Sunday, February 14, 2010

"A Task that is Bigger Than Us"

A former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff is expressing concerns about his nation's ability to conduct successful, preemptive strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

In an interview with Israel's Channel 2 television, retired General Dan Halutz said the Jewish State "should not take it upon itself to be the flag-bearer of the entire Western world in the face of the Iranian threat." Halutz made the comments in response to comments from Israeli political leaders, who have vowed to "take care" of the threat from Tehran.

"I'm not some passer-by ... I've filled a few positions that give me a different level of information to the average person," he said without elaborating.

General Halutz is more than familiar with difficult military missions. He was Israel's senior military officer during the 2006 war with Hizballah. Halutz was widely criticized for his "air-centric" approach to the conflict, which quickly neutralized the terror group's fixed targets, but did little to slow the hail of rockets fired into Israel from Lebanon.

He was also criticized for his inconsistent statements on the war; on at least two occasions, General Halutz indicated the Israeli was prepared to stay the military course, while in other statements, he suggested that the IDF would complete a speedy withdrawal from southern Lebanon, in accordance with international demands.

Critics also faulted Halutz (and Israeli Army officials) for their handling of the ground campaign. As IDF forces moved into Lebanon, they encountered a network of prepared Hizballah defenses, designed to slow the advance of ground troops and inflict maximum casualties. Halutz resigned from his post on 17 August 2006, after it was revealed the IDF chief had sold off most of his investment portfolio one month earlier, after Hizballah captured two Israeli soldiers, triggering the conflict that followed.

While General Halutz clearly has an axe to grind with certain Israeli politicians--the same ones who left him "twisting in the wind" during the stock scandal and the Lebanon War post-mortem--his knowledge of air tactics and planning is beyond question. He clearly recognizes the enormous obstacles that would accompany any Israeli Air Force strike against Iran. We've outlined these difficulties in previous posts, including this one from February 2006: As we noted at the time:

"...the distance of Iran's nuclear facilities from Israel--almost 1,000 miles--creates unique challenges for the IAF. While the IAF's primary strike aircraft (the F-15I) could make the trip with external fuel tanks, other fighters (other F-15s, F-16s) would need air-to-air refueling. That's why the most important asset in any virtually any long-range strike scenario is the IAF's small fleet of KC-707 tankers.

Estimates vary on the exact numbers of tankers in the IAF inventory, but most analysts believe there are only 5-7 KC-707s. These aircraft would be an integral part of any long-range mission to Iran, providing aerial refueling and (possibly) command-and-control functions, such as radio relay. Israeli aircraft use the same "boom" refueling system as the USAF; fighters maneuver behind the tanker as the "boom operator" extends the refueling probe into the refueling receptacle of the receiving aircraft. Once contact is established, the tanker begins pumping fuel to the receiver, at a rate of several hundred pounds per minute.

The number of tankers available, coupled with their potential offload, will limit the size of any Israeli strike package. Again, estimates on the size of the formation vary (depending on the number of targets to be struck, fighter payload, target distance and airspeed), but many analysts believe the Israelis would launch 4-5 tankers, supporting no more than 30 strike aircraft, divided roughly between F-15Is and F-16Is (which would attack the nuclear facilities) and other F-15s and F-16s, flying air defense suppression and air superiority missions. Divide the number of "bombers" (say 15) by the number of nuclear complexes (four), and you'll see that the IAF has virtually no margin for error.

Four years later, the geography and support requirements for an Iran strike still haven't changed. The IAF still faces the enormous challenge of getting its strike aircraft into Iranian airspace undetected, after flying across more than 1,000 miles of hostile or neutral airspace. Forward basing in a third country--say Turkey, or the Kurdish region of Iraq--would mitigate these concerns slightly, but the Israelis remain limited in the number of aircraft they can marshal for such a mission, and the number of nuclear targets that could be attacked.

Some military analysts have also suggested that Israel might insert special forces personnel into Iran and deploy cruise missile-equipped submarines to the Persian Gulf. That would give IDF planners more assets to work with, but those options create another set of logistical and operational headaches. That's why many observers believe that any Israeli strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities would be an "air only" campaign, an option that would maximize chances for achieving tactical surprise, while minimizing operational risks.

These types of challenges clearly influenced General Halutz's comments--and it's not the first time we've heard a current or former Israeli official voice those concerns. But such observations are based (in part) on a faulty assumption; namely, that other western nations have the resolve to take on the Iranian threat.

Reviewing past "attempts" to stop the Iranian nuclear program, it's clear that the west--led by the United States--has little stomach for the military option. The Bush Administration spent roughly three years supporting talks between Tehran and the EU-3 (Great Britain, France and Germany), talks that achieved nothing.

More recently, the Obama White House is promising tougher sanctions against Iran, after giving the mullahs a year to give up their nuclear ambitions. Tehran responded with accelerated work on uranium enrichment and other elements of its weapons program; just last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran is now a "nuclear state."

Israel may not want to be the "flag-bearer" for military action against Iran's nuclear effort but (at this point) they may be our only option.


ADDENDUM: And the window for miltary action by the Israelis may be closing for good. According to an AFP dispatch from Moscow, the Russians plan to honor a long-standing contract to deliver the advanced S-3o0 air defense system to Iran. A deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council said there is "no reason" not to send the S-300 to Tehran. The presence of that system in Iran would greatly complicate Israeli planning. Defeating to S-300 requires extensive suppression efforts and stealth aircraft, elements that the IAF would find difficult to muster across long distances.


apex said...

Question: How would the use of nuclear weapons in the pre-emptive strike affect the balance? The main issue seems to be the small size of the strike packages and the resulting limits on payload lack of redundancy. The use of tactical nuclear munitions would solve the payload problem and mitigate the redundancy problem. Political fallout would be high, but would it be significantly higher than in case of a conventional attack? I ran the Natanz plant through "nuke-it" ( with a 340kt payload, and while the entire complex fits nicely into the red zone it does not appear that for a tactical weapon any surrounding settlements are even close to the blast radius. And since the release of radioactivity most likely will be inevitablein an attack on an enrichment facility, why not go whole hog from the start?


Unknown said... has an article that states that Russia will NOT deliver the S-300 missile system to Tehran.

That will mean the Israelis will face a less capable air defense system. I think that's a good thing.