Benjamin Netanyahu’s rather literal interpretation the concept of a “red line” at the United Nations last month puzzled many, but it should draw as much worry as it draws laughter. It is no secret that Israel and the United States would prefer an Iran without nuclear weapons. Yet, the Obama administration’s disapproval of a unilateral Israeli strike and its lack of interest in initiating its own strike leave Israel in a rather awkward situation. Given the rhetoric coming out of Iran – namely the threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth – Israel has to perceive Iran as an existential threat. In other words, a nuclear-armed Iran threatens Israel’s very existence, not merely its interests, or security, or economy, or anything else. To put this in perspective, a nuclear-armed Iran would only threaten US interests in the region; it would take an arsenal on the level of Russia to threaten our very existence.
When analyzing Israel’s foreign policy, you cannot forget that the memory of the Holocaust has left an indelible cultural scar on its national consciousness. It takes existential threats, unlikely or otherwise, very seriously. Bibi’s comments at the UN conference, “The world tells Israel ‘wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?” display more than impatience; they display fear, a fear of annihilation.
This resulting insecurity, and President Obama’s unwillingness to address it decisively, has resulted in Israel seriously considering a unilateral strike on Iran. This is not to say Israel is “trigger-happy,” quite the opposite: They will only strike when they think time has run out. Regardless, as the Iranian program continues to advance, determinism like this can only drive the likelihood of a strike upwards. The old adage holds true: desperate times call for desperate measures. A unilateral strike on Iran would be an act of desperation: It would damage, not cripple, the Iranian nuclear program, result in serious reprisals on Israel, and make the Middle East an even more unstable and unpredictable region. These conclusions are readily reached when one analyzes exactly how Israel would strike at Iran.
First, we have to look at what sort of capabilities Israel has and how it could use those in a strike package. The Israeli Air Force (IAF), as capable as it is, cannot match the US Air Force. Israel, lacking long-range bombers, would have to rely on its fleet of fighters. Jane’s Intelligence Review reports that the IAF maintains a fleet of 25 F-15Is and 100 F-16Is; locally produced and developed variants of the US F-15 and F-16. Both aircraft have advanced electronic warfare (EW) capabilities that give them the ability to detect and jam incoming missiles shot at them. The F-15Is have the ability to carry the GBU-28 “Bunker Buster,” which earns its name from its ability to penetrate 30 meters of earth or six meters of concrete. These precision bombs will be necessary to strike Iran’s underground nuclear facilities. Unfortunately, due to their weight, only the F-15Is will be able to carry this weapon, and because of the need to mount external fuel tanks as well, they will only be able to carry one bunker buster each, according to a report by Emily Chorley and Scott Johnson. Throughout this strike, fuel would be a major issue. With external fuel tanks, the Israelis will just barely have enough fuel to return home. The more numerous F-16Is can be equipped with more bombs, though they will only have the ability to penetrate above ground facilities, anti-radiation missiles designed to hunt down and destroy radar dishes or anti-aircraft missiles that could be employed against the Iranian aircraft. Essentially the F-16Is will support the F-15Is as best they can.
Iran’s air defense network – its combination of radar sites, fighter aircraft, Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs), and Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) – will, according to Jane’s, inflict only minimal to no losses on the Israeli strike group. Iran’s air force is outdated and could only harass the Israelis; its SAMs and AAA are built on technology from the 1970s easily countered by Israeli EW capabilities. For example, several batteries of Soviet-built S-200s provide Iran’s theatre air defense (SAMS with long enough detection and engagement range to be deployed on a national, or theatre, rather than a local level). In 1986, Libya used these same SAMS against US aircraft. They failed to down any aircraft because of US EW capabilities. That was over two decades ago, suggesting they would not stand a chance against modern EW capabilities. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) supports this conclusion as well: The Iranian air force and air defense network is too primitive to effectively counter Israeli fighters. Israel is employing some of the most advanced non-stealth fighters in the world.
