a long period of time. It also shows a tremendous effort to provide “ built-in protection” for what it claims is a peaceful nuclear energy program.

The strike force required for this mission:

Target if                     2 PG Bombs               if 1 PG Bomb

Facility:                       are carried:                is carried:

Natanz                       25 F-15F                    50 F-15F

Esfahan                     3 F-16I                        5 F-16I

Arak                          4 F-16I                         8 F-16I

Total:                        25 F-15E + 7 F-16I       50 F-15E + 13 F-16I

• F-15E Empty Weight plus Maximum Fuel = 66,831 lbs;

• F-15E Take off Gross Weight = 81,000 lbs;

• So each F-15E will still be capable of carrying an extra 10,000 lbs, 2 BLU-113; 5,000 lb class warheads (2 GBU-28 PG Bombs).

The total suggested attack force could be 25 F-15E for strike and 7 F-16I, with 38 F-16I for Air Escort/Fighter Sweep and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD). This means the total allocated strike force against nuclear targets in Iran is 70 aircraft—well within the Israeli practice exercises of 100 aircraft.

While the political dynamics of an Israeli strike against Iran continue to play out over the next few months, it is important to keep in mind that it is feasible. If the tide of world opinion is truly becoming united against Israel as described in Zechariah 12, Israel may feel a unilateral preemptive strike is the only path to “peace and security.”