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