In 1981, Israel hit Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak. Eight F-16 fighter-bombers and eight F-15 fighters swooped in to carry out a precision strike that set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions by more than a decade.
As the whole world knows, Israel now faces a similar challenge from Iran, which has an ambitious nuclear program of its own, and whose president has threatened to wipe Israel from the map. Unlike Osirak, however, the Iranian program is housed in multiple sites, with the most critical ones hardened against attack from the air, and all of them situated much further away from Israel than Osirak was.
A key question therefore is whether Israel possesses the military means to attack the Iranian facility on its own, or whether it would depend upon the far mightier United States to help it or do the job in its entirety. This question is being analyzed in defense ministries and intelligence agencies around the world. But the central issues have been laid out for the public in great detail by two MIT military analysts, Whitney Raas and Austin Long, in a paper that appears in the spring issue of International Security.
One of the problems entailed in such a raid would be dealing with the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, which Raas and Long call “one of the most difficult and important targets.” It is 23 meters underground and covered by multiple layers of concrete, such that “only a very robust strike could hope to destroy or at least render unusable” the centrifuges that it houses.
To attack such a target, Israel would need to use penetrating warheads that are either “delay-fused bombs that have been modified to have a more ‘pointed’ shape and extensively structurally reinforced,” or even more advanced warheads that “detonate in stages to increase penetration.” To destroy Natanz effectively, one technique, write Raas and Long, would be to use such weapons
targeted on the same aimpoint but separated slightly in release time to “burrow” into the target. Essentially one bomb hits the crater made by the previous weapon, a technique contemplated by the U.S. Air Force in the first Gulf war. This takes advantage of the extremely high accuracy of LGB’s [laser-guided bombs] in combination with a penetrating warhead. The IAF [Israeli Air Force] appears to have purchased penetrating LGB’s with this technique in mind. General Eitan Ben-Elyahu, former commander of the IAF and a participant in the Osirak strike, commented on this method of attacking hardened facilities in Jane’s Defense Weekly: “Even if one bomb would not suffice to penetrate, we could guide other bombs directly to the hole created by the previous ones and eventually destroy any target.”
Is Israel going to strike Iran? We do not yet know the answer, and there are many imponderables, including its calculation of whether the U.S. will strike first and its additional calculation of Tehran’s likely response.
Not only does Iran have long-range missiles but it also has Hizballah cells all over the world poised to carry out terror missions in the event of an attack. We ourselves are not exempt; according to the State Department’s 2006 annual report on terrorism, Hizballah has “established cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and Asia.” If that were not enough, FBI Director Robert Mueller has confirmed that Hizballah “retains the capability to strike in the U.S.”
In response to Israeli attacks on its leaders in the early 1990’s, Hizballah, in separate incidents, bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29, and the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, killing 85. Of course, once Iran has nuclear weapons, we would not be worrying about the lives of hundreds but the lives of hundreds of thousands and even millions. The dangers posed to Israel and to the rest of the world would thus seem to be intolerable, except of course to some of the writers at Vanity Fair—see my Learning to Love the Islamic Bomb.
However one judges Israeli intentions vis-a-vis Iran, the Raas-Long paper is of the view that the Jewish state has the capability to go it alone. Their conviction is that despite all the complexities of the Iranian target set, the advent of precision-guided munitions means that such an assault today would appear “to be no more risky than the earlier attack on Osirak.”
Of course, it should be obvious, at the same time, that such a military operation would be neither a slam-dunk nor a cakewalk. Thus, one does not have to be a Vanity Fair writer, or to love the Islamic bomb, to see that Israel’s decision, whatever it is, will be one of the biggest rolls of the dice in the sixty-year history of the Jewish state.