Cordesman/Wilner, Iran & The Gulf Military Balance AHC 4/3/12
Israeli officials have never publically discussed the details of Israel's options for striking against Iran¡¦s nuclear programs. It is possible, however, to discuss various scenarios. Israeli aircraft could take any one of three routes (northern, central, or southern), all of which would involve traversing unfriendly air space to reach targets in Iran. The central route would involve flying through 1,500-1,700 kilometers through Jordan and Iraq, the southern route would involve flying 1,900-2,100 kilometers through Saudi Arabia, and the northern route would involve flying 2,600-2,800 kilometers in a loop through Turkey.
Figure IV.60 (Fig not available) shows what a low yield Israeli nuclear strike on Iran’ s nuclear facilities would look like. Israel would use either ballistic missiles or nuclear-armed strike aircraft to carry out such a mission.
It seems likely that any current Israeli preventive strike would be conventional. Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons and any Israeli first use of nuclear weapons of the kind shown in Figure IV.59 would lead to an almost universal international condemnation of Israel, force a hostile
reaction on Arab states that might otherwise at tolerate a successful Israel strike, present major problems in terms of US-Israeli relations, lead to condemnation in the UN, and possibly to sanctions and war crimes trials. Moreover, it is unclear that Israel could count on the level of reliability and accuracy to use low yield weapons against hardened targets like Natanz and Fordow, and would have to use ground bursts against other targets to get suitable levels of damage. The use of a strike aircraft to deliver a low yield nuclear weapon would reduce these risks, but not the massive political risks in initiating a nuclear war against a state that did not yet have nuclear weapons.
It seems unlikely that Israel would launch a preemptive or preventative nuclear strike on Iran¡¦s nuclear facilities until it is far clearer that Iran actually developed and began to deploy nuclear weapons. Israeli’s assessment of risks involved would then depend heavily on Iran’s target base, its knowledge of Iran¡¦s nuclear and missile targets, and its assessment of Iran¡¦s willingness to use such weapons and Israel¡¦s deterrent and defensive capabilities.
This situation might be different if Israel has or acquires missiles with terminal guidance. Even then, however, launching a nuclear strike on small military targets is very different from targeting a city. There are no unclassified indications that Israel has had the opportunity to test fire missiles fired conditions similar enough to such strikes to be certain of their reliability and accuracy in such a complex attack. Relying on engineering performance data and related but not similar test and evaluation would present a significant risk of failure.
An Israeli conventional strike on Iran‘s nuclear facilities would have an uncertain probability of lasting success for several reasons. Given the unfriendly airspace Israeli strike aircraft would have to traverse to reach Iran’s facilities as well as Israel’s geographic distance from Iran, the likelihood of Israel being able to carry out repeated strikes is low. Israeli strike aircraft would only have one opportunity to strike at Iran¡¦s nuclear facilities. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed and fortified, and a single Israeli strike would probably only temporarily impede Iran’s nuclear progress.
Even if Israel had the attack capabilities needed for the destruction of all the elements of the Iranian nuclear program, it is doubtful whether Israel has the kind of intelligence needed to be certain that all the necessary elements of the program were traced and destroyed fully. Israel has good photographic coverage of Iran with the Ofeq series of reconnaissance satellites, but being so distant from Iran, one can assume that other kinds of intelligence coverage are rather partial and weak.
An Illustrative Air Strike
Israel would have to make very difficult calculations of how many combat aircraft it could actually support in operations over Iranian air space, knowing that two of the most hardened targets which would require the highest payload to attack are at Fordow and Natanz and are relatively deep in Iran. It would have to choose between a maximum force with maximum effectiveness, and a smaller force that would be easier to refuel and support. It would have to decide whether it would use only strike aircraft, send in fighter escorts, and how many fighters it would use that carried anti-radiation missiles and electronic jammers and warfare equipment versus ground attack payloads.
Air defense and strike fighters are not passenger or cargo aircraft, They are small aircraft with limited range and payload. Every mile flown outside the direct flight path to targets in Iran would burn critical fuel.
A Jordan that tolerated Israeli flights and denied any knowledge of such an attack would ease but scarcely eliminate Israel¡’s problems and present a serious risk of political complications for Jordan.
