< !DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd">
The United States had engaged in a high profile coercive deployment of naval forces in the Gulf from end 2006 to early 2007 to deter Iran from proceeding apace with its nuclear enrichment programme.1 There was massive (planted) speculation in the media about an impending US strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.2 Iran stuck to its stand that it was entitled to pursue peaceful development of nuclear energy and apparently refused to blink. There was tremendous speculation about the cost-benefit aspects of such an US attack. Air strikes would certainly have put back the Iranian nuclear programme by a few years.
However, the Iranian retaliation, primarily through means of asymmetric warfare options, and its capability to target shipping/oil lanes in the Gulf, threatened to entrain an escalator where the endgame would have become highly risky. It could have derailed the global economy and generated a world wide recession with the price of oil soaring beyond the US $ 200 a barrel mark.
US air strikes was only one scenario. The second and even more plausible scenario is the option of an Israeli air strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities.
With the US intelligence estimates that Iran had halted its drive for nuclear weaponisation the world heaved a sigh of relief and there was a visible de-escalation in the strident rhetoric for then. There are however some indications of a change in the scenario once again. US air strikes was only one scenario. The second and even more plausible scenario is the option of an Israeli air strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. With the Israeli air strike on the Syrian nuclear facility at Al Kabir in September 2007, this scenario has become even more credible.
The Times of India dated June 21, 2008 issue cited a report by Micheal R Gorden and Eric Schmitt that Israel carried out a major military exercise in the first week of June 2008, which appeared to be a full dress rehearsal for a potential bombing attack on Irans nuclear facilities.3 US officials said that the Israeli exercise appeared to be an effort to develop the countrys long range strike potential and demonstrate the seriousness with which it views Irans nuclear programme.4 Was it another coercive exercise to deter Iran or a full fledged rehearsal for an impending Israeli strike on Irans nuclear facilities?
Media reports speculated that over a 100 Israeli F-15 and F-16 aircraft had taken part in these manoeuvers over the Eastern Mediterranean over Greece and Crete.5 The exercise also included Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue downed pilots. The helicopters and refueling tankers flew over 900 miles ““ the approximate distance between Israel and nuclear target sets in Iran.6
Glorious Spartan 08
In Athens, an official of the Greek Air Force Central Command, confirmed, that it had taken part in a joint training exercise with Israel off the Mediterranean island of Crete. Named Glorious Spartan 08. These exercises, were conducted from May 28 to June 12, 2008.7 It was a highly visible and coercive exercise intended to demonstrate Israels serious concern over Irans nuclear ambitions. In fact, on June 6, Israels Deputy Prime Minister, Shaul Mofaz, warned that Iran would face attacks if it pursues what he said was its nuclear weapons programme.8 The Mossad was said to be behind the car bomb attack that killed a top terror tactician of Iran (Imad Mug Niyeh) in Damascus on February 13, 2008. The Mossad Director Meir Dagan got an extension till 2009 which is being linked to Israels likely plans for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Some sources speculate that this would have to happen before September/October 2008 if the Iranian nuclear enrichment activity is to be effectively prevented.
Mossad Director Meir Dagan got an extension till 2009 which is being linked to Israels likely plans for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The escalator to a probable conflict has been entrained. A series of such exercises and naval demonstrations could be part of a coercive diplomacy exercise to deter Iran from the nuclear weapons option. Alternatively, a series of such exercises could generate ambiguity, and serve to desensitise the target over time, so that, repeated alerts on the part of the defender, lowers his arousal thresholds, and help in achieving surprise, when the actual attack comes.
This paper will steer clear of value judgments on the proliferation issues involved and focus on a purely military net assessment of likely conflict scenarios that could emerge in the Gulf in case of an Israeli attack on Irans nuclear facilities. Given the presidential elections in America, and the overstretch its forces are facing in Afghanistan and Iraq, the likelihood of an American air-land invasion, or pure air and naval aviation strikes, seem increasingly less probable. However, the Israeli option remains open and fairly credible.
This paper will employ the technique of pattern modelling 9 to discern the shape and basic contours of an Israeli air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Towards this end it will :-
- Study the Israeli attack on Iraqs Osirak reactor.
- Speculate upon the likely details of an Israeli air strike option on Iranian nuclear facilities.
- Briefly examine Iranian response options (this will merit a separate analytical paper).
- Examine the impact on India of such a hypothetical conflict scenario in the Gulf.
In a very meticulous paper entitled “Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities”, Whitney Raas and Austin Lang (International Security Vol No 31. Spring 2007), have carried out an excellent analysis of Israels raid on the Iraqi Osirak Reactor of June 7, 1981.10 They have gone on to outline an equally credible net assessment of an Israeli directed strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The paper is rather insightful and revealing, and merits study in detail.
