Thursday, December 04, 2008

Going it Alone

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel is "drawing up plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities," and is prepared to strike "without U.S. backing."

Officials in the Israeli Defence Ministry told the Post that while they prefer to act in consultation with the US, they were preparing plans that would allow them to act in isolation.

"It is always better to coordinate," a senior Defence Ministry official told the newspaper. "But we are also preparing options that do not include coordination."

But the day after the Post report appeared, Israeli defense officials appeared to back away from those claims, telling the U.K. Times a unilateral strike by the IDF would "probably fail" to take out all of Iran's nuclear facilities. That would leave Israel potentially vulnerable to an Iranian counter-strike, particularly after Tehran develops nuclear weapons.

“We could not risk an operation which would only partially succeed," one defence official told The Times.

Still, that unnamed defense official and at least one member of the Parliament refused to rule out the option of a unilateral attack. "There is always the option of Israel going it alone. It just does not seem like a good option at present time,” the Knesset member told the Times.

In fact, the thrust of both the Post account and the Times article are misleading. The Israelis have always understood that the chances for a joint attack against Iran are virtually nil, for obvious political reasons. Additionally, the Israeli government realizes that last year's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) virtually eliminated the possibility of a preemptive U.S. strike. Given those realities, a unilateral Israeli attack is probably the only short-term military option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.

That's why Israeli planning is based on the "go it alone" option. When Israeli Air Force officers outlined strike options with their USAF counterparts two years ago, the plans did not call for any American involvement. The Israelis even described options for forward basing--arrangements made without U.S. consultation.

As we've noted in previous posts, Israel has more than sufficient military power to mount an air strike against Iran. Two of the three potential routes (through Turkey and around the Arabian Peninsula) would take Israeli jets outside U.S.-controlled airspace.

Obviously, the most direct routing--across Iraq--would send IAF fighters through skies patrolled by the U.S. military. But the presence of American aircraft does not preclude the Iraq route. Even without the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) codes mentioned in the Times account, the Israelis could still send their strike package through Iraq, and face only a moderate risk.

We base that assessment on several factors. First, in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom (and the end of Saddam's air force), we removed AWACS aircraft and Patriot batteries from the country. Radar coverage of Iraq is now based largely on ground sites and controllers, who vector our fighters toward suspicious tracks. Due to terrain and other factors, ground based radar often has coverage gaps, particularly at low altitude, that could be exploited by an in-bound strike package.

Secondly, assuming that the Israeli formation is detected, it wouldn't be difficult to discern their intentions, based on its likely heading and composition. At that point, American commanders would face an immediate--and crucial decision--do they send our fighters against the IAF, or simply watch them go by? There's ample reason to believe that we would let the Israelis pass, knowing their destination.

Besides, the U.S. will be accused of complicity in the attack, regardless of our actual reaction. Just one more reason to let the Israelis pass, and make our protests later, through diplomatic channels.

However, with a new administration taking office, Israel may be less inclined to jeopardize its relationship with Washington. That's one reason that a flight path across southern Turkey may be Israel's most viable option. Taking advantage of rugged terrain and various deception options, IAF jets could fly through Turkish airspace with even lower odds of detection. In fact, many U.S. assessments of Israeli strike profiles are based on routing through Turkey, rather than Iraq.

This much we know: with Iran's nuclear program continuing apace, Israel's moment of decision is rapidly approaching. The Israeli government has long been prepared to "go it alone." The real question is when the "execute" order might be issued.

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More on the Israeli decision-making process (and possible strike scenarios) from Rick Moran at RightWing Nuthouse.

5 comments:

Ed Rasimus said...

Certainly a cogent analysis. Whether or not Israel is truly "going it alone" is something which would be very compartmentalized. I somehow doubt that we would be totally out of the loop although that would seem to be an increasing possibility by most estimates of the incoming administration.

