Israel's Attack on Iran: Easier Said Than Done

By David Isenberg

Despite renewed media speculation regarding possible Israeli attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities as early as this spring, scepticism that such a campaign could actually be successfully carried out remains relatively high, raising the question of whether there is more bark than bite to Israeli threats.

It cannot expect a repeat of 1981 when the Israeli air force destroyed the Osirak reactor at Al-Tuwaythah, just south of Baghdad.

The Iranians are aware of both Israeli capabilities and the U.S.-made precision-guided penetrating munitions in the Israeli inventory. The Iranian programme has been dispersed all over the country - estimates range between 12 and more than 20 locations - and the facilities have been built with U.S. and Israeli capabilities in mind and are protected by modern Russian air defence systems.

Receive email alerts

[+] More

The single most critical element of the Iranian programme is thought to be the Natanz facility. The heart of the facility is the centrifuge area, located in an underground, hardened structure.

But even if Israel tries to limits the target set, it would still have to attack other facilities besides Natanz. For example, the newer Fordow fuel-enrichment plant near Qom, where Iran has already moved 3.5-percent enriched uranium from Natanz, is built into the side of a mountain and is heavily fortified. There is a uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, a heavy-water facility being constructed at Arak and centrifuge factories outside Tehran.

The straight-line distance between Israel and Natanz is almost 1,609 kilometers. Since the countries do not share a common border, Israeli aircraft or missiles must fly through foreign - and hostile - airspace to get to the target.

The least risky method of striking Natanz is with Israel's medium- range ballistic missiles, the Jericho II or III. It is believed that the Israeli missiles can reach Natanz. However, to travel that far the missiles will have a limited warhead weight, and it is doubtful that these warheads will be able to penetrate far enough underground to achieve the desired level of destruction.

Thus, an attack by the Israeli air force's U.S.-made fighter-bomber aircraft is the most likely option. The Israelis have 25 F-15I and about 100 F-16I jets.

The F-15I is capable of carrying four metric tons of fuel in its internal tanks, conformal fuel tanks (CFT), and detachable tanks. This enables it to fly about 4,450 kilometers. With midair refueling, the range can be extended further.

The F-15I can carry a very wide range of weapons such as various guided missiles and bombs, as well as iron bombs. All in all, the plane can carry about 10 metric tonnes of munitions.

The F-16I has an extended flight range that reportedly allows Israeli forces to attack targets well within Iran without having to refuel. Use of could CFT extends its effective mission range up to 50 percent. The baseline model has a combat radius of 1,370 kilometers with two 907-kilogramme bombs and two air-to-air missiles, with 3,936-litre external tanks.

Assuming an air attack, the question is how will the aircraft fly from their bases in Israel to a target located 322 kilometres miles inside Iran?

They could go either through Saudi Arabia or Iraq, possibly even using Jordanian airspace as well. Either route is a one-way trip of about 1,931 kilometers.

To overfly Saudi Arabia the strike aircraft depart southern Israel, enter Saudi airspace from the Gulf of Aqaba or Jordan, fly 1,287 kilometers miles of Saudi airspace to the Gulf and then 483 kilometers into Iran.

Since the Israeli air force does not operate stealth aircraft, there is a reasonable expectation that at some point the aircraft will be detected over Saudi Arabia. Whether Saudi defences could - or would - be able to stop the Israelis is uncertain. Given Saudi fears over Iran's nuclear programme, perhaps they would turn a blind eye and claim ignorance.

If they chose to traverse Iranian airspace, the strike aircraft depart southern Israel, cross 483 to 644 kilometers of Saudi airspace or a combination of Jordanian and Saudi airspace, and enter Iraqi airspace as soon as possible, continue across 805 kilometers of Iraq to the Persian Gulf and then on to the target.

1 | 2 | Next Page››

David Isenberg is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a US Navy veteran, and the author of the book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.

(AP Photo)

Sponsored Links
Related Articles
May 9, 2012
For Israel, Attacking Iran Back on the Table - Noga Tarnopolsky
May 15, 2012
Grading Medvedev's Foreign Policy - International Institute for Strategic Studies
May 9, 2012
Toward an Israel-Palestine Confederation - Ronald Tiersky
May 5, 2012
The Erosion of China's Soft Power - Frank Ching
David Isenberg
Author Archive