The Osirak Raid
On June 7, 1981, Israel had launched one of the most ambitious preventive attacks in history. Israels Mossad had sought to buy time by allegedly sabotaging the reactor cores before the French companies could supply them to Iraq and assassinated some key Iraqi nuclear officials. In Oct 1980, Mossad reported to the Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin that Osirak Reactor would be operational by June 1981. There was intense debate in the Israeli Government before the final clearance was given.11
The Israeli Air Force employed a strike package of 16 aircraft (8 x F-15s and 8 x F-16s). These took off from Etzion air base in the Sinai desert. Their flight profiles were low altitude across the Gulf of Aquaba, southern Jordan and then across northern Saudi Arabia to the target. The F-16s carried 2 x MK-84, 2,000 Ib bombs each with delayed action fuzes. Though these were dumb gravity bombs, the F-16 aircraft did have onboard targeting computer systems that could make their delivery fairly accurate. However, such accuracy was required that the planes get close to the target.12 The strike package arrived near the Osirak reactor completely undetected. The F-15s then climbed up to establish a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) to intercept any Iraqi fighters that would attempt to challenge the mission.
The F-16s formed up at predetermined points to begin their bombing runs. About four miles from the target, the F16s climbed to 5,000 feet to dive at Osirak and release their bomb loads. Despite some navigation problems and Iraqi air defenses, at least 8 of the 16 bombs struck the containment dome of the reactor. The strike package then turned and climbed to high altitude and returned to base along much the same route it had adopted for entry. All the 16 aircraft returned safely to base. The results were spectacular. Bomb damage assessment showed that the Iraqi reactor was totally destroyed.13
Israeli Strike on Iranian Nuclear Facilities: Target Analysis
For this analysis, this paper will rely on the excellent net assessment of Whitney Raas and Austin Lang that has been cited earlier.
Iranian Target Sets
The Rass and Lang paper states that Iran has obviously learnt the lessons of the Osirak raid. Its nuclear facilities, it claims, are widely dispersed. The paper asserts that Iran is pursuing multiple pathways to nuclear weapons capability to include Uranium enrichment and Plutonium production concurrently. The Uranium enrichment pathway, it avers, is significantly more advanced than the Plutonium production route presently.14 As such, the paper identifies the following Iranian target sets (the three critical Iranian nodes for the production of fissile material):-
- Isfahan Uranium conversion facility at Isfahan.
- Natanz The large uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.
- Arak Heavy water (HW) plant and plutonium production reactors under construction at Arak.
- Bushehr The paper analyses the projected plans for construction of the light water reactor with Russian aid at Bushehr. However, it feels that this is not a hardened site and being on the coast, could be better struck by submarine launched cruise missiles.15 A detailed analysis of the three earlier target sets would now be essential.
Isfahan. Irans nuclear conversion facility at Isfahan, the Raas and Lang paper asserts, is the primary chemical facility for Irans nuclear programme. This facility produces uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the feed gas for uranium centrifuges, uranium dioxide (UO2) for reactor fuel, and uranium metal. Destruction of this facility could result in significant production of hydrofluoric acid which is a highly corrosive chemical. Major risks of collateral damage would be inherent, as this facility is located fairly close to the major population centre of Isfahan. The destruction of this facility, the paper claims, would interrupt the production of UF6 feed gas for enrichment at Natanz as well as production of UO2 fuel for future heavy water reactors at Arak.16
Iran and India had earlier closed ranks to support the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban-al Qaeda combine. Israeli or US attacks could cause Iran to make expedient tactical shifts and provide support to Taliban and al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan.
Natanz. The paper identifies the Natanz facility as the next critical link. This site is 200 miles south of Tehran and 40 miles from the nearest city. It comprises a pilot fuel enrichment plant, and, as the paper asserts, a much larger commercial plant underground which is awaiting arrival of thousands of centrifuges. As such the optimal time for the strike, Raas and Lang feel, would be once the centrifuges are installed but before a large quantity of UF6 has been introduced. Bombing the empty hall prior to centrifuge installation would be futile in terms of an anti-proliferation strike.17
Arak. The HW plant and plutonium production reactor at Arak constitute a very large facility, located some 150 miles south-west of Tehran. The site itself is some 20 miles from the nearest town. The paper claims that Iran has a small research reactor that uses HW as coolant, but the Arak HW facility, will be able to produce more than 16 tons of HW per year”“a capability, it asserts, is far in excess of the civilian requirements. The two Arak reactors are scheduled for completion by 2014, and as Raas and Lang assert, they could produce weapons grade Plutonium.18
Israeli Strike Options
Heaving defined the Iranian target sets, Raas and Lang have gone on to examine in comprehensive detail, the Israeli strike options. The capabilities of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) are far more advanced today (in terms of enhanced accuracy and ability to penetrate hardened targets such as reactor containment) than they were in 1981 at the time of the Osirak raid. Acquisition of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) in 1980s and 1990s, means that the dynamics of IAF bombing have been transformed. The Lo-Lo-High mission profile would now be redundant. Accurate delivery would no longer require approach at low altitudes and then popping up to dive directly on target.
The Israeli strike package would now come at mid or high altitude, navigate accurately due to GPS, and attack the target with laser-guided bombs (LGBs) or GPS-guided munitions from standoff ranges of at least 15 kms or more. CEP at the time of the Osirak raid was of the order of 8-12 metres (due to computerised aiming system of the F-16). GPS guided munitions can achieve the same accuracy today from a 15 km standoff range and high altitude delivery. Laser-guided bombs could give a CEP of about 3 metres from the same stand off range.19
Target penetration levels have also been greatly enhanced with the use of “bunker busters” or penetrating warheads with delayed action fuzes. These are delivered from high altitudes at steep angles and can penetrate tens of feet of earth and even several feet of reinforced concrete. Possible options in the Israeli inventory are :-
- PB 500 AI A 1,000 lb class penetrating bomb.
- BLU-109 A 2,000 lb class penetrating war head.
- BLU-113 A 5,000 lb class penetrating war head.20
Accuracy could be further enhanced by laser designation of the targets by Israeli Special Forces (SF). The article cites Maj Gen Etyan Ben Elyahu (former Commander of IAF who took part in Osirak raid) as saying that even if one BLU-113 did not penetrate the earth and concrete at Natanz, two successive strikes could do so. A combined blast of three BLU -113s he felt, could destroy the Natanz facilities. For complete assurance levels, a combination of BLU-113s and BLU-109s may be required. The other two target sets at Isfahan and Arak are not hardened as of now, and would be relatively easier to tackle. These may well be targeted by the smaller BLU-109 warheads.21
The Israeli strike at PLO headquarters at Tunis in 1985 amply demonstrated Israeli deep strike capabilities upto a range of almost 4,000 kms. Today these capabilities remain centered on the F-15s and F-16s. The IAF now has 25x F-151 Raas and 25 or more F-161 Soufa aircraft which have been specially configured for deep strike. Both these planes have an unrefuelled combat radius of 1,700 kms with external drop tanks. The F-16 I could deliver 2Ã—2,000 lb bombs while carrying external fuel tanks. Both types of aircraft have advanced ECM suites and remain capable of air”“to”“air combat. Whitney Raas and Austin Lang have envisioned a 50 strong strike package of 25x F-15 Is and 25xF-16 Is.
The capabilities of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) are far more advanced today (in terms of enhanced accuracy and ability to penetrate hardened targets such as reactor containment) than they were in 1981 at the time of the Osirak raid.
This package would be divided into three smaller strike packages (one for each facility) Any larger strike package22 than this would strain Israeli refuelling capabilities. The paper has considered three routing options as under:-
- Northern Route Fly North to the Mediterranean sea, refuel ex airborne tankers, fly East over Turkey to strike Iran Total route length 2,220 kms approx.
- Osirak Route Fly South-east, skirt Jordan and Saudi Arabia, fly North-east over Iraq (with mid-air refuelling) and into Iran. This would largely be the Osirak route. Total length 2,160 kms.
- Southern Route Fly South-east, then East along Saudi”“Iraqi border to the Persian Gulf, refuel either over Saudi territory or the Gulf and on to Iran. At 2,410 kms, this is the longest routing option and would entail refuelling twice, both on the way out and in.23
Israel has a fleet of 4 to 5 KC-130s and 5 to 7 KC-707s. For a strike package of 50 aircraft, the KC-707 fleet could deliver 12 to 16,000 lbs at a distance of 1,000 NM. All the three routing options would need refuelling twice, especially, if air”“to”“air combat takes place short of or over the target.24
Analysis: Raas and Lang Paper
The paper is silent about the aspect of reduction in range if the F-161s carry the 5,000 lbs BLU-113 warheads. Presumably, air”“to”“air refuelling on both the route in and route out of the flight path could overcome this constraint. However, the transit of such a huge strike package over the territories of Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Turkey is a major grey area that almost rules out these routing options. All that is left is the classical Osirak route over Iraq. The paper has also not gone into details of the suppression effort required to neutralise Iranian air defences, the electronic suppression measures and whether a Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW or AWAC) would be needed to control the air-to-air battle that is bound to result as the strike packages penetrate Iranian airspace.
