Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would at best only delay Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability, according to a new paper (.pdf) by the Institute for Science and International Security, authored by former UN weapons inspector David Albright and others.
A potential military strike would do more harm than good since it would probably cause Iran to embark on a crash program to develop nuclear weapons using clandestine facilities, the paper’s authors said.
The paper’s authors contrast what would be required to destroy Iran’s facilities with the ease with which Israel demolished Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in September of last year. Trying to compare a strike against Iran with Israel’s other counterproliferation efforts, “neglects the important differences between a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program and a reactor-based program, and fails to account for the dispersed, relatively advanced, and hardened nature of Iran’s gas centrifuge facilities.”
The authors question the accuracy of Israeli and U.S. intelligence on where exactly they would need to strike. While IAEA inspectors know quite a bit about the Natanz and Esfahan facilities, there are a number of key centrifuge components about which they know every little. Also, the Esfahan facility has been churning out “many years” worth of uranium hexafluoride, now totaling upwards of 300 tons. Stored in small, thick metal canisters, ensuring the destruction of this uranium stockpile could be nearly impossible.
Even if the gas centrifuge facility buried in a hardened structure at Natanz could be destroyed, Iran has dispersed its centrifuge manufacturing sites and so could replace damaged or destroyed centrifuges from reserve stocks of critical equipment and raw materials. Iran has contracted with a number of local Iranian manufacturers to produce centrifuge components, “aimed at creating an indigenous capability to make this equipment and reduce its dependence on smuggling.” These facilities vary in size from sophisticated factories to small workshops and are scattered across Iran. “Considering the modular, replicable nature of centrifuge plants, we conclude that an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely to significantly degrade Iran’s ability to reconstitute its gas centrifuge program.”
The ISIS paper argues that a single surgical strike against Iran’s facilities wouldn’t do the job. It would require “multiple strikes against many sites.” Recent reporting says Israel has bought 90 F-16I long range strike jets, in addition to at least 25 F-15I. Still, that is a low number of aircraft to carry out sustained strikes over long distances. Because of the jet’s relatively short range and Israel’s limited ability to do air-to-air refueling, an Israeli attack would be limited to a raid, not a sustained bombing campaign. One of the operational attributes that places the U.S. Air Force in a class by itself is its ability to sustain an air campaign against a nation over a number of days, weeks or even months.
While it has done so in the past, the American military does not typically do the quick in and out raids along the lines of past Israeli air strikes. When the American military decides to carry out a bombing attack it launches a full fledged air campaign, including rolling back enemy air defenses, establishing something approaching air dominance, and then bombs away. Few nations possess the vast resources needed to carry out a sustained bombing campaign. The United Sates does.
Over at RAND, they ran a series of Iran war games, directed by David Ochmanek, that fed into a study titled "Shaping the Future Air Force." Ochmanek told me the war games showed that any air force contemplating strikes against Iran would do well to have fewer "shooters" and more "finders." This is an area where an Israeli strike is likely to come up short. They lack the finders, aerial drones and ground-scanning radar aircraft that could loiter above Iranian air space seeking out targets, taking out air defenses, performing battle damage assessment, and allowing commanders to redirect incoming strikes.
The key to accurate and devastating air strikes, particularly against hardened or mobile targets, is persistent presence of both bombers and aerial drones. The use of Predators in Afghanistan and Iraq may have lulled observers into thinking these aircraft can be used in any scenario. They cannot. Their success in both Afghanistan and Iraq has been due in part to the near total absence of enemy air defenses. Air power has been effective in Afghanistan and Iraq, but much of that success came from troops on the ground pointing out targets to bombers overhead.
In an interview with CSBA’s Barry Watts, he made the point that precision munitions need precise intelligence on the intended target. Today’s smart weapons require that somebody program in target coordinates, they can’t find targets by themselves. In Afghanistan, it was the Special Forces soldier on horseback. In the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi units moved en masse and were picked up by ground scanning radars.
But if targets are widely dispersed, are hidden or mobile, such as nuclear facilities, ballistic missile launchers and mobile SAMs, the problem of locating them becomes infinitely greater. An important lesson from the Kosovo air campaign in 1999 was that Serbian military units could simply sit still and hide from NATO attack jets in the right conditions. An Israeli air campaign in Iran would probably not have the benefit of ground observers to direct air strikes.
If Israel did try to carry out sustained strikes over a period of days, it would face alert and prepared Iranian air defenses. It is highly unlikely Israel could “roll back” those defenses. Here again, NATO’s 1999 Kosovo air campaign is instructive. A RAND study of that campaign said NATO jets had difficulty taking out the Serbian air defenses because the Serbs dispersed their SAMs and turned off their powerful search radars so they remained virtually impossible to detect. The Serbs placed early warning radars inside the city of Montenegro. Because of concern about collateral damage NATO couldn’t get clearance to bomb those radars, so the Serbs had early warning of inbound NATO aircraft. Serbia’s mountainous terrain, similar to that in Iran, made the NATO missions much more difficult as air defenses were able to hide in narrow mountain valleys where they were hard to spot. NATO efforts to destroy the networked air defenses were stymied because of underground control bunkers, buried land lines and mobile communications centers.
The RAND report quoted a NATO squadron commander who said the Serbs got better at evading NATO strikes just as NATO pilots got better at targeting, which led to a “cat and mouse” game, making SAM kills harder to come by. The report said, “The SAM threat to NATO’s aircrews was far more pronounced and harrowing than media coverage typically depicted.” The Serbs tried to sucker NATO aircrews to fly lower so that they would be more vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns and shoulder launched missiles. Because so many aircraft had to be dedicated to counter SAM missions, fewer were available for strike missions.
Over the 78 day air campaign, the Serbs fired at least 800 SAMs at NATO aircraft. Still, only two aircraft were shot down, including one F-117 stealth fighter, reportedly brought down by a barrage of older model SA-3s. But many pilots were forced to take evasive maneuvers and NATO pilots had to fly above 15,000 feet. High value reconnaissance assets, such as JSTARS and U-2s, were flown at less than ideal orbits to keep them out of danger. Despite NATO’s best efforts, only 3 of Serbia’s known mobile SA-6 batteries were confirmed destroyed during the campaign.
Iran is known to have the Tor-M1 mobile SAM system. A recent AP report said a proposed Russian sale to Iran of the much more advanced S-300 SAM system has not gone through. The report said Israel is eyeing the sale very closely as the advanced air defenses would greatly complicate an Israeli strike.
I recently wrote up a paper by MIT analysts that said Israel could carry out strikes against certain key nodes in Iran’s nuclear program that could have a crippling effect on the entire program. The analysts at ISIS don't agree. Any damage inflicted by air strikes could be quickly repaired and "would not significantly delay Iran’s mastery of enrichment with gas centrifuges," they write. The more important issue, of course, is what do Israel’s political, military and intelligence chiefs believe. We may find out soon enough.