Friday, April 15, 2005

Don't expect another Osirak

On 7 June 1981, Israeli pilots flying F-16s, escorted by F-15s, bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, near Baghdad.

Though almost universally condemned at the time, for the most part the world later realized that it owed these pilots a great debt of gratitude, for they prevented Saddam Hussein from obtaining nuclear arms.

Had Israel not destroyed that reactor, the course of history could have been far different. Kuwait would probably now be a province of Iraq and Saddam Hussein might also be the most powerful man in the Middle East, instead of a prisoner.

Of course, the Israelis were certainly acting in their own self-interest. Given Saddam’s professed hatred of Israel and his support for terrorist attacks on the Jewish nation, there is little doubt that Israel would have eventually become a target of his nuclear weapons.

Fast Forward to 2005

There is now speculation in the media and on various weblogs that Israel will repeat its Osirak operation, but this time in Iran.

This speculation is unfounded. Israel does not have the capability to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program through air attack.

Most of the speculation that Israel would conduct such a strike on Iran centers around Israel’s acquisition of three weapons systems:
  • The F-15I Ra’am
  • The F-16I Sufa
  • “Bunker Buster” Bombs

The F-15I

The F-15I Ra’am is a two-seat, multirole version of the ubiquitous F-15 Eagle, capable of long-range precision strike in day or night and in all weather conditions. It is roughly equivalent to America’s F -15E Strike Eagle. It features conformal fuel tanks that give it great range without increasing drag and thus hampering performance.

The F-15I almost certainly possesses the combat radius/payload capacity combination to strike any target in Iran, however, the Israelis only have 25 of these aircraft in service.

The F-16I

The F-16I Sufa is the most advanced version of the F-16 anywhere in the world. Especially suited for strike missions, the F-16I addresses two long-perceived weaknesses of the original F-16: the F-16I has larger internal fuel capacity that greatly increases its range and the two-seat F-16I’s avionics package makes it capable of precision strike in day or night and in all weather conditions. (The original F-16 has been criticized for its short range and lack of night and adverse weather strike capability.)

However, even with its increased range, the Sufa’s combat radius is listed only as “well in excess of 500 miles.” The Israeli Air Force has stated that it is capable of striking targets in Iran without refueling. Still, the nearest high-value Iranian target is twice as far as 500 miles, which means that such an operation would no doubt stretch the Sufa to the very outer limits of its capabilities—at least without aerial refueling, which given the political geography of the region, could also be problematic.

Calculating actual combat radius is in fact tricky and the final number depends on many factors, including mission profile, weather conditions and, most importantly, payload. And if the aircraft has to engage in air combat maneuvering on the mission, all calculations are out the window.

Eventually, the Israelis will field 102 Sufas, but the first example was delivered in November 2003 and production was expected to run at just 1.5 aircraft per month, according to the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. This means that Israel probably has no more than 30 Sufas in their inventory at this time.

The bunker buster

Properly known as the EGBU-24 Paveway III, this munition is a 2000-lb bomb with a special BLU -109/B penetrator warhead. It is precision-guided by Global Positioning Satellite (GPS). The Bunker Buster can penetrate nearly 8 feet of concrete.

Because Iran’s nuclear facilities are said to be hardened and, in some cases, buried underground, a weapon such as the Bunker Buster would probably be needed to achieve the desired result.

This combination of weapons systems—the F-15I, F-16I and EGBU-24—seem ideally suited for attacking Iran’s nuclear program in an air raid reminiscent of the Osirak raid 24 years ago.

The reality, however, is somewhat different.

Not enough aircraft, too many distant targets

While these systems are suited to carry out an attack on hardened targets, such as Iran’s nuclear sites, Israel does not have enough of any them to carry out a raid to successfully eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.

As previously mentioned, Israel has just about 30 F-16I and 25 F-15I. Iran has at least 15 significant nuclear sites. While some observers maintain Israel would not have to destroy every site to cripple Iran’s program, Israel’s intelligence would have to be extremely good to skip over any known sites, much less sites that are not widely known. Iran has been secretive about its nuclear program for nearly two decades and it is possible that crucial activities are hidden in unknown areas and sites.