Israel has generally demonstrated incredible capability with regard to air operations. Recently their Lebanon ground incursion didn't look so efficient. I'd bet they can still do a pretty effective offensive surgical air strike though.

Our forces certainly couldn't be expected to launch against such an operation and certainly wouldn't want to violate Iranian airspace, now would they?

(And, in a close in air-to-air engagement we might get our butts kicked!)

Andy said...

The problem is not Israeli inbound strikers. The problem is the outbound leg. By that point, the US will be alerted and have aircraft in the air. How are those aircraft going to discern between Israeli and Iranian aircraft racing toward the border? Yes there is NCTR, but you're probably aware of the limitations there. Then there is the Israeli ability to identify US aircraft from Iranian.

You're also forgetting the naval presence in the northern gulf - a presence with powerful anti-air capabilities and our intel warning capabilities which would likely detect the preparations and launch of such a huge strike package.

And there are other problems as well. By taking unilateral unannounced action, Israel would put our forces adjacent to Iran at immediate risk. What would happen if Iran suddenly launched a bunch of anti-ship missiles in response and one managed to hit a US ship? We'd be rightly pissed for not getting fair warning to prepare our forces for the predictable Iranian response. Such an operation risks a political disaster for Israel and serious damage in US/Israeli relations.

Personally, I doubt Israel is dumb enough to take the operational risk, much less the political risk for what would amount to a delay in Iran's program. This operation doesn't come close to passing any kind of risk/reward metric.

Ed Rasimus said...

Sorry Andy, but I can't agree with your risk/reward analysis. The risk here is that Ahmadinejad will do exactly what he has often said he intends to do; nuke Israel. That risk is quite clear and unambiguous.

The reward is that Israel would once again clearly reiterate the post-Holocaust dictum, "Never Again!"

Would it be more than a bump in the nuclear road for Iran? One need only remember Osirak for the answer. That nuclear program was apparently not simply delayed, but destroyed for a considerable future despite Sadaam's intense desire for such weaponry.

So, risk is incredible, reward is quite apparent, and results in my analysis would be much greater than your discounted estimate.

Snake Oil Baron said...

Would it be at all possible for a significantly independent government in Iraq to go against the potential Shiite support of Iran and the general Islamic distrust of Israel and the basic gratuity towards America to just give Israel permission to use its airspace for such an operation without America's consent?

I mean, Iraqi Shiites might have friends among the Iranians but there has also been a lot of bad blood and having Israel give Iran something to think about besides how many people it will send to destabilize Iraq might be worth Iraq's consideration.

Andy said...

Ed,

To begin with Ahmadinejad does not control the military, even if he is elected. Furthermore, this whole idea that's constantly floated as some kind of unassailable truth - that Iran is undeterrable and they will nuke Israel at the first opportunity - is a bunch of Hogwash. If you look at Iranian actions over the past 15 years you'll see it's quite different than the rhetoric. They have been very smart, shrewed players. They don't take unreasonable risk. They certainly have shown zero sign they would commit seppuku by attempting some kind of nuclear first strike on Israel. Even most people in Isreal realize the threat isn't as clear and unambiguous as you seem to believe.

Furthermore, Osirak is not at all comparable to Iran's program. In a plutonium-based program (like what Osirak represented), fissile material production takes place in a single, large, easily identifiable, and easily destroyed facility. Destroy that one facility and you destroy their capability to make a weapon.

In Iran it's much different since they appear to be going the uranium route. Destroy Natanz and they can rebuild their cascades - which are small, don't take much power and can be hidden anywhere. Unless you can kill all their scientists and engineers, they can simply start making centrifuges again and they'll put them where no one will find them.

So at most any attack, even one by the US, will delay their program. They've already crossed the rubicon and have the technical expertise to reconstitute everything we could possibly destroy.

Israel knows this as well. If they could pull an Osirak on Iran's program they already would have - in fact that's exactly what they did with Syria. If Israel really had the capability to destroy Iran's program they wouldn't have spent the last five years leaking their attack planning to the press.