Perhaps Israel’s most important question is whose territory to fly over. The most direct route takes them either through Syrian air space and then through Iraq, or through Jordan and through Iraq. Another option would be to go through Turkey and into Iran from the north. In 2007, Israel penetrated Syrian air defenses and struck a Syrian nuclear reactor. Reportedly, they used a virus to infect and hamstring Syria’s air defense networks. With the current chaos in Syria, Israel could pull off a repeat performance, which would allow the strike group to fly through the country. On the other hand, there might be easier diplomatic options vis-à-vis Jordan, who view Iran as a threat to their interests. They might turn a blind eye, but that cannot be guaranteed. Iraq currently has no air defense capability – air force or otherwise – save a few radar sites that might detect the Israeli strike group. Unless that detection was prevented via HARMs (high-speed anti-radiation missiles) fired from the F-16Is or some sort of cyber-attack, it is likely that Iraq would be able to warn Iran. That early warning, however, would be too late for Iran to do much to mitigate the damage. They might scramble their fighters, but they just will be engaged and destroyed by the F-16Is. The superior Israeli technology would overcome Iran’s lackluster and primitive air force. Importantly, Israel could use the gaps in Iraq’s air defense network to fly tanker aircraft to provide midair refueling for their fighter aircraft as they enter or leave Iran. This would allow the fighters to carry less fuel and more munitions, ensuring greater damage to primary or secondary targets.
Jane’s reports that to “substantially damage” Iranian nuclear infrastructure Israel would have to strike facilities at Natanz, Fordow (near the holy city of Qom), Arak, and Esfahan. Of these, Natanz and Fordow are the primary targets since they are purpose-built enrichment facilities. They also are hardened – buried deep underground –whereas the Arak reactor and the Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center are located above ground. Israel’s GBU-28 “bunker busters” can penetrate Natanz, which is only buried under 10 meters of earth and two meters of concrete. Fordow, on the other hand, is concealed deep within a mountain. It is believed to be 80 meters underground, well out the capabilities of the GBU 28s. There, the best Israel could hope for is temporarily shutting it down by closing entrance tunnels.
As such, Israel is only going to be able to damage three of the four most critically important nuclear facilities. Moreover, they could only strike one of two enrichment facilities. Experts estimate this means Israel would be able to delay Iran’s nuclear program for around two years. Even if Israel could wipe out Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure, they still could not end the threat of a nuclear Iran. Iran’s nuclear program resides not in enrichment facilities but in the collective scientific and technical knowledge. Bunker busters and fighters cannot destroy that. Indeed, they probably would increase Iranian resolve to build a capable nuclear deterrent; after all, no one likes having his or her country bombed.
And what cost would Israel incur from this brazen attack? Iran would not take an attack of this scale lightly; they would respond, and they likely would militarily respond. Not doing so would upset certain domestic groups such as the Revolutionary Guards Council, hardline politicians, and the Iranian people themselves. No one likes being bombed, and if there is the option to retaliate, the people would seek revenge. This means ballistic missiles; Iran’s air force cannot strike at Israel. The bulk of Iranian missiles would be Shabab-3s, locally produced derivatives of the North Korean Nodong. The International Institute for Strategic Studies puts their range at 1,300 kilometers to 1,500 kilometers (depending on payload. This is relatively short for a ballistic missile, but it certainly puts Israel within reach, and that’s all that matters. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates Iran to have anywhere from 25 to 100 of these missiles. In addition, according to the Institute for National Security Studies Memorandum 86, in 2006 Iran purchased 18 North Korean BM25s, which have estimated ranges between 3500km and 2500km, either of which is enough to strike Israel.
Now, Israel is not completely vulnerable to such a strike; in fact, they have been preparing for just such a situation. They developed and currently field the Arrow Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system. In this system, radar sites track incoming ballistic missiles, while launchers fire the Arrow-2, a missile designed to track and destroy incoming ballistic missiles. Missile interception is basically like hitting a bullet with another bullet. This system is Israel’s only theatre-wide defense against incoming missiles. According to Memorandum 94 by the Institute for National Security Studies, Israel fields three Arrow-2 batteries. Each battery consists of eight launchers, which in turn each consist of six interceptors, for a total of 144 interceptors. Further, the upper limit kill ratio for this weapon system, based on testing, is 80 percent. The Arrow-2 has never been used in combat against a ballistic missile, so there is a significant likelihood it will not perform near its testing results. Robert Haddick at Foreign Policy points out that the Israel’s tests of the Arrow-2 have only pitted it against single-missile attacks. Swarms of a dozen or more missiles could overwhelm the system and reduce its effectiveness. On the other hand, surprise is not to Iran’s advantage, since Israel is launching the first strike. How Arrow would perform is entirely up in the air, but we can certainly expect missiles will get through and hit Israeli cities, military facilities, and other targets.
