For several years, Israel has publicly and explicitly stated that if Iran attempts to develop a nuclear weapon, Israel will attack to prevent the program from succeeding or to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. This is the most important security threat of the new century. Iran getting the bomb would be bad, but Israel going to war against Iran would be almost as bad.
Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of discussion in the media about the issue. Is Iran really building a nuclear weapon? When will it be ready? Could Israel really destroy or significantly delay the Iranian nuclear weapons program? What would be the consequences? These are worthwhile questions, but somewhere around question three everyone gets tangled up in the details.
Few news anchors or talk show hosts have the military or scientific understanding to ask decent questions. Worse still are the many pundits who have been interviewed, and having been asked a useless question, provided a useless answer. As a result, countless photons have been sacrificed to no good end.
I am desperately interested in this issue, as many others are, and have suffered countless disappointments as anchors rehash old questions or misinterpret a talking head’s answer. And may the ghost of Sun Tzu haunt those hired guns that claim to have the inside story. Save us from their misinformation. Or outright fabrications.
The points listed below are routinely missed in any discussion of a potential attack by Israel on Iran. While it is impossible to find any fact that 100 percent of the people will agree with (see www.flatearth.com), these approach 95 percent or better:
1) The Iranian bomb program isn’t about just Natanz.
In fact, Natanz is almost redundant. There are two paths to developing a nuke: Enrichment to get Uranium-235, or extraction of Plutonium-239 from used reactor fuel. The Iranians are pursuing both routes.
There are seven publicly known installations at four locations that are essential to the Iranian nuclear weapons program: The heavy water reactor and heavy water plant at Arak, the uranium enrichment sites at Natanz and Qom (Fordow), and the fuel manufacturing plant, uranium conversion facility, and zirconium processing plant at Esfahan. They are all in the Israelis’ target folders.
Bushehr is not on the list. This is the Iranian’s “Potemkin” reactor. “See? Peaceful neutrons!” It is extremely difficult to extract weapons-grade plutonium from a light water reactor like Bushehr, and the Russians have been scrupulous about controlling the fuel. Bombing Bushehr would be a waste.
Of the seven installations, only the two centrifuge facilities are hardened against air attack. The other five, and most of Natanz for that matter, are housed in ordinary industrial structures.
Question for news anchors to use: Why is Natanz so heavily defended and protected, while equally important installations are virtually naked?
2) The Israelis can’t do it all in one day, or one raid.
This isn’t Osiraq in 1981, or Syria in 2007. There are too many targets in each facility, and they’re too spread out. Four locations would suggest at least four raids, with re-strikes a possibility. Esfahan by itself demands two squadrons of strikers, in addition to the support aircraft. That’s including the larger size of Israeli squadrons (24 planes instead of the standard 12).
Question for the news anchors to use: How many targets will the Israelis attack at once? Will they go only for critical structures (with less psychological impact) or general obliteration?
3) The Iranians can’t stop the Israelis from penetrating their airspace and bombing at will.
Unless the Israelis make a major mistake, or the Iranians get very lucky, Israeli losses will be few to none.
The Israeli Air Force is a first-rate organization, with realistic training, top-of-the line equipment, and a leadership honed by years of conflict. Israeli electronic warfare skills include not only state-of-the-art conventional jamming, but “Suter” attacks: Essentially hacking into the enemy’s air defense network and messing with his mind. (“These are not the planes you’re looking for.”)
By contrast, the Iranian Air Defense Force (a separate military service in Iran), is equipped with a mix of ‘50s British, ‘60s U.S., and ‘90s Chinese radars (and the Chinese radars are really ‘70s technology). Their SAM inventory includes slightly upgraded copies of the old Russian SA-2 and SA-5, and the Hawk missile (which entered U.S. service in 1971) is still a major player. Their best fighters are two squadrons of early model MiG-29s, which are backed up by F-14s used as air-to-air fighter controllers. The AWG-9 on those 30+ year-old Tomcats is still the best air-to-air radar they’ve got. The rest of their air force is even less capable.
Question for news anchors to use: Given that GPS-guided ordnance can be lob-tossed from over ten miles away, why are the Iranians planting rings of antiaircraft guns around Natanz? Even their 100mm guns only have a range of about five miles.