Israel has Military Capacity to Strike Iran
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Units of the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Iraqi experimental Osiraq reactor near Baghdad in 1981, limiting Iraq’s potential to take the plutonium route to nuclear weapons. More recently, on 6 September 2007, Israeli strike aircraft attacked a facility in Syria that was a suspected nuclear site, possibly a nuclear reactor involving North Korean personnel in the early stages of the construction. (8) The 1981 Baghdad target was within range of Israeli aircraft whereas the Iranian facilities were, until recently, at the limit of Israeli Air Force capability. That has now changed with the deployment of long-range versions of the US F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft – the F-15I Ra’am and the F-16I Sufa. 25 of the F-15I are now in squadron service together with a force of 102 F-16I aircraft in four squadrons. (9) Deliveries of the planes started in 2003 and are now complete. The Israeli Air Force is also acquiring 500 earth penetrating bombs from the United States for use against underground facilities. There are unconfirmed reports that some or all of the F-15I strike aircraft have been fitted with conformal fuel tanks to increase range, but the Israeli Air Force does in any case have a fleet of tanker aircraft. The most significant of these are the KC-707 Re’em aircraft. Although based on the elderly Boeing 707 airframe, these have been substantially upgraded and an eighth plane was recently added to the fleet, following a $23-million contract with Israeli Aerospace Industries.
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An Israeli attack would likely concentrate on three locations: Isfahan, where Iran produces uranium hexafluoride gas; Natanz, where the gas is enriched in approximately half of the eight thousand centrifuges located there; and Arak, where a heavy water research reactor, scheduled to come on line in 2012, would be ideal to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It is conceivable that Israel may attack other sites that it suspects to be part of a nuclear weapons program if targeting data were available, such as the recently disclosed Qom site, whose location is known, or centrifuge fabrication sites, the location(s) of which have not yet been identified. The latter would be compelling targets since their destruction would hobble Iran’s ability to reconstitute its program. But attacks against the sites at Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak alone would likely stretch Israel’s capabilities, and planners would probably be reluctant to enlarge the raid further.
Israel is capable of carrying out these attacks unilaterally. Its F-16 and F-15 aircraft, equipped with conformal fuel tanks and refueled with 707-based and KC-130 tankers toward the beginning and end of their flight profiles, have the range to reach the target set, deliver their payloads in the face of Iranian air defenses, and return to their bases. The munitions necessary to penetrate the targets are currently in Israel’s inventory in sufficient numbers; they include Bomb Live Unit (BLU)-109 and BLU 113 bombs that carry two thousand and five thousand pounds, respectively, of high-energy explosives. These GPS-guided weapons are extremely accurate and can be lofted from attacking aircraft fifteen kilometers from their target, thereby reducing the attackers’ need to fly through air defenses. Israel also has a laser-guided version of these bombs that is more accurate than the GPS variant and could deploy a special-operations laser designation unit to illuminate aim points as it is reported to have done in the attack on the al-Kibar facility in Syria.
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The foregoing assessment is far from definitive in its evaluation of Israel's military capability to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities. It does seem to indicate, however, that the IAF, after years of modernization, now possesses the capability to destroy even well-hardened targets in Iran with some degree of confidence. Leaving open the question of whether an attack is worth the resulting diplomatic consequences and Iranian response, it appears that the Israelis have three possible routes for an air strike against three of the critical nodes of the Iranian nuclear program. Although each of these routes presents political and operational difficulties, this article argues that the IAF could nevertheless attempt to use them. The operation would appear to be no more risky than Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor, and it would provide at least as much benefit in terms of delaying Iranian development of nuclear weapons. This benefit might not be worth the operational risk and political cost. Nonetheless, this analysis demonstrates that Israeli leaders have access to the technical capability to carry out the attack with a reasonable chance of success. The question then becomes one of will and individual calculation.
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Units of the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Iraqi experimental Osiraq reactor near Baghdad in 1981, limiting Iraq’s potential to take the plutonium route to nuclear weapons. Baghdad was within range of Israeli aircraft whereas the Iranian facilities were, until recently, at the limit of Israeli Air Force capability. That has now changed with the importing of long-range versions of the US F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft – the F-15I and the F-16I. 25 of the F-15I are currently in service and Israel is building up a force of 102 F-16I aircraft, deliveries having stared in 2003.2 The Israeli Air Force has also acquired 500 earth penetrating bombs from the United States for use against underground facilities.