Israel would not want to leave any aspect of Iran’s nuclear program intact, therefore, to suggest that an attack would need to destroy 15 sites may be conservative.

Israel used 16 aircraft just to destroy Osirak. Osirak was relatively poorly defended and was only approximately 570 miles from Tel Aviv. By contrast, Iran’s largest nuclear site is 1,000 miles from Israel. The furthest Iranian nuclear site is in Tabas, in the eastern end of the country, some 1600 miles from Israel. The other 13 nuclear sites are widely dispersed.

The Iranians are very aware of what happened at Osirak. Their nuclear sites are hardened—often built underground—and are heavily defended by Russian-made surface to air missiles and anti- aircraft artillery. Israeli planning tends to be very good, but with so many targets, follow-up strikes would almost certainly be needed. This makes the fact that the Iranians have gone to great lengths to defend their nuclear facilities a problem. Even if the initial strikes get by Iranian defenses, the Iranians will be that much more alert for follow-up strikes. And Israel does not possess stealth aircraft or long- range cruise missiles to conduct such missions. The Israelis would need to be uncannily accurate in their initial strikes to ensure success and this is not the same Israeli Air Force that existed in 1981. Today, many Israeli pilots have not seen true combat, have not had to deal with sophisticated air defense systems and have never flown long-range precision strike missions.

The problem of Iran’s missiles

The nuclear facilities are not the only problem. Iran’s Shihab-3 ballistic missile has the range to hit Israel. It is not certain how many of these missiles Iran has (though some published reports give a number of 15, with no acknowledged source), nor is it known if any are equipped with chemical or biological warheads. But the Israelis would probably not want to depend solely on their Arrow-2 anti- missile system for protection in such a scenario. While the Arrow-2 has performed pretty well in tests, even a small number of incoming WMD-tipped ballistic missiles could be catastrophic for a tiny, densely populated country like Israel.

So, Israel would also have to try to account for potential Iranian missile sites in any strike and it simply does not have the number of long-range aircraft necessary to do so. There are at least 8 known sites throughout Iran capable of launching ballistic missiles: Tehran, Bakhtaran, Garmsar, Karaj, Mashhad, Qom, Semnan, and Shahroud,

This means that Israel would be faced with having to strike no fewer than 23 separate targets, all more than 1,000 miles from Israeli air bases.

The mission profile would also be problematic to say the least. Israeli aircraft would have to fly over foreign airspace to conduct a fairly large air campaign. Should the Israelis overfly Saudi Arabia, they face the real possibility of being intercepted since the Saudis are equipped with AWACS airborne early warning aircraft and F-15 Eagles of their own.

The more obvious route would take the aircraft over Jordan and Iraq. The Jordanians are probably incapable of intercepting Israeli F-16I and F-15I aircraft dashing at low altitude over their airspace and, if America was informed ahead of time, getting over and through Iraq would obviously be no problem. Iraq could even provide airspace for aerial refueling and air bases for emergency landings. But this scenario is politically unlikely.

If America were to participate even passively in an operation of this sort, it would run the risk of irreparable harm to its relations with “friendly” Arab governments, including Iraq. All of this risk would be excessive for an operation that would not have a great chance of success due to limited numbers of suitable Israeli aircraft.

If America decides that Iran’s nuclear program needs to be destroyed, it alone possesses the combat power and geographical location of forces to successfully conduct such an attack. With aircraft based in Iraq, Afghanistan, Diego Garcia and on aircraft carriers, as well as cruise missiles on board submarines, cruisers and destroyers in the Persian Gulf, U.S. forces could overwhelm Iranian air defenses and pound them for as long as it took to destroy each and every nuclear and missile site in Iran. These capabilities are simply on another order of magnitude from those of Israel.

Christopher Holton has been writing on strategic, military and economic issues for over 12 years. He can be contacted at