Israel does not have military capacity to strike Iran
Western intelligence experts believe that Iran's nuclear facilities are so deep underground that it would be difficult for Israel to wipe them out, or even significantly damage them, with a quick airstrike. In addition, depending on the flight route, Israeli aircraft would have to violate Jordanian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Saudi airspaces to strike Iranian targets.
The possible outlines of an Israeli attack have become a source of debate in Washington, where some analysts question whether Israel even has the military capacity to carry it off. One fear is that the United States would be sucked into finishing the job — a task that even with America’s far larger arsenal of aircraft and munitions could still take many weeks, defense analysts said. Another fear is of Iranian retaliation. “I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’ll say, ‘Here’s how it’s going to be done — handful of planes, over an evening, in and out,’ ” said Andrew R. Hoehn, a former Pentagon official who is now director of the Rand Corporation’s Project Air Force, which does extensive research for the United States Air Force. Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009, said flatly last month that airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear program were “beyond the capacity” of Israel, in part because of the distance that attack aircraft would have to travel and the scale of the task.
Assuming that Jordan tolerates the Israeli overflight, the next problem is distance. Israel has American-built F-15I and F-16I fighter jets that can carry bombs to the targets, but their range — depending on altitude, speed and payload — falls far short of the minimum 2,000-mile round trip. That does not include an aircraft’s “loiter time” over a target plus the potential of having to fight off attacks from Iranian missiles and planes. In any possibility, Israel would have to use airborne refueling planes, called tankers, but Israel is not thought to have enough. Scott Johnson, an analyst at the defense consulting firm IHS Jane’s and the leader of a team preparing an online seminar on Israeli strike possibilities on Iran, said that Israel had eight KC-707 American-made tankers, although it is not clear they are all in operation. It is possible, he said, that Israel has reconfigured existing planes into tankers to use in a strike. Even so, any number of tankers would need to be protected by ever more fighter planes. “So the numbers you need just skyrocket,” Mr. Johnson said. Israel has about 125 F-15Is and F-16Is. One possibility, Mr. Johnson said, would be to fly the tankers as high as 50,000 feet, making them hard for air defenses to hit, and then have them drop down to a lower altitude to meet up with the fighter jets to refuel.
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The Arab world has a begrudging respect for Israeli air power, in particular due to its prowess demonstrated in the Arab-Israeli wars, air battles with Syrian aircraft in struggles over Lebanon, the air strikes against Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) headquarters in Tunis, and the preventive air strikes against Iraq's nuclear reactor. The mystique of Israeli air power, however, probably is larger than reality in the case of Iran, which is located a far reach from Israeli airspace. Depending on the flight route, Israeli aircraft would have to violate Jordanian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Saudi airspaces to strike Iranian targets. While some speculate that Israel could gain basing support to launch aircraft from Turkish bases, Ankara's unease with working with the Americans vis-à-vis Iraq shows how squeamish the Turks are over relations with their southern neighbors. The Israeli air force's ability to generate sorties for a sustained air bombardment of Iranian nuclear weapons-related facilities, moreover, pales in comparison of that of the United States which enjoys wide access in the Persian Gulf, both in host countries and based on aircraft carriers.
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In 1981, Israel chose to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor by means of an air strike. In early 2006, former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon indicated that in addition to an air strike, Israel possessed a number of other options for military action in Iran. Indeed, while the most frequently discussed option is an aerial attack, an air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would inevitably be problematic and occur under difficult conditions. Although American and Israeli operational capabilities to attack the Iranian facilities from the air have improved significantly over the past twenty-five years, Iranian nuclear facilities are 1,200-1,500 kilometers from Israel, much further away than the Iraqi reactor. The distance could be even longer if the planes need to bypass Jordanian airspace to avoid a crisis in Israeli-Jordanian relations, or refrain from flying over Iraq if the operation is not coordinated with the United States and as such take an alternative route via the Indian Ocean. In order to travel such distances, the Israeli planes would need to refuel in mid-flight twice, once on the way to their targets and once on the way back. This in turn would make the operation even more complicated, due to the vulnerability of the fuel planes. Moreover, the Iranian facilities are carefully sheltered, with some located deep underground, and are well protected by air defenses and interceptor planes. All this will require that the attack be carried out by a relatively large force, including attack planes, interceptors planes, fuel planes, and additional supporting aircraft, all of which would be vulnerable to interference and mishaps.
