According to a report in today's edition of The New York Times, Iran is beginning to enrich uranium on a much larger scale than previously thought, putting Tehran on a faster track toward obtaining nuclear weapons. Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tell the Times that a recent, short-notice inspection of the enrichment facility at Natanz revealed that the Iranians now have 1,300 centrifuges in operation, with the capability to increase that number to 3,000 by the end of June, and 8,000 by the end of the year.
The 3,000 centrifuge array would represent an important benchmark for Iran, because it produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for one bomb a year, assuming that Tehran can attain the 90% purity level required for nuclear weapons. IAEA tests indicate that the Iranian centrifuges are now producing material with a purity of only 5%, sufficient to fuel a nuclear reactor, but hardly weapons-grade.
Reports that Tehran is moving ahead with its enrichment program have renewed speculation about a possible Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Over at Contentions, senior editor Gabriel Schoenfeld reexamines the question of whether the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has the resources to mount an effective attack against the four main nuclear complexes in Iran. As Mr. Schoenfeld notes, any strike against Iran would be far more complex than the successful 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak reactor. In a nutshell, an attack against Iran would require more aircraft flying longer distances, and dropping more weapons against targets that (in some cases) are hardened and buried. Needless to say, the IAF's chances of achieving complete success--as it did at Osirak--are slim, at best.
In his assessment, Mr. Schoenfeld notes a recent analysis of Israeli's military options by MIT military analysts, Whitney Raas and Austin Long. I've read their assessment, which appeared in the spring issue of International Security. In some respects, their analysis is quite good; Raas and Long do an excellent job in discussing the "weaponeering" aspects of an Israeli raid, describing the types of bombs that would be used and delivery techniques. Raas and Long believe that the IAF would use a technique called "burrowing" to broach the underground facilities at Natanz; burrowing entails a sequenced drop of multiple precision-guided munitions against the same aim point at pre-determined intervals. The result is a steadily-expanding blast hole that eventually reaches and penetrates bunkers that house the centrifuges, allowing the final bombs to destroy them. Burrowing also allows the IAF to forgo the use of tactical nuclear weapons in striking Iran--a critical political and diplomatic consideration.
Along with their weaponeering assessment, Raas and Long also offer an excellent discussion of potential flight routes for the Israeli strike package. Their analysis essentially mirrors what we've published in the past; the most likely options would carry Israeli fighters (and possibly, support aircraft) along a northern route (through Turkey); on a "central" route (through Iraq), or along a more "southern" corridor, following the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The MIT analysts note the importance of in-flight refueling in supporting this option; however, Raas and Long believe the tanker rendezvous would occur over the Mediterranean--during the early stages of the mission. Conversely, they don't envision the KC-707s accompanying the fighters along much of their ingress and egress routes, a tactic postulated in several western military assessments. Using that approach, the strike aircraft could "hide" in the radar shadow of the tanker, which would probably pose as a civilian airliner or cargo aircraft, allowing the formations to maintain tactical surprise as they approach Iranian airspace.
If there's a flaw in the analysis of Raas and Long, it's their failure to consider the IAF's long history of tactical deception in key operations. In the past, the Israelis have gone to great lengths to mask operational intentions and deny early warning to their enemies. Before the 1967 war, IAF formations routinely flew to the edge of Egyptian airspace before turning away at the last moment. The Egyptians became so familiar with the pattern that they eventually stopped responding. On the day the war began, IAF squadrons thundered down the Nile Valley unopposed, because the Egyptians were expecting the Israelis to turn back.
Before the Bekka Valley campaign in 1982, the Syrians decided to quit wasting AAA rounds on Israeli drones that flew over their positions daily. Many of their gunners paid for that mistake with their lives; when the air campaign began, some of those drones--attack models rather that reconnaissance versions--dove on Syrian air defense positions, destroying a number of guns, radars and surface-to-air missile sites. The IAF also masked its 1995 long-range strike against PLO headquarters in Tunis, hiding its jets behind commercial jet traffic flying across the Mediterranean. See a pattern?
It's almost impossible to imagine that the Israelis wouldn't use some measure of deception in their planning against Iran, but Raas and Long don't factor that into their analysis. The need to maintain an element of surprise--over extended distances--virtually compels the use of deceptive measures, which (in turn) would dictate smaller attack formations and fewer weapons. The MIT assessment suggests that the IAF would assign as many as 50 strike aircraft--an equal number of F-15Is and F-16Is--to the mission, but most USAF experts believe the actual number would be only half as many. Our own analysis tends to mirror that of the Air Force; the requirement of getting strike packages to targets 1,000 miles away--without tipping off Iran's air defense system--will restrict the number of strike aircraft, as will the limited number of KC-707s available to support the mission.
The MIT team is correct in its bottom-line; the IAF does have the ability to strike Iran, and inflict significant damage to its nuclear program. But whether Israel has the political will to mount the attack remains to be seen; the Olmert government remains in crisis, and support for the prime minister is at/near an all-time low. Those facts have not been wasted on Ahmadinejad, who is pressing ahead with his enrichment program while Israel is preoccupied with domestic politics. And that, of course, raises the other scenario, involving a possible U.S. strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities. But there are no signs that an American attack is in the offing, either. As we've noted before, the window for action--hitting Iran before it can start building nuclear weapons--is closing fast.
Previous on the subject:
Getting to Iran
Can Israel Strike Iran
Israel's Military Options, Revisited
What the "Beeb" Doesn't Tell You