Wednesday, February 08, 2006

In a Single Night

Edward N. Luttwak, The Wall Street Journal:
Many commentators argue that a pre-emptive air attack against Iran's nuclear installations is unfeasible. It would not be swift or surgical, they say, because it would require thousands of strike and defense-suppression sorties. And it is likely to fail even then because some facilities might be too well hidden or too strongly protected. There may well be other, perfectly valid reasons to oppose an attack on Iran's nuclear sites. But let's not pretend that such an attack has no chance of success. In fact, the odds are rather good. READ MORE

The skeptics begin sensibly enough by rejecting any direct comparison with Israel's 1981 air attack that incapacitated the Osirak reactor, stopping Saddam Hussein's first try at producing plutonium bombs. Iran is evidently following a different and much larger-scale path to nuclear weapons, by the centrifuge "enrichment" of uranium hexafluoride gas to increase the proportion of fissile uranium 235. It requires a number of different plants operating in series to go from natural uranium to highly enriched uranium formed in the specific shapes needed to obtain an explosive chain reaction. Some of these plants, notably the Natanz centrifuge plant, are both very large and built below ground with thick overhead protection.

It is at this point that the argument breaks down. Yes, Iraq's weapon program of 1981 was stopped by a single air strike carried out by less than a squadron of fighter-bombers because it was centered in a single large reactor building. Once it was destroyed, the mission was accomplished. To do the same to Iran's 100-odd facilities would require almost a hundred times as many sorties as the Israelis flew in 1981, which would strain even the U.S. Air Force. Some would even add many more sorties to carry out a preliminary suppression campaign against Iran's air defenses (a collection of inoperable anti-aircraft weapons and obsolete fighters with outdated missiles). But the claim that to stop Iran's program all of its nuclear sites must be destroyed is simply wrong.

An air attack is not a Las Vegas demolitions contract, where nothing must be left but well-flattened ground for the new casino to be built. Iran might need 100 buildings in good working order to make its bomb, but it is enough to demolish a few critical installations to delay its program for years -- and perhaps longer because it would become harder or impossible for Iran to buy the materials it bought when its efforts were still secret. Some of these installations may be thickly protected against air attack, but it seems that their architecture has not kept up with the performance of the latest penetration bombs.

Nor could destroyed items be easily replaced by domestic production. In spite of all the claims of technological self-sufficiency by its engineer-president, not even metal parts of any complexity can be successfully machined in Iran. More than 35% of Iran's gasoline must now be imported because the capacity of its foreign-built refineries cannot be expanded without components currently under U.S. embargo, and which the locals cannot copy. Aircraft regularly fall out of the sky because Iranians are unable to reverse-engineer spare parts.

The bombing of Iran's nuclear installations may still be a bad idea for other reasons, but not because it would require a huge air offensive. On the contrary, it could all be done in a single night. One may hope that Iran's rulers will therefore accept a diplomatic solution rather than gamble all on wildly exaggerated calculations.