Flying through a Syria in political chaos might be easier but the least vulnerable routes through Syria are to the north and might require the Israeli aircraft to fly out over the Mediterranean and penetrate through northern Syria, adding to the range.
Flying through Saudi Arabia would risk encountering a modern fighter force and it is unclear that the Saudi government would ever give even tacit permission.
Iraq has no meaningful air force and no surface to air missiles, but over flights of Iraq would present political problems for the US.
Flying low to avoid or minimize radar detection burns far more fuel than flying higher, more detectable flight profiles.
A major electronic warfare effort to protect fighters might give warning to Iran. Any major maneuver to avoid Iranian fighters, or an Iranian surface-to-air missile would consume far more fuel than a simply penetration and attack profile, and create serious risks in terms of need for refueling or loss of the aircraft. This would be particularly true if the Israeli fighter had to use afterburner for more than a brief time.
Israel could mount a relatively large attack force relative to the number of major Iranian targets if it chooses to do.
In a conventional strike, Israel could launch and refuel two-three full squadrons of 36 to 54 combat aircraft for a single set of strikes with refueling. It could use either its best F-15s (28 F-15C/D, 25 F- 15I Ra'am or part of its 126 F-16 CDs and 23 F-16I Sufas. It has at least three specially configured squadrons with conformal fuel tanks specially designed for extended range use. It could add fighter escorts, but refueling and increased warning and detection would be major problems.
For the purposes of guessing at how Israeli might attack, its primary aircraft would probably be the F-15I, although again this is guesswork. Global Security describes the F15I as follows.
The key aspects are that Boeing’s (formerly McDonnell Douglas) F-15E Strike Eagle entered service with the IDF/Heyl Ha¡ Avir (Israeli Air Force) in January of 1998 and was designated the F-15I Ra¡¦am (Thunder). The F-15E Strike Eagle is the ground attack variant of the F-15 air superiority fighter, capable of attacking targets day or night, and in all weather conditions.
The two-seat F-15I, known as the Thunder in Israel, incorporates new and unique weapons, avionics, electronic warfare, and communications capabilities that make it one of the most advanced F-15s. Israel finalized its decision to purchase 25 F-15Is in November 1995. The F-15I, like the US Air Force's F-15E Strike Eagle, is a dual-role fighter that combines long-range interdiction with the Eagle's air superiority capabilities. All aircraft are to be configured with either the F100-PW-229 or F110-GE-129 engines by direct commercial sale; Night Vision Goggle compatible cockpits; an Elbit display and sight helmet (DASH) system; conformal fuel tanks; and the capability to employ the AIM-120, AIM-7, AIM-9, and a wide variety of air-to-surface munitions.
Though externally, the Ra¡¦am looks similar to its USAF counterpart, there are some differences, mainly in the electronic countermeasures gear and the exhaust nozzles. The Ra¡¦am has a counterbalance on the port vertical stabilizer instead of the AN/ALQ-128 EWWS (Electronic Warfare Warning System) antenna found on USAF Strike Eagles. The Ra¡¦am uses two AN/ALQ- 135B band 3 antennas, one mounted vertically (starboard side) and one horizontally (port side). These are located on the end of the tail booms. They are distinguished by their chiseled ends, unlike the original AN/ALQ-antenna, which is round and located on the port tail boom of USAF Eagles.
The Raam utilizes extra chaff/flare dispensers mounted in the bottom side of the tail booms. Unlike USAF Eagles, the Ra¡¦am still use engine actuator covers (turkey feathers) on their afterburner cans. The US Air Force removed them because of cost and nozzle maintenance, though curiously, USAF F-16s still have their actuator covers installed. Israeli Strike Eagles and some USAF Eagles based in Europe use CFT air scoops. These scoops provide extra cooling to the engines.
The 25 F-15Is operational since 1999 [and the 100 F-16Is] were procured first and foremost to deal with the Iranian threat. In August 2003 the Israeli Air Force demonstrated the strategic capability to strike far-off targets such as Iran [which is 1,300 kilometers away], by flying three F- 15 jets to Poland 1,600 nautical miles away. After they celebrated that country's air force's 85th birthday, on their return trip, the IAF warplanes staged a fly-past over the Auschwitz death camp.
