Saturday, May 05, 2007

Assessing Israeli Capabilities for a Preventive Attack on Iranian Nuclear Facilities

In the Spring 2007 issue of International Security, political scientists Whitney Raas and Austin Long argue that Israel possesses the military capabilities to launch a preventive strike against Iran's nuclear development program. Here's the background:

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been the subject of serious debate within the international community for more than four years. Media reports have repeatedly discussed the possibility that the United States might attempt a preventive strike against Iran. The United States’ ongoing involvement in Iraq, however, may limit U.S. willingness to do so. Israel, in contrast, has more to fear from a nuclear Iran than the United States and may see no choice but to resort to force to curtail Iran’s capabilities if diplomacy fails.

Israel has repeatedly stated its unequivocal opposition to a nuclear-armed Iran, and much speculation exists about what action the Israelis might take to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.5 Indeed, multiple reports suggest that Israeli leaders are contemplating a preventive military strike to remove the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability. Such action would not be without precedent: on June 7, 1981, Israel launched one of the most ambitious preventive attacks in modern history. Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-16 and F-15 fighter jets destroyed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak in one of the earliest displays of what has become known as “precision strike.” No IAF planes were lost, and despite the political repercussions, the raid was considered a great success.

As Iran’s nuclear program moves forward, arguments for preventive action may seem increasingly compelling to the government of Israel. Yet no unclassied net assessment of Israel’s current capability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities exists. The capabilities of the IAF have grown dramatically in the past two decades, but the Iranian facilities are a signicantly more challenging target than Osirak.
The central core of their analysis suggest that Iran is vulnerable to attack at three sensitive "nodes" within a large, country-wide nuclear development program: 1) a uranium conversion plant located at Isfahan, 2) a large unranium enrichment complex at Natanz, and 3) a heavy water facility and plutonium production reactors under contruction at Arak. Iran's nuclear development program encompasses a far larger number of activities -- and development is spread out around the country, in hardened targets, with many deeply underground. But the Isfahan, Natanz, and Arak facilities are crucial elements of Iran's program, and their elimination would delay the onset of a Iranian nuclear weapons threat for years, if not decades.

You'll have to read the whole article. The discussion of the improvement in recent decades of military attack munitions is facinating -- today's airborne strike weaponry is more accurate and enjoys enhanced penetration to destroy underground facilities ("bunker buster" technology). Also, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and lazer-guided bombs have made for more reliable accuracy in air assault scenarios. Also noted in the piece is that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) maintains elite aviation squads specially dedicated to lazer target designations and real-time bomb damage assessment, units which would work to infiltrate attack areas prior to the arrival air assualt squadrons.

Note that the article also assesses the huge logistical impediments to a preventive attack on Iran. These include the selection of the most feasible long-distance attack routes, with different routes having disadvantages in refueling logistics and political (diplomatic) flyover restrictions (Turkey, for example, which has often distanced its strategic policies away from Israel, might have problems with an Israeli incursion using Turkish airspace, and there are other examples in the article).

Having said that, the authors conclude:

The foregoing assessment is far from definitive in its evaluation of Israel’s military capability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. It does seem to indicate, however, that the IAF, after years of modernization, now possesses the capability to destroy even well-hardened targets in Iran with some degree of confidence. Leaving open the question of whether an attack is worth the resulting diplomatic consequences and Iranian response, it appears that the Israelis have three possible routes for an air strike against three of the critical nodes of the Iranian nuclear program. Although each of these routes presents political and operational dificulties, this article argues that the IAF could nevertheless attempt to use them.

The operation would appear to be no more risky than Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, and it would provide at least as much benefit in terms of delaying Iranian development of nuclear weapons. This benefit might not be worth the operational risk and political cost. Nonetheless, this analysis demonstrates that Israeli leaders have access to the technical capability to carry out the attack with a reasonable chance of success. The question then becomes one of will and individual calculation.
It's important to note that Raas and Long are not advocating for an Israeli preventive strike on Iran. They're just laying to the military feasibility for such an operation. One interesting note they make is that the United States would certainly be able to carry out a similar preventive attack on Iran, should it desire, but the diplomatic repercussions would be tremendous in the event (on the other hand, Israel's 1981 attack on Osirak was so successful -- with no Israeli fighter jets lost and no collateral damage to areas surrounding the nuclear plant -- that the diplomatic fallout was limited).

In the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs,
Ray Takeyh mentions the type of regional political hurdles the United States faces in exercizing military force against Tehran. Takeyh notes that no regional Middle Eastern power would have likely deterrence capabilities against Iran's nuclear program:

A long tradition of purchasing security from the British Empire and then from the United States historically offered the Arab sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf a degree of independence vis-รก-vis their powerful Persian neighbor. But the Bush administration's impetuous behavior and its inability to pacify Iraq have shattered local confidence in U.S. capabilities. Widespread anti-Americanism has made it harder for governments in the region to cooperate with Washington or to allow U.S. forces on their soil. The United States may be able to keep offshore naval forces and modest bases in reliable states such as Kuwait, but it is unlikely to have a significant presence in the region, as it is too unpopular with the masses and seems too erratic to the elites. Many Persian Gulf states now have more confidence in Iran's motivations than in the United States' destabilizing designs. And so as Iran's power increases, the local sheikdoms are likely to opt for accommodating Tehran rather than confronting it.
Though Takeyh obviously doesn't mean to imply it, the passage above supports Israel's independent military preparations against Iran's nuclear development program. It bears noting, as well, that Iran's international actions have become more beligerent as multilateral pressures build for a halt to Tehran's nuclear development. The best example of late, naturally, is the capture and detention of the British marines a couple of weeks back. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial called this an "act of war" against our British allies, and suggested that the event should dramatically reduce international confidence in Iranian restraint should that nation attain full nuclear capability. Also check out the WSJ editorial on the Bush administration's need to educate the public -- after years of "fruitless diplomacy" with the European powers -- on the intense nature of the Iranian threat.

I wrote a post last year -- "
Message to Iran: Our Policy is Assured Destruction" -- which cited a Jules Crittenden commentary on a potential American response to the use of an Iranian nuclear device on the United States or its allies. We should hope that diplomacy -- or a preventive military strike (most likely by Israel) -- will make such a drastic policy outcome unnecessary.

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