Israel’s attack options on Iranian nuclear sites

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Israel’s attack options on Iranian nuclear sites

By Benjamin Weil, JNS

If the Israelis seek to destroy Iranian nuclear sites, they would need to rely on their air force; however, the fly distance is long, and there are other diplomatic complications.

As the senior Biden administration officials settle into their new positions and form a detailed policy in regards to the Iranian nuclear program, Israeli military personnel head to the drawing board to plan an attack. Israel has never and will never rely on another country to secure their future and national security interests on its behalf. If the Israelis seek to destroy Iranian nuclear sites, they would need to rely on their air force to deliver bunker buster bombs—possibly their GBU-28 laser-guided bombs they purchased a decade ago.

The primary concerns of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) are the long distance between Israel and Iran; being attacked by long-range and short-range defense systems; and enemy radar detecting the IAF prior to entering Iranian airspace and alerting the Iranians of the Israeli intrusion. To counter radars and long-range defense systems, the IAF would have to fly at low altitudes, masking behind the hilly terrain from enemy radars.

That does, however, come at a cost. Flying low consumes more fuel—a luxury the Israeli pilots do not have due to the long distance. Furthermore, since the IAF would need to fly directly over the nuclear site to release the bombs, flying low would dangerously expose the pilots to the short-range defense systems surrounding the nuclear sites. An Israeli strike plan would also likely include a refueling of the jets.

The shortest viable route is flying over Jordan and Iraq into Iran. Israel and Jordan cooperate on numerous defense interests, and Israel has proven its air-force capabilities in the skies of Iraq in numerous attacks attributed to the IAF. However, this route would require the IAF to fly relatively close to the Syrian and Iraqi capitals. They would risk being fired upon by the air-defense systems, or worse, detected by the radars and alerting the Iranians. This route would also require a refueling somewhere above the eastern Jordanian or western Iraqi skies.

To avoid flying around city capitals, Israel can choose the northern route, flying over the Mediterranean, along the Syrian-Turkish border, through Iraq and into Iran. Aside form this route being longer and further complicating the refueling process, it would require close coordination with the Russia military. I believe that the Israeli military and intelligence communities are very skeptical about sharing such highly sensitive military plans with the Russian. Notwithstanding, this route has the advantage of bypassing radars and defense systems more easily since it is considered mountainous and less controlled.

And then, of course, there is the southern route. This would take the Israeli pilot over Saudi Arabia and from there either through the Persian Gulf or Iraq into Iran. This route seems viable since both Saudi Arabia and Israel, although not allies, share the Iranian nuclear program as a common threat. Moreover, the IAF is familiar with this route from the 1981 strike on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. Over Saudi skies, the Israeli pilots would be able to refuel and fly freely. The major obstacle to overcome would be the Saudi hesitation to help Israel execute this attack in fear of an Iranian response.

Lastly is the option of stationing Israeli jets in neighboring countries to Iran and using them as a base to execute a strike. Launching a strike from a neighboring country would avoid having to fly low, and more importantly, can potentially avoid having the refueling process. The UAE and Bahrain are less than 500 kilometers away from Iran. There is also Israel’s ally north of Iran, Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan and Israel have been cooperating on security issues for years. During the recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh, Israel stood on the Azeri side despite international criticism. Azerbaijan could repay Israel for its loyalty, though like the Saudis might not want to get their hands dirty with the Iranians.

When it comes to the UAE and Bahrain, a possible Iranian retaliation is an existential threat, but so is a nuclear Iran. The question is which is bigger. If the United States can guarantee their security, this may be the most viable option.

Having an array of option will keep Iran on its toes, not knowing where to expect an Israeli attack. No matter the option Israel may choose, it would require cooperation with America and other layers of proficiency, such as electronic warfare, cyber capabilities, intelligence assets and more. The bigger question that should be addressed is how to prepare for a defensive move the day after an attack.

Benjamin Weil is director of the Project for Israel’s National Security for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the international adviser to Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.


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