One thing is clear: the U.S. military, according to my sources, currently has no interest in a preventive strike. "The idea that we'll attack with Israel is remote, so you can take that off your list of options," former Centcom commander Joe Hoar told me. Nor will the United States join an Israeli attack once it starts, the senior U.S. planner said. "We know there are senior Iranians egging for a fight with us, particularly in their Navy," a retired Centcom officer added. "And we'll give them one if they want one, but we're not going to go piling in simply because the Israelis want us to."
While Israel has 125 sophisticated F15I and F16I fighter-bombers, only the roughly 25 F15Is are capable of carrying the bunker-busting GBU-28 guided missile, which has the best chance of destroying Iran's heavily fortified nuclear installations. And even then, each F15I can only carry a single munition.
This force, while lethal, is also modest. The Israeli Air Force would likely have to carefully pick and choose its targets, settling most probably on four: the heavy-water production plant at Arak, the uranium-enrichment centers at Fordow and Natanz, and the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, while leaving out the military site at Parchin and the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which houses Russian technical experts.
The Israeli attack would also likely include the F16Is to knock down Iran's air defense network, or perhaps drop other, less effective, bunker-busting munitions to reinforce the F15I sortie. Some of these F16Is, but not all of them, would be able to refuel from Israel's seven to ten KC-707 tankers.
Even with that, and even with the best of luck (good weather, accurate targeting, sophisticated refueling, near total surprise, precise air-to-air interdiction, a minimum of accidents, and the successful destruction of Iran's anti-aircraft capabilities), senior U.S. military officers say that Israel would only set back Iran's nuclear capability by one to two years at best -- not end it.
Which could be why Netanyahu is so anxious for the Obama administration to say when or if it would join an attack. As Hoar, the former Centcom commander, bluntly put it: "Compared to the United States, Israel doesn't have a military."
Israel's likely inability to destroy Iran's nuclear capacity in a single stroke, even in a best-case scenario, has led U.S. war planners to speculate about a second, out-of-the-box, and extremely dangerous military option: what they're calling an "Iranian Entebbe."
In this scenario, the Israelis would forego a massed air attack and instead mount a high-risk but high-payoff commando raid that would land an elite Sayeret Matkal (special forces) unit outside of Iran's enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom. The unit -- or other elite units like it -- consisting of perhaps as many as 400 soldiers, would seize Iran's enriched uranium for transport to Israel.
The operation's success would depend on speed, secrecy, simplicity, and the credibility of Israeli intelligence. According to the Pentagon war planner, Israel's access to intelligence on Iranian military and policy planning is unprecedented, as is their willingness to share it with U.S. intelligence officials.
The Israeli unit would be transported on as few as three and perhaps as many as six C-130 aircraft (which can carry a maximum of 70 troops) that would be protected by a "swarm" of well-armed F16Is, according to the scenario being considered by U.S. military officers. The C-130s would land in the desert near Fordow. The Israeli commandos would then defeat the heavily armed security personnel at the complex, penetrate its barriers and interdict any enemy units nearby, and seize the complex's uranium for transport back to Israel. Prior to its departure, the commando unit would destroy the complex, obviating the need for any high-level bombing attack. (Senior U.S. military officers say that there are reports that some of the uranium at Fordow is stored as uranium hexafluoride gas, a chemical form used during the enrichment process. In that case, the material may be left in place when the commandos destroy the complex.)
"It's doable, and they have to be thinking along these lines," the highly placed U.S. military officer said. "The IDF's special forces are the best asset Israel has." That said, "In some scenarios," the U.S. military planner who told me of the potential operation said, "there would be very high Israeli casualties because of nearby Republican Guard divisions. This operation could be quite bloody."
Bloody or not, the Israeli leadership may not be quick to dismiss such an operation, given Israel's history of using such units. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are former Sayeret Matkal officers, and recently Israeli Defense Forces head Benny Gantz (himself a Sayeret Matkal veteran) said the IDF had formed an elite special operations "Deep Corps" to strike far inside hostile territory. And, of course, it bears remembering that Netanyahu's brother Yonatan was the sole casualty in Israel's Entebbe operation.
A third operation is less exotic, but perhaps most dangerous of all: regime decapitation. "The Israelis could just take out the Iranian leadership," the senior Pentagon war planner said. "But they would only do that as a part of an air strike or a commando raid." The downside of a decapitation strike is that it would not end Iran's nuclear program; the upside is that it would almost certainly trigger an Iranian response targeting U.S. military assets in the region, as it would leave the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces in charge of the country. It would be the one sure way, U.S. officers with whom I spoke believe, for Israel to get the United States involved in its anti-Iran offensive, with the U.S. mounting operations in a conflict it didn't start.
Still, according to a respected retired military officer who consults with the Pentagon -- and who speaks regularly with senior Israeli military officers -- Israel's political elite is likely to be surprised by Obama and the U.S. military's response should Israel launch a preventive attack on Iranian nuclear sites. "If Israel starts a war," this retired officer said, "America's first option will be to stop it. To call for a ceasefire. And, by the way, that's also our second and third option. We'll do everything we can to keep the war from escalating. We'll have 72 hours to do that. After that, all bets are off."
Friday, September 28, 2012
How the US Military Views a Potential Israeli Strike
Here is an interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine on how the US Military views a potential Israeli strike. What's interesting is they potentially think the Israelis might use the "Entebbe Option" and have commandos do the job instead of their air force. Anyway, it's worth a read: