At the conclusion of my previous post, I said I was going to analyze Israeli capabilities for carrying out a conventional strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities because I had come around to the view that “Israel wouldn’t allow a little thing like U.S. disapproval to prevent it from attacking.”
Now that Iran has begun or is about to begin the installation of 3,000 centrifuges in its Natanz facility, little time remains for a diplomatic solution. As the cascades start to come on line, the daily output of weapons grade uranium will first be measured in milligrams, then grams, and finally kilograms – a deadly progression that Israel must stop long before kilograms per day is reached. The Israelis see that time arriving much, much sooner than the U.S. – at least 3 or 4 years sooner. The Israelis will, therefore, attack sometime in the next few months if the U.S. doesn’t do so first.
I’ve said for years that Israel cannot conduct an extended air campaign, in significant part for political reasons. A single strike is, however, politically feasible because the Bush administration is not going to actively prevent it. This is not to say that the Bush administration might not place impediments before the Israeli attack planners. The most serious of these would be an announcement that Israeli aircraft would not be granted access to Iraqi or Gulf State airspace. Absent that, the Israeli attack would take the shortest route, over Jordan and Iraq, and Israeli officials would alert the U.S. only after Israeli jets have begun taking off. Although the Israelis would undoubtedly prefer, for reasons of operational security, to not alert anyone, there is a significant risk that security would be compromised even more as aircraft in a large scale attack are challenged by U.S. forces. Without alerting U.S. forces the attack is underway, it is even possible for a misunderstanding to produce an accidental shoot down of one or more Israeli planes.
Because only one strike is possible, the Israeli plan must limit its targets to the most dangerous ones. The Natanz enrichment facility constitutes the most immediate threat so it heads any target list.
If a single strike is politically feasible, is it militarily feasible? My “back-of-the-envelop” estimate was that the direct route – overflying Iraq – was. The indirect route – flying around the Arabian Peninsula seemed much more problematic. Back-of-the-envelop for something as complex as a deep air strike into Iran isn’t good enough so I decided to dust off Harpoon 3 and design two scenarios: (1) Israel uses the direct route and (2) Israel uses the indirect route.
I began with scenario 1, setting D-Day as 18 March 2007, 2000 hrs GMT (new moon is in the early morning hours of 19 March). My primary source for forces available to each side was Jane’s. I already had good information on the Iranian side (see U.S. versus Iran: the tale of the tape) – for Israel I came up with the following:
- 25 F-15I’s, capable of carrying the GBU-28 Paveway III Deep Penetration (bunker buster) bomb.
- Israel purchased 102 F-16I, long-range fighters with conformal fuel tanks. Delivery rate is two per month, first delivery was Feb 2004. That would mean 72 available for service by March.
- 135 F-16C’s and D’s. Slightly shorter range than the F-16I.
- 75 F-16 A’s and B’s. Shorter range than the C’s and D’s.
Jane’s also says that Israel has KC-707 and KC-130H tankers but that the actual numbers are unknown. At this point, I consulted Global Security as a backup source. It gave 5 tankers of each type. Tankers are important because the enrichment plant lies close to the operational limit of the F-16I’s. Jane’s also indicated that Israel has aircraft carrying the AN/ALQ-99 tactical jammer pod for electronic countermeasures (ECM) but exact numbers are unknown. Global security gave 3 707’s so outfitted.
The Arak heavy water facility and plutonium production reactor will not emerge as threats for at least a couple of years but they are much easier to reach from Israeli bases and would make good targets for F-16C’s and D’s. Accordingly, I added Arak to the target list.
For my scenario, the final numbers for Israel were 135 combat aircraft, which included 2 jammers. To this, 10 tankers were added for a grand total of 145.
In order to complicate things for the Israelis, I assumed that the Iranians had an exemplary maintenance program and that all fighter aircraft in the inventory were available. In reality, the Iranians would be lucky to get 50% of their aircraft in the air, with 25% to 30% being the most likely percentages. Even so, I wanted the scenario to represent a worst case for the Israelis. For the same reason, I based the Iranian fighters so as to maximize defensive coverage for the two sites. If the Iranians are smart, they would do likewise. The Iranian air defense system is pathetic but I compensated by placing a heavy concentration of SAMs around Arak and Natanz.
I ran the scenario once and, frankly, my Israeli attack plan stank – coordination was terrible. I was more concerned with answering the question of whether or not Israel can reach the targets than with limiting my casualties in the simulation and so spent little effort on planning. The Israelis had an attrition rate of 15% but took out both targets. With some reasonable planning I’m sure I could reduce that to only a couple of planes, max. That I could manage a 135 plane raid is quite impressive – my back of the envelop guess assumed that tankers would be a major constraint but they proved not to be.
One of the unknowns is the effectiveness of the bunker busters. In the scenario I used extremely strong buried structures as stand-ins for the enrichment buildings – it took on average 12 F-15I’s and 11 F-16I’s (a total of 23 aircraft) to take out each one (there are two). I hope I have, once again, been overly conservative in my estimates.
I’ll finish scenario 2 soon. Arak is clearly not a viable target for that scenario so the Israeli attack will be limited to Natanz. For that raid I’ll probably include the 3 Israeli Type 800 “Dolphin” class subs outfitted with cruise missiles. I didn’t include them in scenario 1 although in a real attack the Israelis would probably use them.
Addendum: layouts/locations for the Arak and Natanz facilities were obtained from satellite photos available on the web. The satellite photos also had the logitude and latitude of the sites so distances in the scenario should be accurate to within a couple of nautical miles or so.