Employment of Special Forces
After the experience gained in trying to co-ordinate the three wings of the Israeli Special Forces (Sayeret Matkal of the Israeli Intelligence, Shaldag of the IAF and Sahyetet 13 Commandoes of the Israeli Navy) during the 2006 conflict in Lebanon, the Israelis have now set up the Special Forces Command or the “Deep Command”.25 This is now responsible for commanding and co-ordinating all operations beyond Territorial Command Theatres. It is headed by Brig Gen Tal Russo, a veteran Special Forces officer, and is now the Israeli Defence Forces Eighth HQ authorised to operate forces”“the other being Air HQ, Naval HQ, Northern, Central, Southern and Home Front Commands as also the AMAN”“or Israeli Intelligence.
The Deep Command was specifically established with potential conflicts in distant theatres like Iran in mind. This previously was solely the responsibility of the IAF. The Raas and Lang Paper feels that Israeli Special Forces employment will only be confined to vectoring in the air strikes with laser designators and carrying out immediate bomb damage assessment. In fact, the paper has identified the Sayeret-Shaldag Unit 5101 of the IAF, which specialises in laser designation, and Unit 5707, which specialises in real time bomb damage assessment, for this task.26 Post the war in Lebanon, the IAF primacy in matters military is being challenged by a new generation of Israeli Army Generals led by the new Chief of the General Staff Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi.
The Special Forces and Israeli Intelligence are also likely to play a more prominent role. Though destruction of the nuclear facilities may entirely be left to the IAF, Special Forces are likely to play a role in the neutralisation/elimination of key radars or command and control facilities for air defence, as Israel lacks stealth aircraft capability to take on these. Air penetration corridors may have to be cleared by Special Forces action.
Given the operational and political complexities, and also the uncertainties in execution and outcome, this option will be difficult, but not beyond the capabilities of the IAF.
However, large scale employment of Special Forces may not be likely, given the widespread nature and distance of the targets and the sheer complexity of operations involved. After all, the US Delta Forces botched attempt to rescue hostages in Iran is not a reassuring precedent. It would all be a function of the quantum and quality of human intelligence assets available to Israel within Iran itself, and the degree to which Irans air defences could be physically/electronically suppressed.
In sum, Israeli air attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities will be a very mammoth and extremely complex operation with huge in-built risks and serious potential for uncontrolled escalation and widening of the conflict. These constraints by themselves lessen the chances of the adoption of this option but cannot be ruled out altogether.
Given the operational and political complexities, and also the uncertainties in execution and outcome, this option will be difficult, but not beyond the capabilities of the IAF. The problem area would be in dealing with the likely Iranian conventional and asymmetric responses.
Iranian Response Options
A fuller treatment of Iranian response option will be carried out in a separate paper as it entails a net assessment of Iranian Force capabilities. However, briefly response options could be analysed under two heads :-
Air Defence. Iranian fighters are a mix of vintage US aircraft like the phantoms and F5 as also Russian SU-22, SU-24 fighters and 40 x Mig-29s. Since, these would be operating close to their bases they would have an advantage. Hawk SAMs would pose a threat to Israeli strike packages. There are reports of Iran having Russian SA-10 & SA-15 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). However, radar cover and command and control are weak links.27
The prolonged US involvement in the quagmire of Iraq has forced the USA to shift its focus and budgetary allocation from fighting a major conventional war (against regional adversaries like China) to counter-nsurgency.
Irans Missile Capabilities. Iran could hit targets in Israel, the Gulf countries, Middle East and even Southern Europe. Its missile inventory comprises :-
- Shabab I: Maximum range 205 miles (330 kms)
- Shahab II: Maximum range 435 miles (700 kms)
- Shabab III: Maximum range 840 miles (1,350 kms). This puts the fringes of Europe in range.28
Oil Tanker War II. Iran could blockade the Gulf of Hormuz. It could mine sea lanes and attack oil tankers with surface-to-surface missiles. This could seriously disrupt global oil supplies and push oil prices to beyond US $200 a barrel. India would be particularly affected.
- Hezbollah could open a front against Israel via Lebanon with help from Iranian Special Forces.
