Monday, September 11, 2006

Busting the bomb

David A. Fulghum and Douglas Barrie, Aviation Week:
The fighting in southern Lebanon revealed Iran's willingness to supply sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah, and one of its ships was intercepted trying to do just that for Hamas in the Palestinian territories. A continuing series of tests has demonstrated Iran's growing arsenal of ballistic, tactical and sea-based weapons, and Western intelligence officials anticipate its fielding of locally built versions of fighter-launched, long-range, air-to-surface missiles. But the real fear is Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Once built, they would be easy to hide and export. Analysts contend the centrifuges and heavy water production will be in operation soon to follow a dual-track development scheme. Those that feel most threatened--the U.S. and Israel--say they will have to move soon to put the brakes on fabrication and testing.

They now think the date to act would be by the end of 2007. Tehran has spurned a call for full suspension of uranium enrichment, which could mean international economic sanctions following passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Those sanctions are likely to toughen if Iran continues to reject controls. Both the U.S. and Israel are planning other ways, after economic sanctions, to slow down Tehran's push for nuclear weapons.

"Once they have a weapon, it can be stored anywhere and it becomes impossible to find. That's why the program has to be delayed soon." READ MORE

These comments by a senior U.S. Air Force official resonate in many Western capitals, as well as in Israel. The dissonance comes in trying to determine just how to "delay" Iran's nuclear weapons program. "All of us are [alarmed] about Iran and their desire to have a nuclear capability," says Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Certainly, the Israelis should be front and center on that issue because they have concerns, too--deep concerns."

Israel, the state directly threatened by Iran's nuclear ambitions, faces stark choices of exercising military restraint and relying on Western diplomacy, gambling on U.S. military action, or of acting unilaterally, with all the inherent risk.

"Diplomacy is still the best option," says Dan Meridor, a Likud Party member of the Israeli parliament. Meridor has recently been closely involved in a classified review of Israel's strategic defense policy."Iran's development [of nuclear weapons] can be delayed for a considerable time, if the world is in unison. We now need a [U.N. Security Council] resolution and we need Russia not to use its veto. I believe we can reach an agreement where Russia goes along. Iran would hear a clear voice."

Should diplomatic efforts fail, Meridor says, "It will be another world with an arms race, because Iran's neighbors don't want to be dominated." The fighting in Lebanon, with its revelations of the extent of Iranian arms proliferation, has already altered the perceptions in the region. Israel has named its air force chief, Maj. Gen. Elyezer Shkedy, commander of its new Iran front and director of any war plans that might materialize.

Of course, the region already has a nuclear weapons state--though it remains undeclared. Israel covertly gained a nuclear capability in the mid-1960s, as a strategic deterrent.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is for civil purposes only--a claim met with considerable skepticism. "It appears weapons-oriented. Otherwise, why bury so much of it underground?" points out Lee Willett, head of the military capabilities program at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

The U.N. also remains dubious about Iran's publicly stated objectives. The latest Security Council resolution--which Iran's government has publicly spurned--ordered Iran to halt uranium enrichment or face sanctions.

Assuming Iran's intent to make nuclear weapons, the fundamental question becomes exactly how close the country is to the manufacture of bomb-grade material, the ability to manufacture a nuclear device and turn it into a deliverable weapon. The answers will set the timeline for diplomatic and military options. Iran certainly has a number of ballistic--and potentially air-breathing--missile programs in development which represent credible delivery systems.

The U.S. now appears more cautious in estimating how soon Iran could be in a position to produce sufficient nuclear weapons-grade material. In the mid-1990s, it was suggested Tehran could be in that position in five years. The 2005 National Intelligence Assessment reportedly suggested Iran would achieve the capability by "early-to-mid-next decade."

If the U.S. and Israel become convinced that Tehran is determined to pursue a nuclear weapons program, then military action--at some point--at least to slow the program significantly becomes a possibility. Israel has successfully pursued this path before, with the 1981 air strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.

Late last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, responding to a question about military options for dealing with Iran, said that it would be unfortunate if other countries thought "that we're not capable of defending our country, of doing anything that we might need to do."

Israel's military has two primary concerns regarding Iranian nuclear capability: the threat posed to the civilian population by a nuclear attack and the risk of disabling effects of a high-altitude air-burst and the resulting electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). Tel Aviv and Washington also fear the regional impact of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iran remains one of the few states in the region that does not recognize Israel's right to exist. In tandem with trying to reshape Israeli forces to deal with non-state actors, such as Hezbollah, defense planners are also rethinking the organization, makeup and strategic reach of the nation's military forces as a reaction to the perceived Iranian threat.

The insidious effects of nuclear detonations at a high altitude threaten Israel. The EMP can produce a huge spike of electricity, threatening to cripple network-dependent air defenses, intelligence-gathering capability and operational military forces.

The Iranians purposefully have not followed Iraq's 1981 model of concentrating their nuclear development in a single area. They have distributed their nuclear development over numerous sites, including Bushehr, where a nuclear power plant is being built. Natanz is the site of a pilot fuel enrichment plant, and where a full-scale facility is under construction. Arak is the site of a research reactor and a heavy water production plant inaugurated in August.