The Limits to Israeli Capabilities
One key problem, would be achieving a high probably of lasting destruction against hardened targets like Natanz and Fordow, At least some Israeli strike aircraft would probably need to carry close to their maximum payloads to achieve the necessary level of damage against most targets suspected of WMD activity, although any given structure could be destroyed with 1-3 weapons. (This would include the main Bushehr reactor enclosure), but its real-world potential value to an Iranian nuclear program is limited compared to more dispersed and/or hardened targets). At least limited refueling would be required, and back-up refueling and recovery would be an issue.
Carrying the higher payloads necessary to hit harden targets would be more demanding. One key weapon that might be used against hard targets and underground sites like Natanz would be the GBU-28, although the US may have quietly given Israel much more sophisticated systems or Israel may have developed its own hard target killer, including a nuclear armed variant.
The GBU-28 is carried by the F-15I. It is a "5,000 pound" laser guided bomb with a 4,400-pound earth-penetrating warhead that can be upgraded by the IAF to use electro- optical or GPS targeting. It is a vintage weapon dating back to the early 1990s, and the IAF is reported to have bought at least 100. It has been steadily upgraded since 1991 and the USAF ordered an improved version in 1996. It looks like a long steel tube with rear fins and a forward guidance module. It can glide some 3-7 miles depending on the height of delivery. It is 153" long X 14.5" in diameter.
Choices would have to be made as to how many known and suspect targets would be attacked with what level of lasting damage and civilian casualties and collateral damage. Multiple strikes on the dispersed buildings and entries in a number of facilities would be necessary to ensure adequate damage without re-strikes ¡V which may not be feasible for Israel given the limits to its sortie generation capability over even Iranian soft targets.
As for hardened and underground targets, the IAF's mix of standoff precision-guided missiles such as Harpoon or Popeye would not have the required lethality with conventional warheads and Israel's use of even small nuclear warheads would cause obvious problems.
Israel may have specially designed or adapted weapons for such strikes, and bought 500 bunker-busters from the US in February 2005. Experts speculated whether the purchase was a power projection move or whether Israel was in fact planning to use these conventional bombs against Iranian nuclear sites. These speculations were further exacerbated when the Israeli Chief of Staff, Lt. General Dan Halutz, was asked how far Israel would go to stop Iran's nuclear program, he said ¡§2,000 kilometers.
The hard target bombs it has acquired from the US are bunker-busters, however, are not systems designed to kill underground facilities. They could damage entrances but not the facilities. What is not known is whether Israel has its own ordnance or has secretly acquired more sophisticated systems.
The problem illustrated in comparing the two very different target lists in Figure 51 and Figure 52 would be equally serious. Israel may or may not feel it has an accurate targeting list of all key Iranian facilities. It is very unlikely, however, that this list is perfect, it is almost certain far too long for Israel to strike at many suspect targets, strikes could involve significant innocent civil casualties and collateral damage, and Iran may well be hiding and dispersing much of its highly enriched material and ability to produce advanced centrifuges and reconstitute its nuclear programs. Moreover, at least some of these facilities seem to be in northeast Iran, greatly complicating the range-payload and survivable strike problems Israel would face, and radically altering the kind of strike profiles shown in Figure 60 and Figure 61.
Unless Israel has near total, real-time, transparency into Iran¡’s programs, it could probably only hit a limited number of nuclear facilities and probably no missile, biological, or chemical facilities unless it was certain these posed so active a threat that they could no be avoided.
This means an Israeli strike on Iran’s best known targets might appear to be successful, but actually be a failure. It also raises the critical issue of legitimizing an Iranian nuclear weapons program in the eyes of Iranians and many others that could recreate a threat under conditions involving far more resources and where Iran found an excuse to withdraw from the NNPT and halt all inspection.
Another key problem would be refueling Israeli fighters, particularly if they had to engage in even preparatory air-to-air combat or surface-to-air missile evasion -- and creating a survivable mix of tankers and any mix of enabling electronic warfare, intelligence, and air control aircraft. Israeli 5 KC-130H and 5 B-707 tankers are slow and vulnerable and would need escorts ¡V and its ordinary B-707 AE&W, ELINT and electronic warfare aircraft are also slow fliers, although the new G-550 Shaved ELINT aircraft is a fast flier and the IAF has some long-range UAV that could support its aircraft, before, during, and after such missions.
