In the first part of this series, we described the strike package of fighters and supporting aircraft making the first attack in Israel’s air campaign against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Where are they going? Isfahan. Why not Natanz? After all, that’s the famous, underground, heavily defended uranium enrichment facility that’s always in the news.
The Iranians are pursuing two paths to a nuclear weapon: The uranium route and the plutonium route. Natanz, Fordow, and possibly other enrichment facilities are on the uranium path, increasing the concentration of U235 to weapons grade levels. The Arak nuclear reactor (still not operational) will serve as a source for the plutonium option.
But there are several steps on either path. Yellowcake uranium must be converted to uranium hexaflouride gas (UF6) that the centrifuges can use, and the enriched gas must then be processed to uranium metal to be fabricated into bomb components. The Arak reactor uses fuel made from uranium dioxide (UO2). After it has been used in the reactor, the spent fuel must be chemically treated to extract the Pu238. All of these processes are performed at one place: Isfahan.
The complex at Isfahan is made up of three facilities vital to nuclear weapons development: The Uranium Conversion Facility, where yellowcake is processed to UF6 and UO2, the Fuel Manufacturing Plant, where UO2 is converted to reactor fuel, and the Zirconium Processing Plant. This not only provides zirconium used by the Fuel Manufacturing Plant, it specializes in refining, smelting, and machining exotic metals. It would extract the uranium or plutonium and make it into bomb components.
These three industrial-level installations are located next to each other, are completely exposed (nothing buried, no concrete roofs), and have only half or a third of the defenses present at Natanz. Hitting Natanz first is a “sucker play.”
The Isfahan defenses include an elderly S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) site nearby, two I-Hawk batteries about a dozen kilometers to the west and north, a Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) battery, and a mix of 35mm and 23mm guns.
There are thirty-one structures at the three facilities that are worth bombing. Most need to be serviced with two or three bombs to be completely destroyed, and the raid has one hundred and forty-four weapons. That sounds like overkill, but even PGMs don’t work every time. Against targets of this size, they have an 80 percent chance of hitting, so four per target is not out of line.
During the transit, the F-16s are electronically silent. When they reach Delek Station, they refuel silently as well. It’s not easy, but possible with proper training.
By the time the raiders finish refueling, the commander on the Shavit will have executed his Suter attack. If it goes well, he can shut down some or all of the SAM and radar sites along the raid’s path. Or he can order the raid to abort, if the defenses have somehow been alerted.