«CONTINGENCY PLANNING MEMORANDUM NO. 5 An Israeli Strike on Iran Steven Simon November 2009 The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, ...»
CONTINGENCY PLANNING MEMORANDUM NO. 5
An Israeli Strike on Iran
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Successive Israeli governments have held that a nuclear weapons capability in the region, other than Israel’s own, would pose an intolerable threat to Israel’s survival as a state and society. Iran’s nuclear program—widely regarded as an effort to obtain a nuclear weapon, or put Tehran a “turn of a screw” away from it—has triggered serious concern in Israel. Within the coming year, the Israeli government could decide, much as it did twenty-eight years ago with respect to Iraq and two years ago with respect to Syria, to attack Iran’s nuclear installations in order to delay its acquisition of a weapons capability.
While U.S. officials—including the president––have declared a nuclear armed Iran to be “unacceptable,” the administration has been clear in wanting to prevent such an outcome through peaceful diplomatic means. Without forswearing the eventual use of military force, senior U.S. officials have also indicated that a preventive strike on Iran by Israel would be “ill advised,” “very destabilizing,” and “likely very bad,” and thus not in the U.S. interest. These concerns have evidently been transmitted privately to the Israeli government.
This contingency planning memo assesses the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran despite U.S. objections, the implications for the United States should it take place, the policy options available to reduce the chances of its occurrence, and the measures that could be taken to mitigate the potentially negative consequences.
An Israeli attack would likely concentrate on three locations: Isfahan, where Iran produces uranium hexafluoride gas; Natanz, where the gas is enriched in approximately half of the eight thousand centrifuges located there; and Arak, where a heavy water research reactor, scheduled to come on line in 2012, would be ideal to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It is conceivable that Israel may attack other sites that it suspects to be part of a nuclear weapons program if targeting data were available, such as the recently disclosed Qom site, whose location is known, or centrifuge fabrication sites, the location(s) of which have not yet been identified. The latter would be compelling targets since their destruction would hobble Iran’s ability to reconstitute its program. But attacks against the sites at Natanz, Isfahan, and Arak alone would likely stretch Israel’s capabilities, and planners would probably be reluctant to enlarge the raid further.
Israel is capable of carrying out these attacks unilaterally. Its F-16 and F-15 aircraft, equipped with conformal fuel tanks and refueled with 707-based and KC-130 tankers toward the beginning and end of their flight profiles, have the range to reach the target set, deliver their payloads in the face of Iranian air defenses, and return to their bases. The munitions necessary to penetrate the targets are currently in Israel’s inventory in sufficient numbers; they include Bomb Live Unit (BLU)-109 and BLU 113 bombs that carry two thousand and five thousand pounds, respectively, of high-energy explosives. These GPS-guided weapons are extremely accurate and can be lofted from attacking aircraft fifteen kilometers from their target, thereby reducing the attackers’ need to fly through air defenses.
Israel also has a laser-guided version of these bombs that is more accurate than the GPS variant and could deploy a special-operations laser designation unit to illuminate aim points as it is reported to have done in the attack on the al-Kibar facility in Syria.
These munitions could be expected to damage the targets severely. Natanz is the only one of the three likely targets that is largely underground, sheltered by up to twenty-three meters of soil and concrete. BLU-type bombs, used in a “burrowing” mode, however, could penetrate deeply enough to fragment the inner surface of the ceiling structures above the highly fragile centrifuge arrays and even precipitate the collapse of the entire structure. Burrowing requires that attacking aircraft deliver their second and third bombs into the cavity created by the first. GPS-guided munitions are accurate enough to do this a little less than half of the time. The probability of successful burrowing increases with the number of shots. The use of three bombs per aim point would confer better than a 70 percent probability of success. (Laser-guided munitions are more capable of a successful burrow on the first try.) The uranium conversion facility in Isfahan and reactor at Arak are not buried and could be heavily damaged, or completely destroyed, relatively easily. This would be possible even if Iran managed to down a third of the Israeli strike package, a feat that would far exceed historical ratios of bomber losses by any country in any previous war.
