Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Year Zero

Israel is quietly preparing to go to war with Iran over the threat its atom bomb program presents. The Israelis are convinced, with good cause, that sanctions will fail, that only military action will work. They think that next year will be the Year Zero for making a decision because Iran will have enough nuclear fuel to make a Bomb by then.

Eran Lerman, former senior member of Israel's Directorate of Military Intelligence, says, "The Iranian regime's need for a nuclear bomb is a reflection of the profound crisis in which it finds itself after almost 30 years in power. They promised the earth and the country is in disarray. The regime has failed to create or sustain stable social structures. So the last validated remnant of the Iranian revolution is to destroy Israel."

The Israelis had what amounted to a dress rehearsal for an Iran strike last September when they took out a nuclear reactor in Syria. Israel did not comment publicly on the strike, nor did Syria nor did anyone else. That told the Israelis that the Arab countries covertly supported the strike while they could not overtly support the Jewish state.

General Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon, the Boogie Man, the former head of the Israeli Defence Forces, argues a war is necessary, not a raid, "Military intervention would not be one strike. It needs to be a sustained operation … Any military strike in Iran will be quietly applauded by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states. It is a misconception to think that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most important in the Middle-East. The Shiite-Sunni schism is much bigger, the Persian-Arab divide is bigger, the struggle between national regimes and jihadism is much bigger. And I can't imagine the US will want to share power in the Middle East with a nuclear-armed Iran."

While I understand the Israeli enthusiasm for eliminating a nuclear threat by the mad mullahs of Tehran, I see some practical problems for such a military action.

The first problem is targeting. The Iranians aren’t as dumb as the Iraqis, who put all their atom bomb eggs in one reactor at Osirak that could be taken out in one air strike. The Iranians have dispersed their atom bomb program. As I understand it, it is spread across hundreds of sites. Three hundred is the number I've read.

How do you get reliable intelligence about the location of these sites, the nature of their construction, and their relative importance in the program? You would need some recent high-level defectors from the program to provide reliable targeting data. For example, you need to know how they are constructed so as to use the correct type of bomb that will reliably neutralize the target.

The second problem is the massive size of the air campaign to strike these targets, once located. I’m reading three hundred sorties over three days. The Israeli Air Force has about four hundred fighters. If you sent them out in four ship flights, that's about a hundred targets each go. The second and third go's will lack the advantage of surprise. Of course, the IAF can not commit all its fighters to attack. It must keep a substantial number in reserve for defense. They just don't have enough fighters to pull this off.

The third problem is access. The direct route from Israel to Iran flies over Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Of course, to fly over Iraq the Israelis would need US permission and cooperation. We control that air space. For lots of reasons, that’s unlikely to happen.

The Saudis are our allies, at least on paper though not in fact, which means that theoretically we should not turn a blind eye to Israelis flying strike packages over Saudi Arabia. Blatantly disrespecting the Saudis (not that there is anything wrong with that) to help the Israelis wage war against fellow Muslims would stir up the Muslim and Wahhabi pot, maybe even bring it to a boil.

However, it’s within the realm of possibility that the duplicitous Saudis could strike a secret deal to allow their hated Jewish enemies to strike their hated Shia enemies in Iran. The Saudi princes could pose as surprised and outraged at the incursion, however pleased with the outcome. They’re good at lying like that and they hate the Shia more than the Jews.

While it is plausible to deny that a couple flights of Israeli jets masqueraded as an airliner to fly a sneak attack across your air space, it's not plausible to ignore hundreds of jets traversing your sky. You can hide an air raid but you can't hide an air campaign.

The fourth problem is the extreme range. It looks to me to be about 1000 miles, at least, as the crow flies from Israel to the centrifuge facility at Natanz, aka the Esfahan enrichment facility. Of course, the mission will be longer than this when you allow for an indirect route to targets deep inside Iran.

The F-15E Strike Eagle has a range of 2,400 miles (3,840 kilometers) ferry range with conformal fuel tanks and three external fuel tanks. However, that’s FERRY range, not carrying heavy bombs. I’m guessing that adding a couple 2000 pound laser-guided bombs would reduce the range of the F-15Es to less than the distance to their targets. It seems obvious that these fighters would need to be air-refueled, optimally just outside the Iranian border. The range problem is worse with Israel’s 324 F-16s and 50 F-4Es.

Israel only has five tankers, B707 airframes roughly similar to the KC-135. If each tanker supported a flight of four fighters, that’s only twenty fighters Israel could project to Iran. Again, Israel would need US tanker support to fuel its strike force.

The bottom line is that Israel can not successfully take out the Iranian atom bomb program by itself, so the Israeli threat is an idle one. Israel can only succeed with help from the US. However, if we must strike Iran, Israeli help is a political handicap in our foreign relations with the bigoted Middle Eastern and European states. If we must strike Iran, we must leave Israel out of it.

We have better weapons to strike Iran than Israel. Our Stealth aircraft such as the B-2 and F-22 can traverse Iranian airspace with little fear from the 1970s-era technology Iranian fields to defend itself. And who knows what wing of secret srike aircraft we have stashed out in the mountains of Nevada, ready to make its combat debut? Our B-1s, F-15Es, and F-16s would fly over the smoking remains of the Iranian defenses.

We are also better positioned to strike Iran, with air bases in the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even though I am an advocate of air power, the gains it makes are transient unless followed up by a ground campaign. Without a ground campaign, we’ve only temporarily set back the Iranian atom bomb.

I think we can stop Iranian aggression short of a war. Iran is economically fragile. Already, our financial measures have taken a toll on them. We can bring Iran to its knees without bloodshed by simply stopping it from shipping its oil and/or importing gasoline.

We can also lend support, carefully hidden, to Iran’s resistance. They could use money, training, communications equipment, et al to support their movement. Perhaps we can redirect the Iranian shaped charges we capture in Iraq back into the hands of the Iranian resistance. Let the mullahs fear the IEDs they export to harm the Great Satan.

Rather than a hard strategy of military action that would polarize Iranians against us, we might profit more by pursuing a soft strategy of support for the disaffected Iranians who want to topple the mullahs and restore ties with America. Right now, the low price of oil may do more to slow down the Iranian nuke program than an air campaign.

Obama, the peace candidate, may well have to fight a conventional war to avoid a nuclear war.

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Blogger Tom the Redhunter said...

Good analysis of the situation, especially the difficulties that the IDF faces trying to carry out an airstrike. Of course, I'd expect nothing less from an EWO!

So Israel can strike Iran, but most likely can't deliver a crippling blow. Only we can pull that off.

Israel's bit problem though is internal. They're paralyzed by an ineffective government struggling to deal with corruption charges. Let's also remember that this isn't the Israel of the 1960s or 70s - they're war weary and there is a large peace element in their society and politics.

Sat Nov 29, 02:36:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Tantor said...

Thanks for reading, Tom. I was more an EWO-lite. The real electronic warfare officers got more training and equipment than we ordinary WSOs.

It's remarkable how Israeli society and Palestinian society are polar opposites of each other. Israel has a big peace faction while Palestine has a big war faction. Do you imagine the Palestinians, if victorious over Israel, would spare the Israeli peaceniks? As the Israeli peaceniks homes were looted and they led off to be enslaved or killed, do you ever think they would ever get that they can not make peace with Muslims, even as they are standing on the edge of their mass grave?

Sun Nov 30, 07:22:00 AM 2008  

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