Further, Israel also faces the threat of Hezbollah in the north opening up a second front. The CRS reports that Hezbollah has around 40,000 Iranian supplied rockets (rockets are different from missiles because of their shorter range, lower accuracy, and smaller payload), several thousand of which can target large Israel population centers like Tel Aviv, an ability Hezbollah did not have during its 2006 war with Israel. During that war, Hezbollah launched 3,970 rockets and injured 4,262 civilians (33 seriously, 68 moderately, 1,388 lightly, and 2,773 suffered from shock and anxiety). Hezbollah hit 6000 homes, displaced 300,000 residents, forced 1 million citizens to live in bomb shelters, and caused $1.4 billion in lost business revenue. With ten times as many rockets, and better ones at that, Hezbollah has an incredible potential to turn a first world country into a warzone. In addition to the casualties inflicted, the economic and psychological consequences for the Israeli population would be immense. The shortage of gas masks and bomb shelters probably doesn’t help either.
To counter this, Israel does operate Iron Dome, a Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) weapon system, which like the Arrow BMD system, uses missiles (albeit smaller ones) to intercept the short-range rockets and other sundry munitions frequently lobbed into Israel from Gaza and Lebanon. Israel currently has four Iron Dome batteries, each with three launchers. Each launcher has 20 interceptors, bringing the overall number of interceptors to 240. Even with an implausible 100 percent interception and reserve interceptors, Israel could only dent Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal. To stop the attacks, they would have to deploy their land forces into Lebanon, or wait until Hezbollah runs out of rockets. Based on Israeli military causalities in 2006, such an invasion would be very costly for the Israeli military.
There is a likelihood that Hezbollah may not participate. CRS points out that, within the last 15 years, its leadership has evolved past being Iranian proxies. Further, events in Syria mean Hezbollah likely would not be able to get shipments of Iranian rockets to replace their expended arsenal. Despite these concerns, there are disincentives to not strike Israel. If Hezbollah is asked to attack, and it does not, it threatens its rather productive ties with Iran. Further, Hezbollah’s surprisingly good performance in the 2006 war may make its leadership feel that it can fight an Israeli counterattack to a stalemate and remain in power. Given these incentives to strike, again we have to assume the worst: that Hezbollah will strike with the full force of its rocket arsenal.
So what, in the final calculation, are the costs and benefits of an Israeli strike? At best, Israel has destroyed three out of four of Iran’s critical nuclear facilities, sending its nuclear program backwards for around one or two years. In return, Israel has had a good chunk of Iran’s ballistic missiles land in its territory, as well as thousands of rockets from Hezbollah. Casualties would be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, though they would be mainly light injuries and shock. Israeli leadership estimates they would only experience around 500 dead—in addition to the possible mass displacements, economic slowdown, lost planes, and another war with Hezbollah.
What is important, however, is that none of these costs is existential. Israel can survive despite a slowed down economy and destroyed infrastructure – any country can. Israel’s population can survive tens of thousands of casualties – it’s in the millions. Israel can survive a war as well; a guerilla force like Hezbollah cannot destroy Israel. But what Israel cannot survive, what it cannot absorb or deflect, is a nuclear strike. I leave you with one last statistic, cited by the CRS: “A March 2012 poll indicated, however, that 65% of Jewish Israelis believe that ‘the price Israel would have to pay for living under the shadow of the Iranian nuclear bomb is higher than the price it would pay for attacking Iran’s nuclear capability.’” Peace and cooperation cannot occur in an atmosphere of fear, but war certainly can.