While the multiplicity of sites makes drawing up a comprehensive target list more challenging, U.S. and Israel officials also suggest there are positive aspects to this. Not every nuclear-related site need be struck to hobble any nascent nuclear weapons program. The goal would be to select a few choke points.

"There are lots of links in the chain you can attack," says a former senior Israeli diplomat. "So how you define the mission is important. There may be 40 facilities [the total may be considerably higher], but you select only four. You don't have to attack all of them. For example, some targets are vulnerable to movement, like centrifuges. They need stability, so if you create enough [vibration or Earth tremors], their alignment can be distorted."

As the system expands or changes over time, additional small-scale attacks could further delay the effort, whenever it approaches a critical stage of development. While Israeli officials do not believe an Iranian nuclear weapons program can be stopped, they are convinced it could be slowed by years with the idea that time, negotiations, sanctions and perhaps changes in government could alter the desire to arm.

"Iran is potentially a short-term problem, if you look at the demographic issues," Willett suggests. The country's young people may be less inclined to follow hard-line Islamist ideology and may be less hostile to the West in general, so simply delaying any nuclear weapons program could have the desired effect.

A senior U.S. Air Force officer describes the problem of finding those choke points as an involved process that includes distinguishing commercial nuclear facilities from those with military applications. "There are a lot of sites and you have to segregate them." Nonetheless, "it's not that difficult," he says.

The USAF official contends Israel could be forced to launch attacks by the end of 2007--"the sooner the better." With the aid of U.S. intelligence (and information garnered from Russian sources and Iran's neighbors), he contends that evidence of plutonium, centrifuge use, cooling and power generation/transmission will provide the proper targeting signatures for "a couple of handfuls of attacks--less than a dozen" to shut down Iranian nuclear progress for years. "Where does the electrical power go in and out, and how do those people communicate with the outside world?"

U.S. officials have estimated there are as many as 70 Iranian nuclear sites, of which a minimum of 15 would have to be attacked. Moreover, underground construction and camouflage efforts in Iran, done in conjunction with North Korea, were to have been completed this summer. U.S. analysts further estimated fewer than two dozen strike sorties could inflict significant damage on three major Iranian facilities, but there would be little impact on Iran's technology base or team of scientists.

The fact that many of the Iranian targets are underground presents another problem. Analysts at the U.S. CIA have noted since shortly after the 1991 Iraq war, that the sale of earth-boring equipment skyrocketed in the Middle East as countries started putting key facilities underground to protect against U.S. air strikes. U.S. weapons like the GBU-28 can penetrate perhaps 30 ft. of hardened materials or 100 ft. of earth. But Iranian facilities are reportedly buried 100-200 ft. below the surface with alternating layers of earth and cement to absorb the impact of penetrating bombs. There are satellite pictures of the Natanz nuclear facility in north central Iran that show two large centrifuge buildings being buried under several yards of reinforced concrete and at least 75 ft. of earth.

The Israeli missile specialist agrees that "dozens of meters" of alternating layers of sand and cement create a sandwich that is impossible for conventional weapons to penetrate.

"You have to go after the entrances and develop new penetrators," a retired Israeli air force (IAF) general says. "But even then, conventional weapons can't penetrate to 200 ft., and the U.S. won't use nuclear weapons."

Even without uncertainties about the targets, a former Israeli diplomat who was involved in planning the 1981 raid on an Iraqi nuclear reactor warned that officials should never promise unrealistic results from a military action. "You can only postpone Iran's nuclear development," he says. "The goal [must be] to slow it down with no expectation of eliminating it completely."

Israeli officials say there is no resemblance to what they or the U.S. might face in trying to decelerate Iran's current nuclear program compared to 25 years ago.

But there is danger in waiting too long, says the retired general. "Now there is only research and development [in Iran] and no operational capability," he says. "R&D can be delayed. Once they do have a [weapon], you no longer have the delay option. What can be done now, can't be done a few years from now. [The bomb] is still coming. One day, the Iranians will have their first nuclear experiment."

The general, a veteran IAF pilot, worries that the U.S. may not be up to delaying the program, despite its several years of continuous combat operations. "I'm not sure if the U.S. is in the position politically to [attack Iran] after three years in Iraq."

"How do you win?" asks the retired general. "You can't, in the traditional sense. Winning now is to continue the fight against terrorism while maintaining a normal civilian life. Victory is pushing operational [nuclear weapons] capability off for another 3-4-5 years. There's no magic. The [short-term, delaying] solution is a day of intensive strikes."

The red line for both Israel and the U.S. is Iran having a weapon that can be tested.

"No one will join an [allied] coalition if Iran has a nuclear weapon," the former Israeli diplomat says. "Most nations are hostage to terrorist attacks. With a bomb in hand, Iran can then support more challenging terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Any response by the West will become more risky.

"We are approaching quite fast the point where we have to postpone [Iran's nuclear development]," he says. "So the U.S. has to have the backing of the majority of [the international community]. Completing those steps now is important. Even though Egypt and Saudi Arabia will publicly condemn any attack, they are praying that the U.S. will do it."

There are some basics derived from the attack on Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981 that appear to remain applicable, most of those interviewed agree. The attacker, be it the U.S. or Israel, can't afford to be condemned internationally for spreading contamination. They also must avoid collateral and environmental damage and loss of life. The attackers must be able to say they had tried all the political and diplomatic options.