The big manned “slow fliers¨ would have serious problems penetrating and surviving in Iranian air space. The radars in the countries involved would probably detect all IAF and US missions relatively quickly, and very low-altitude penetration profiles would lead to serious range-payload problems. The countries over flown would then be confronted with the need to either react or have limited credibility in claiming surprise. An over flight of Iraq which currently has no meaningful air force and no surface-to-air missiles -- might be seen in the region as having to have had a US green light, although the problems the US has had in creating a meaningful strategic framework agreement with Iraq have reduced the implied level of US responsibility for protecting Iraqi air space.
Israel has, however, specially configured some of its F-15s and F-16s with targeting, EW, SAM-suppression aids, and ELINT for this kind of mission. The full details of such capabilities are unknown. Israel would also have to stage such aircraft at some point over Arab territory as well as use fighters to escort and protect them. Assembling a mix of tankers and enablers to wait over Arab territory or the Gulf while Israeli fighters struck targets in Iran would increase the problem of detection and exposing forces over Arab countries. Assembling a scattered force of tankers and enablers would present command and control problems and leave the individual elements more vulnerable. Staging them over the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast might be a partial solution, but would increase the risk fighters might run of fuel or have to abort their missions.
Repeated strikes would be a major political and military problem. Israel might get away with going through Jordan and then through Saudi Arabia/Gulf or Iraq once, given the fears these countries have of Iran¡¦s nuclear efforts. However, any repeated effort would be too politically dangerous for Arab governments to easily tolerate.
Israel would probably face problems in getting accurate restrike and battle damage data for missions against several of the targets involve using its intelligence satellites and UCAVs. A lack of totally reliable and its battle damage assessment and time-urgent retargeting capabilities for precision strikes with a target mix as complex as Iran's could be another major problem.
Much would depend on just how advanced Israel’s long-range UAV capabilities really are and whether Israel could get access to US intelligence and IS&R capabilities for both its initial targeting and restrikes, but confirming the actual nature of damage, carrying out restrikes, and sending a clear signal that Israel can repeat its strikes if Iran rebuilds or creates new facilities would be a problem.
As senior US officers and officials have repeatedly warned, the aftermath of such an attack would also be a major problem. Iran would almost certainly see Jordanian, Turkish, and/or Saudi tolerance of such an IAF strike as a hostile act. It might well claim a US green light in any case in an effort to mobilize hostile Arab and Muslim (and possibly world) reactions. At a minimum, the attack would trigger years of Iranian efforts in the UN and other forums to charge Israel with aggression. As is discussed later in this analysis, it would also have a range of military options.
All that said, Israel may well be preparing for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In early November of 2011, Israeli aircraft participated in a large exercise with Italy over Sardinia, over 2,300 km from Israel.73 The exercises involved fighters jets, aerial refueling and airborne warning and control aircraft. Furthermore, Israeli pilots were able to fly against adversaries flying unfamiliar aircraft such as the Eurofighter.
While a simulation of an attack on Iran was not the stated purpose of the exercises, an IAF Lieutenant Colonel identified only as Yiftah¡¨ stated that such exercises are important because flying over unfamiliar territory prepares people for battle over unfamiliar ground. Moreover, he stated that, we train for long-range flights and prepare ourselves for every type of terrain.
A pilot of the Knights of the North squadron, identified only as Major B stated that, we were practicing in a unknown place. The size of our flight field is larger than the entire State of Israel, allowing us to practice things we can’t back home.¡¨76 While somewhat vague and unspecific, such statements are indicative of the emphasis the training placed on mounting a long distance operation over large, unfamiliar terrain and airspace.
Although preparation for a strike on Iran was not the stated objective of the exercise, it could be considered as a test-run for the kind of operation Israel would mount to strike at Iran. Given the similar distances of both objectives and the dispersed nature of Iran¡¦s nuclear program, Israel would have to engage in the same kind of operational planning to carry out such a strike as it did in its exercises with the Italian Air Force.
In September 2011, reports surfaced that the Obama administration transferred an unknown number of 5000 lb. GUB-28 Hard Target Penetrator bunker busters to Israel. Israel reportedly requested the weapons as early as 2005.
77 Although it is uncertain to what level exactly these bombs could enable Israel to launch an effective strike on Iran¡¦s nuclear facilities or damage its program in a meaningful way, they do provide Israel with an increased comparative capability to do so.