These relatively upbeat ballistic assessments do not mean that the mission as a whole would be easy. On the contrary, a coordinated air attack would be complicated and highly risky. The three plausible routes to Iran involve overflight of third countries: the northern approach would likely follow the Syrian-Turkish border and risk violation of Turkey’s airspace; the central flight path would cross Jordan and Iraq; a southern route would transit the lower end of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and possibly Kuwait. All but two of these countries are to a greater or lesser degree hostile to Israel. The exceptions, Jordan and Turkey, would not wish their airspace to be used for an Israeli attack against Iran. Turkey recently canceled an annual trilateral exercise involving Israel, in part to signal its opposition to an Israeli strike. In any case, overflight would jeopardize Israeli diplomatic relations with both countries. With respect to Syria and Saudi Arabia, operational concerns would trump diplomatic ones. If either country detects Israeli aircraft and chooses to challenge the overflight using surfaceto-air missiles or intercepting aircraft, Israel’s intricate attack plan, which would have a razor-thin margin for error to begin with, could well be derailed.
Overflight of Iraq, whose airspace is under de facto U.S. control, would also be diplomatically awkward for Israel and would risk a deadly clash with American air defenses since the intruding aircraft would not have the appropriate Identification, Friend, or Foe (IFF) codes. Israel would have to carefully weigh the operational risk and most of all the cost of a strike to its most vital bilateral relationship, especially if President Barack Obama had explicitly asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to order an attack.
The sheer distances involved pose a challenge, as well. The targets lie at the outermost 1,750kilometer range limits of Israeli tactical aircraft. Diplomatic and military factors would confine Israeli refueling operations to international airspace where tankers could orbit safely for long periods. These locations, while usable, are suboptimal. They would yield the attackers little leeway to loiter in their target areas, or engage in the fuel-intensive maneuvering typical of dogfights and evasion of surfaceto-air missiles. The limited number of tankers would limit the number of sorties.
A final consideration for Israeli planners would be the effect of explosives on the nuclear materials stored at the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan and the enrichment facility at Natanz. Both facilities are likely to possess uranium hexafluoride and Natanz produces low enriched uranium.
Though these materials are not radioactive and do not pose radiological risks, the release of uranium into the environment would almost certainly raise public health concerns due to heavy metal contamination.
This combination of diplomatic and operational complexities would clearly give Israeli leaders pause. To act, they would have to perceive a grave threat to the state of Israel and no reliable alternative to eliminating that threat.
ASSESSING THE LIKELIHOOD OF AN ISRAELI ATTACKThe likelihood of this contingency depends on Israeli assessments of U.S. and international resolve to block Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability; the state of the Iranian program; the amount of time a successful strike would buy to be worth the expected risks and costs, a point on which there is a spectrum of Israeli views, from six months to five years; whether Israel believes there is a clandestine Iranian program, which would lead some Israelis to conclude that an attack would not buy any time at all; and the effect of a strike on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Because none of these factors is constant, estimates about the likelihood of an Israeli strike within the coming year will vary. For example, Israel is probably somewhat less likely to attack now than it was before the Qom installation was disclosed, the P-3 took a firmer stance, and Russia appeared to concede that stronger sanctions had to be considered. If Iran were to agree to ship the bulk of its uranium to France and Russia for enrichment—a deal that has been agreed in working level negotiations but may never be consummated—Israel’s incentive to accept the risks of an attack against Iran would probably diminish. Should diplomatic initiatives run aground, the likelihood of an Israeli attack could be expected to increase accordingly.
Probability assessments will vary based on other factors, as well. Iranian rhetoric that reinforces President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s themes of Holocaust denial and the inevitable disappearance of Israel only strengthen the hand of attack proponents within Israel by justifying fears about Iran’s intentions, while lowering diplomatic barriers to an attack. Certain factors that will not be publicly apparent could play a role, such as developments regarding Israel’s overflight options that reduce the risks inherent in the mission; the availability to Israel of new, more accurate targeting intelligence, especially relating to single points of failure, or other potentially catastrophic vulnerabilities in Iran’s installations; and technical advances, particularly in air defense suppression, that reduce the risks in attempting penetration.
It is clear, however, that Israel sees the stakes as very high. Netanyahu’s UN General Assembly speech emphasized the existential nature of the threat that he and others in the current government believe Iran represents. His emphasis on the Holocaust as a defining feature of Jewish history and his self-conception as the one who bears the burden of preventing yet another such disaster suggest that U.S. calculations of risk and benefit that tilt toward Israeli restraint might prove to be mirror-imaging of a particularly deceptive sort. Given Iran’s supportive relationship with certain terrorist groups in the region, Israel also cannot ignore the risk that a nuclear device might be transferred to them in the future. The longer-term impact of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons on triggering further proliferation in the Middle East, not least among states hostile to Israel, will also enter into their strategic calculus.