- Palestinian organisations could be assisted by Irans Special Forces (Al Quds detachments)
- Iranian Special Forces could strike targets in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as also assist the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Shia rebels in Iraq.29
Implications for India
Any crisis in the Persian Gulf would dramatically escalate the price of oil and thereby seriously impacting on the Indian and global economy. The price of oil could easily cross a US $200 per barrel and more. Over 68 per cent of Indias oil supplies and 100 per cent of its gas are currently sourced from the Gulf region. This dependence on Persian Gulf oil and gas is largely a function of geography, spatial distance/linkages and transportation costs. Keeping in view the extreme volatility in this region, it would be prudent for India to try and diversify its sources of energy imports and possibly try to get more oil and gas from Africa, Russia and Central Asia.
Israeli or US attacks could cause Iran to make expedient tactical shifts and provide support to Taliban and al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan. Its support to the Taliban could have a very destabilising impact on Afghanistan and by extension in J&K and the rest of India.
It may have to expedite the consolidation of its strategic petroleum reserves. Gas is going to be the primary energy source of the 21st century and our energy dependence on gas is likely to grow by leaps and bounds. Indias attempts to secure supplies of Iranian gas reserves over land routes/pipelines needs to be expedited, because of the likelihood of disruption of supplies routed through the sea. Iran and India had earlier closed ranks to support the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the Taliban-al Qaeda combine. Israeli or US attacks could cause Iran to make expedient tactical shifts and provide support to Taliban and al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan. Its support to the Taliban could have a very destabilising impact on Afghanistan and by extension in J&K and the rest of India.
It would be therefore very much in Indias interests, as also in the regional and global interests to ensure a peaceful, negotiated resolution to this crisis. It would be prudent however, to make contingency plans for the worst case scenarios that may entail a diversification of our oil and gas import sources and possibally a large scale evacuation of the Indian emigrant population from the Gulf region. The base line assumption would proceed from how likely duration of the conflict and disruption of the oil supplies. The long-term spectre of a series of failed states in Asia is chilling. It would give a major boost to the forces of destabilisation and chaos and encourage non-state actors to flourish in such shatter zones of collapse. Inconclusive conventional conflicts in the Gulf could lead to the chilling prospect of the “Somalisation” of this region. This prospect is daunting both at the regional and global level, and could have a paradoxical impact”“that the very quest for enhanced security, leads to greater destabilisation, chaos and instability.
While air strikes on Iranian nuclear/missile complexes might neutralise assumed conventional or WMD threats, these may end up creating an entire new series of asymmetric threats. In purely military terms, the outcome of this conflict would be critical for the Chinese, as it would enable them to evaluate the impact of massed ballistic/cruise missile strikes on US naval surface combatants, especially high value targets like aircraft carriers and also the efficacy of the Kilo submarines”“both, key ingredients of their access denial strategy to prevent US intervention in any hypothetical crisis in the Taiwan Straits.
The prolonged US involvement in the quagmire of Iraq has forced the USA to shift its focus and budgetary allocation from fighting a major conventional war (against regional adversaries like China) to counter-nsurgency. The Iraq experience will certainly drain American political will to engage militarily overseas. It raises the political threshold for the US to help Taiwan against China in any potential conflict. Chinese reliance on energy supplies from the Gulf is also very high, and, as such, the impact on the Chinese economy would also be equally adverse. The most likely outcome of crisis in Gulf would be a global economic recession.
- William H McMichael, "Eyes on Iran," Defense News, March 5, 2007, p.32.
- Michael Duffy, "What would War Look Like?," Time Magazine, September 2006, p. 21.
- Michael R Gordon and Eric Schmitt cited in The Times of India, June 21, 2008.
- "Attack on Iran will turn region into a Ball of Fire," report in Hindustan Times, June 22, 2008.
- Steve Chan, "The Heuristics of Warning Forecasts," a paper published in National Security Crisis Forecasting and Management, (New York: Defence Systems Incorporated, 1991). Also see Steve Weber, "Prediction and the Middle East Process," Security Studies, Summer-1997, for a fuller treatment of pattern modelling.
- Whitney Raas and Austin Lang, "Osirak Redux : Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities," International Security, Vol No 31, Spring-2007.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- Ibid., p. 10.
- Ibid., p. 11.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Ibid., p. 15.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Ibid., pp. 20-21.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Martin Van Crevald, "Israel"™s Lebanon War: A Prelimary Assessment," Royal United Services Institution (RUSI) Journal, October 2006 issue, p. 41.
- Alan Ben David, "Israel Introspects after Lebanon Offensive," James Defense Weekly, August 23, 2006, p. 19.
- Whitney Raas and Austin, n. 10.
- Miacheal Duffy, "What Would War Look Like" (Nuclear Threat Initiatives) in Graphic on targets in Iran, Time, September 25, 2006, p. 20.
- Riad Kahwaji, "Iran Vows Large Scale Retaliation if US Attacks," Defense News, June 4, 2007, p. 6.