Jonathan Karl of ABC News gets today's prize for reporting the obvious--or, at least getting the Pentagon's take on it.
Military officials tell Mr. Karl that Israel "could carry out an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities before the end of the year," with "enormous" repercussions for the United States and the rest of the world. Duh. In other words, the Pentagon sources that spoke with the ABC correspondent are saying the same thing as other analysts, both here and abroad.
A senior defense official told ABC News there is an "increasing likelihood" that Israel will carry out such an attack, a move that likely would prompt Iranian retaliation against, not just Israel, but against the United States as well.
The official identified two "red lines" that could trigger an Israeli offensive. The first is tied to when Iran's Natanz nuclear facility produces enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. According to the latest U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessments, that is likely to happen sometime in 2009, and could happen by the end of this year.
Nothing particularly revelatory there. In fact, a former Mossad chief said the same thing a few days ago. With Iran steadily expanding its centrifuge cascade at Natanz--and increasing its ability to produce enriched uranium--Israel's window for crippling that process is closing fast. At some point over the next two years, Iran will have enough material for a bomb (or perhaps multiple bombs), and ship it to another site for integration. Once that occurs, Tehran's nuclear genie is out of the bottle, and derailing its weapons program becomes infinitely more difficult.
The official also tells Mr. Karl that the second "red line" concerns an Iranian purchase of an advanced air defense system, such as the Russian-built SA-20. Similar to the U.S. Patriot, the SA-20 is a highly capable anti-aircraft and anti-missile system. More recent versions of the Favorite (as the Russian call it), have a maximum range of at least 120 nautical miles, and the newest missiles, now entering operational service, can engage targets up to 250 miles away.
While the SA-20 has long been on Iran's wish list, there is no hard evidence that Tehran has actually acquired the system. But, that moment may be approaching. In Congressional testimony last March, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Mike Maples, reported that Iran was "close" to getting the SA-20.
Exactly how close? General Maples didn't say--at least publicly. But last December, Iranian officials announced they had signed a contract for the SA-20, a claim that Russia vigorously denied. So far, the available evidence seems to support Moscow's version of events.
In the past, Tehran has balked at the SA-20's high cost. Vietnam bought the system a few years ago, paying $300 million for 12 launchers, missiles, radars and support vehicles. While the current price is believed to be higher, Iran can easily afford the purchase, with oil now trading at $140 a barrel.
Readers will recall that the Iranian military has bought advanced air defense equipment from Russian in recent years. A deal for the short-range SA-15 SAM system was concluded in late 2005; deliveries began in November of the following year and were completed in less than three months.
Acquisition of the SA-15 greatly improved Iran's point defense of key facilities, but the system has a serious weakness. With a range of less than six miles, the TOR-1M (Russian designation) cannot engage tactical aircraft employing standoff weapons, including JDAM. Consequently, the SA-15 might be more effective in an "ambush" role, along potential air routes that might be used by Israeli jets. However, that tactic would mean fewer missiles for close-in protection of its nuclear facilities.
Obviously, Iran could use a long-rage, state-of-the-art SAM system to complement the SA-15, covering large areas that are now defended by older systems like the Chinese CSA-1, the Russian-built SA-5, or the U.S.-made I-HAWK, acquired in the early 1970s. Those SAMs pose a relatively minor threat to a potential Israeli strike package.
On the other hand, the presence of SA-20 batteries in Iran would clearly impact tactical planning by the Israeli Air Force. As we observed many months ago, the task of getting to Iran would limit the size of the IAF strike package; trying counter the SA-20 threat would force the Israelis to devote more assets to the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). That means more anti-radiation missiles on the pylons and fewer bombs--further reducing the operational margin for error.
Still, Iran would be foolish to underestimate the IAF. The Israelis have other methods for hammering an air defense system (think SOF teams and information operations), tools that were reportedly used in the strike on that Syrian nuclear site last year. During that strike, the IAF flew across Syria and back again, apparently without being detected. They wouldn't necessarily need the same level of surprise against Iran--just enough delay or confusion in the air defenses to get the strike package in, and bombs on target.
And, Iran's air defense network is certainly vulnerable to that type of attack. Elements of its command-and-control (C2) system remain antiquated, and subject to spoofing and saturation. In some instances, Iranian air defense crews have come dangerously close to shooting down civilian airliners and routinely fire on military aircraft that stray off course.
But Tehran's air defenses are improving, slowly and steadily. Acquisition of the SA-20 will happen eventually, and probably sooner rather than later. Given their druthers, the Israelis would prefer to attack before the Favorite arrives in Iran. The potential presence of the SA-20 isn't a show-stopper for the Israelis, but it is a red-line that will influence any decision on striking Iran's nuclear facilities.