Friday, April 25, 2008

Ready for Any Threat

Around our house, 60 Minutes isn't exactly appointment television, but we'll make an exception on Sunday night.

This week's edition features a report on the Israeli Air Force, and it comes at a particularly critical moment. Just yesterday, U.S. intelligence officials publicly confirmed that Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria last year--a facility only weeks or months away from operation, and capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, tensions with Iran remain high, amid Tehran's recent disclosure that its uranium enrichment efforts are expanding.

As correspondent Bob Simon notes, the IAF represents the elite of the Israeli military. Only the best recruits enter the service's pilot training program and among that group, only 1 in 40 winds up in a fighter cockpit. Against foes pursuing nuclear arms, the IAF remains the nation's first line of defense. As one IAF base commander told Mr. Simon bluntly, "The first war we lose, Israel ceases to exist."

While the IAF remains the premiere Air Force in the Middle East (and perhaps the best in the world), the service's reputation was tarnished a bit in the 2006 war with Hizballah. Despite flying thousands of sorties, Israeli pilots were unable to slow the barrage of terrorist rockets that fell on northern Israel.

In fairness, the "failure" of the IAF was actually a failure of strategy; Israeli officials (including then-Chief of Staff Lt Gen Dan Halutz) put too much stock in airpower, without the necessary--and concurrent--ground effort needed to clear terrorist sanctuaries in southern Lebanon. The IAF was successful in targeting long-range rockets that threatened major Israeli cities, eliminating them, in some cases, just hours after they reached the battlefield.

A war with Iran would pose different, but equally difficult challenges. Veterans of the 1981 strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor were interviewed for the segment, and note that Tehran's program is widely dispersed, with multiple targets and aim points:

Zeev Raz, the commander of that mission, compares the situations. "We had one point to destroy. They have many points, many of them deep under the mountains…underground and it’s a much more complicated problem [than in] 1981," he tells Simon. "I really hope it will be solved another way. There is only one thing worse than the Israel air force having to do it - Iran having a nuclear bomb," says Raz.

We've analyzed the operational issues associated with an Israeli airstrike on several occasions, including this post from two years ago. Armchair analysts often look at such factors as the number of F-15Is or F-16Is that Israel could muster for the raid, and the types of weaponry they might carry.

Obviously, those are key considerations. But the "long pole" in the tent for a 2,000-mile round-trip mission is actually Israel's air refueling fleet. The IAF has 5-7 KC-707 tankers, with enough off-load capability for about two dozen fighters, striking at least three separate facilities. Given those realities, the margin for error decreases both suddenly, and dramatically.

We're not sure if the 60 Minutes report will cover those areas, but they certainly influence Israel's strategic calculus. The IAF is certainly ready for any mission, including a strike on Iran. But taking out all the critical elements of Iran's nuclear program, on a single mission, would require all of the skill and courage that the IAF is famous for.

It's an tremendous challenge. But, as Israel's enemies have learned on countless occasions, it's unwise to bet against the IAF.

No comments: