Israel's defense minister has hinted (again) that his country country is preparing for military action to stop Iran's nuclear program.
Speaking at an academic conference, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that "Israel will not accept an Iranian nuclear capability and must have the capability to defend itself, with all that implies and we are preparing." However, he stopped short of actually threatening a strike against Iran, and said that international diplomacy should be the first course of action.
If you've been following the escalating nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran, the comments of Mofaz are hardly surprising; in fact, they largely mirror statements from other senior Israeli officials, including the now-incapacitated Ariel Sharon. For more than a year, members of the Sharon government have hinted that there is a "red line" that Iran will not be allowed to cross. And if passes that point, then Israel retains the right to use military force. The Israelis have been deliberately vague on what constitutes the "red line," reflecting debate within the government on the status of Iran's program, and to avoid tipping Israel's hand, should military action become necessary.
Israel has strike plans for Iran on the books for some time, as a matter of prudent military planning. The Israelis have been watching the threat from Iran evolve for more than 20 years; as Tehran developed the means for hitting Israel (with deployment of its SHAHAB-3 medium-range missiles), the Israelis refined their plans, incoporating new intelligence data and the capabilities of new weapons systems that could be used against Iran, namely the F-15I (Israel's version of the F-15E Strike Eagle), and the JDAM satellite-guided bomb, useful for precision attacks against high value targets.
In the coming weeks, we'll address the military balance of power between Tehran and Tel Aviv, focusing on the operational issues that confront both countries. We'll begin (briefly) with some potential indicators that Israel is moving toward an actual strike on Iran. These are the types of indicators intelligence analysts would look for, in an effort to divine Tel Aviv's intentions; a few are listed below:
-- Increased flight training by Israeli Air Force (IAF) F-15I, F-15C and F-16I squadrons (all three aircraft types would likely be used in an attack against Iran).
-- Heightened training between Israeli fighters and IAF tanker aircraft (Israeli strike fighters would need to be refuled in flight at least twice during the long-range mission to Iran and back)
-- Increased activity/readiness among Israeli missile defense batterys (Arrow II and Patriot); these assets would protect Israel from an Iranian counter-strike with Shahab-3s
-- Statements by Israeli leaders designed to prepare the populace for military action and a possible response by Tehran; these statements would focus on the imminent danger posed by Iran's WMD and missile programs
-- Increased security/air defense deployments near Israeli nuclear facilities, including its primary complex in the Negev Desert
-- Short-notice or increased IAF deployments to Turkey. The Israelis have a close military relationship with Ankara, and Turkey's vast airspace allows IAF crews a chance to practice long-range navigation and air refueling skills required for a strike against Iran. However, it is exceedingly unlikely that Israel would launch such a strike from Turkish soil, since it would effectively end Tel Aviv's important alliance with Ankara
-- Increased activity among Israel's medium-range missile force, specifically deployments or dispersals of the Jericho II MRBM, capable of hitting Iran with conventional or nuclear weapons
-- Heightened training activity among Israeli commando and search-and-rescue (SAR) forces, which would support strike operations
-- Increased civil defense preparations for Israel's civilian population
These are but a few of the indicators that might suggest that Israel is preparing to strike Iran. But these signals are hardly clear; for example, the IAF routinely sustains a high operational tempo; preparations for a mission to Iran could be easily concealed within normal training activity. Additionally, the Israelis do an effective job of masking other indicators; the Jericho II is rarely seen outside its bunkers, and potential movements or deployments would be timed during periods when U.S. surveillance platforms aren't looking. Such operations would also be carried out under strict security, with minimal radio or phone traffic that might provide another tip-off.
In terms of indicators for a potential Israeli attack, we know what to look for. Unfortunately, the Israelis also know what we're looking for, and they know how to hide them.