The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a study 14 March 2009 laying out an Israeli attack scenario against Iranian nuclear sites. It is very similar to my Scenario 1 from 12 February 2007, which describes a direct strike on the key Iranian nuke sites.
There are some differences between the CSIS and my scenario. Before I get into those, I’ll note several instances where the CSIS study either confuses aircraft types or numbers of aircraft. I’m doing this in order to avoid passing the confusion on to possible readers.
Throughout the CSIS study, the F-15I “Thunder” is consistently referred to as F-15E. The F-15I is essentially an F-15E with Israeli modified electronics and avionics. In fact, the CSIS study correctly shows the Israelis with 25 F-15I’s and no F-15E’s on page 54. Accordingly, I’ll assume that when the CSIS study refers to F-15E’s it really means F-15I’s. The study also states that the Israelis have 4 “B-700” tankers (p. 71). According to the sources I consulted when I put together Scenario 1, Israel had 5 KC-130H and 5 KC-707 tankers. Later that year, Jane’s gave 3 KC 130H and 4 KC-707 tankers. Global Security now also gives 4 KC-707 tankers. I therefore assume that the one reference to the B-700 really means KC-707 and is either a typo or referring to a generic Boeing aircraft in the 700 series.
There is also a bit of confusion with respect to the tanker inventory. In the mission force allocation (p. 70), the target packages require a total of 12 “KC-130” tankers. Israel has no more than 5 KC-130H’s. If for some reason the analysis is using the KC-130H as a reference tanker, it would mean that several KC-130H’s would be replaced by one KC-707 in an actual mission. It would have been helpful if this had been called out in the CSIS study.
One key difference between the CSIS study and my scenario is that CSIS posits the F-15I’s have been modified to carry two 2100kg BLU-113 bunker busters (see p.45) instead of one. Carrying only one in my scenario meant that all 25 of the F-15I’s (24 F-15I’s + 1 spare/backup) plus 22 F-16’s carrying the smaller BLU-109’s were needed to take out the two Natanz enrichment buildings. (Note that in a later posting I stated I wasn’t sure if the BLU-109 could penetrate into the building proper without “double targeting”. Double targeting entails using the first bomb to blow a crater and the second to follow immediately behind and penetrate the rest of the way.) By carrying two BLU-113’s, the CSIS study concludes that 25 F-15’s alone would be sufficient to take out the Natanz facility and might include double targeting (p. 37).
The CSIS study also adds the UF6 plant at Esfahan to the reference strike (p. 70). The CSIS study does mention the possibility of using “Buddy Refueling” to provide extra tanker capacity (p. 71), a topic I have previously discussed. (Note that the possible use of buddy refueling may also explain the 12 KC-130 tankers listed on page 70. Several F-16’s with buddy packs would equal one KC-130H.) The total number of aircraft used for 3 targets (Natanz, Arak, and Esfahan) in the CSIS study is 89 (80 combat plus 9 tankers). My strike gave 145 (133 combat plus 2 jammers and 10 tankers) for 2 targets (Natanz and Arak). Assuming only 25 F-15I’s are needed for Natanz, this would reduce the overall numbers in my direct attack scenario to 120. This is not a huge disagreement and reflects my conservative approach.
I agree with CSIS that the use of conventional ballistic missile and cruise missile assets by Israel should be contemplated, even though I didn’t include them in my Scenario 1.
The CSIS study provides considerable background on enrichment, centrifuge technology, and Separative Work Units – topics I have also addressed on this blog - and has come to similar conclusions about Iranian bomb making capabilities. For example, we both calculate that at full capacity, Natanz will produce at least 500 kg/yr of weapons grade, high enriched uranium (HEU) resulting in a couple of dozen or so weapons. The table on page 109 showing Separative Work requirements for different starting enrichments illustrates the non-linear relationship between Separative Work and enrichment level. Unfortunately, because there is no analysis of its significance, the import of this information is easy to miss. I discussed the strategic ramifications of the Iranian low enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile in some depth in my last posting.
CSIS did not consider a no flyover scenario, although I did. Instead, CSIS assumed one of three more or less direct routes – their “central route” over Jordan and Iraq being my Scenario 1. CSIS analyzed both the political and operational costs of the three routes and concluded a northern route over Syria and southern Turkey was optimal. I considered and rejected this route figuring that operational considerations outweighed every other once violation of neutral airspace was settled upon. This is not to say that CSIS was wrong to select this route. If Israel has an understanding with the Turks, the northern route would become preferable.
A possible clue to Israeli attack plans is to examine what is currently being discussed in the Israeli media. Haaretz, no friend of either Likud or PM Benjamin Netanyahu, editorialized about an impending attack and the political groundwork being laid for it by Netanyahu. This, according to Haaretz, is the principle purpose of Netanyahu’s upcoming trip to the US:
Israel will find it difficult to attack Iran alone without a ‘green light’ from America, even if it is only implied and if America ostensibly turns a blind eye. But once the moment of truth arrives, it is doubtful Obama would give the order to take down the Israeli planes heading to Iran - or for that matter to declare an end of aid to Israel or to sever relations. Obviously, the U.S. will want to remain somewhat distanced from any operation that is launched, so as not to be vulnerable to the anticipated Iranian response. But its strong commitment to Israeli security will not allow America to forcibly prevent a military operation designed to prevent a second Holocaust. That is the message Netanyahu will try to implant in the minds of the members of Congress.
I consider it very significant that the possibility Obama might give a “take down” or shoot down order is being seriously discussed in Israel and in the Israeli newspaper that is arguably the friendliest to the new administration. (This is a subject I discussed back in 31 October 2008, just before the election.) Netanyahu is wise to marshal as much political support in Congress as possible to elevate the political cost to the Obama administration of any attempt to “forcibly prevent” an Israeli attack.
An Obama-ordered shoot down would only be politically viable if the Israeli attack overflew Iraqi territory. It is worth considering that Netanyahu is deliberately misleading both the Obama administration and Iran as to the axis of the attack. If the assumption being made by all parties is that the attack is the CSIS “central route” (my direct attack), whereas the real attack follows a different route, this will enhance surprise when the attack is actually launched.
Given the monetary and personnel resources available to CSIS relative to my own, I’m pleased our conclusions were so close. (If anyone from CSIS happens on my site, contact me. For a suitable salary increase I’d be happy to work for you folks.)