Western intelligence experts believe that Iran's nuclear facilities are so deep underground that it would be difficult for Israel to wipe them out, or even significantly damage them, with a quick airstrike. In order to deal a serious setback to Iran's nuclear program, at least four key sites inside Iran would have to be hit, said one Western official, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information. The facilities, however, are located in tunnels fortified by barriers more than 60 feet thick. According to this official and other U.S. experts, Israel does not possess conventional weapons capable of knocking out the facilities. Breaking through the thick shell would require, at minimum, several bunker-buster bombs striking precisely the same spot. "These targets would be very hard to destroy," said former U.N. nuclear expert David Albright. Theoretically, Israel could do a lot more damage with a nuclear strike. But U.S. and other Western experts say there is no reason to believe the Israelis will abandon their policy against shooting first with nukes.
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To make matters worse, the indications are that it would be very hard for the Israeli air force, superb though it is, to pull the mission off. Thus, an analysis by two members of the Security Studies Program at MIT concluded that while “the Israeli air force now possesses the capability to destroy even well-hardened targets in Iran with some degree of confidence,” the problem is that for the mission to succeed, all of the many contingencies involved would have to go right. Hence an Israeli attempt could end with the worst of all possible outcomes: retaliatory measures by the Iranians even as their nuclear program remained unscathed. We, on the other hand, would have a much bigger margin of error and a much better chance of setting their program back by a minimum of five or ten years and at best wiping it out altogether.
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Some political leaders and analysts have questioned the technical capability of Israel to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities. Experts suggest that the task is beyond current Israeli capabilities.39 Israel, they maintain, might be able to conduct a raid, but not an extended air campaign. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also hinted that this might be the case. In a far-reaching interview he addressed the question of Israeli military action against Iran: “One senses a megalomania and a loss of proportion in the things said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion. We are a country that has lost a sense of scale.”40 If these assessments are correct, Israel would be capable of initiating a war with Iran but would need the United States’ help in concluding it, something the United States may choose not to do. In any event, relationships between Israel and America would be severely tested by such events.
Israel also faces limits on its military capabilities. Strong as Israeli forces are, they lack the scale, range and other capabilities to carry out the kind of massive strike the U.S. could launch. Israel does not have the density and quality of intelligence assets necessary to reliably assess the damage done to a wide range of small and disperse targets and to detect new Iranian efforts. Israel has enough strike-attack aircraft and fighters in inventory to carry out a series of restrikes if Iran persisted in rebuilding, but it could not refuel a large-enough force, or provide enough intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities, to keep striking Iran at anything like the necessary scale. Moreover, Israel does not have enough forces to carry out a series of restrikes if Iran persisted in creating and rebuilding new facilities, and Arab states could not repeatedly standby and let Israel penetrate their air space. Israel might also have to deal with a Russia that would be far more willing to sell Iran advanced fighters and surface-to-air missiles if Israel attacked the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr. These problems are why a number of senior Israeli intelligence experts and military officers feel that Israel should not strike Iran, although few would recommend that Israel avoid using the threat of such strikes to help U.S. and other diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to halt. For example, retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom advocates, like a number of other Israeli experts, reliance on deterrence and Israel's steadily improving missile defenses.
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These relatively upbeat ballistic assessments do not mean that the mission as a whole would be easy. On the contrary, a coordinated air attack would be complicated and highly risky. The three plausible routes to Iran involve overflight of third countries: the northern approach would likely follow the Syrian-Turkish border and risk violation of Turkey’s airspace; the central flight path would cross Jordan and Iraq; a southern route would transit the lower end of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and possibly Kuwait. All but two of these countries are to a greater or lesser degree hostile to Israel. The exceptions, Jordan and Turkey, would not wish their airspace to be used for an Israeli attack against Iran. Turkey recently canceled an annual trilateral exercise involving Israel, in part to signal its opposition to an Israeli strike. In any case, overflight would jeopardize Israeli diplomatic relations with both countries. With respect to Syria and Saudi Arabia, operational concerns would trump diplomatic ones. If either country detects Israeli aircraft and chooses to challenge the overflight using surfaceto- air missiles or intercepting aircraft, Israel’s intricate attack plan, which would have a razor-thin margin for error to begin with, could well be derailed.