May 04, 2012
By Evelyn Gordon
"Credible experts," wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in March, "overwhelmingly" view an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities as "a catastrophically bad idea," deeming the benefits uncertain and the consequences dire: An effective strike would require multiple "sorties over many days," and an attack on that scale could inflame the Muslim world, spark a regional war and disrupt global oil supplies.
While "overwhelmingly" may be a stretch, many analysts certainly do hold this view. Yet their doomsday scenarios rest largely on a fallacy: the belief that an Israeli strike would necessarily employ the kind of massive force America would employ if it attacked Iran.
U.S. defense officials told The New York Times in February that any strike would require "at least 100 planes," including bombers, fighters, midair refuelers and electronic warfare planes, and would probably involve combat with Iran's aerial defense forces. If so, war would indeed be a likely outcome: An attack by over 100 planes culminating in dogfights over its territory isn't something any country could ignore; Iran would have to respond massively.
But an assault that massive, at such long distances, would stretch Israel's capabilities to the limit and perhaps even exceed them. Former CIA director Michael Hayden, for instance, told the Times he considers such an operation "beyond [Israel's] capacity." And for that very reason, Israel isn't likely to launch such a massive attack. Unlike American planners, who naturally think in terms of exploiting their country's overwhelming firepower, Israel's more limited resources force it to seek creative, lower-profile ways to get the job done.
Israel's 2007 attack on Syria's nuclear reactor is a case in point. In justifying Washington's reluctance to intervene in the ongoing Syrian uprising, U.S. officials have repeatedly explained that intervention would require a major military operation, involving airstrikes over "an extended period of time and a great number of aircraft," to take out Syria's "plentiful and sophisticated" air defenses. But when Israel attacked Syria's reactor, it didn't take out a single air defense position; the only bombs it dropped were on the reactor itself. Instead, it managed to fly in and out without activating those defenses at all. In short, it found a creative solution to the air defense problem that didn't involve employing massive force, thus enabling Damascus to ignore the attack rather than feeling compelled to retaliate.
Clearly, Iran's nuclear program poses a more complex problem than either Syria's or Iraq's, given the greater distance and the greater number of facilities that must be hit. Nevertheless, the last thing Israel wants is a full-scale war with Iran. Indeed, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israeli reporter Ronen Bergman in January, one of the questions to which Israel would require "affirmative responses" before deciding to attack Iran is whether it "can withstand the inevitable counterattack." In other words, Israel won't attack unless it believes Iran's response will be limited enough to be tolerable - meaning any attack must be low-profile enough to avoid provoking massive retaliation.
According to Bergman, "at least some of Israel's most powerful leaders" currently do consider this possible. But if so, why isn't this possibility obvious to U.S. officials as well? First, precisely because America has enough firepower to overwhelm any opponent, its planners have no reason to consider lower-profile alternatives, which necessarily entail a greater risk of failure. And second, as one senior U.S. defense official acknowledged to the Times, Washington lacks "perfect visibility" into Israel's capabilities despite supplying most of its military equipment: Israel is well-known both for modifying its equipment after purchase (many Israeli modifications of the F-16, for example, are now routinely installed in all new planes by its American manufacturer) and for making creative use of this equipment.
In 1981, for instance, U.S. officials were convinced "that the F-16 aircraft they had provided to Israel had neither the range nor the ordnance to attack Iraq successfully," according to former head of Israeli military intelligence Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin. Yet in fact, Israel successfully demolished the Osirak reactor, inter alia by such simple tactics as bombing from very low altitude to compensate for its lack of precision-guided bombs and using external fuel tanks that could be jettisoned mid-flight to increase the planes' range.
Israeli planners have presumably devised similarly creative ways to extend the capabilities of the country's existing equipment. And they are likely exploring several other avenues as well in their effort to devise a low-profile attack.
First, even relatively sophisticated air defenses aren't always perfect, as the 2007 attack on Syria's reactor showed. U.S. intelligence presumably hasn't devoted much effort to finding gaps in Iran's defenses, because it has no need: If America ever attacks Iran, it can overwhelm those defenses with sheer brute force. But Israeli intelligence has undoubtedly devoted significant resources to searching for exploitable flaws in Iran's air defense network.
Second, Israel is widely thought to have been involved in making the Stuxnet worm that damaged Iran's nuclear facilities in 2010. Whether a cyber attack could do similar damage to Iran's air defense systems is an open question. But it would be surprising if some of Israel's best computer brains weren't working on the problem.
Third, Israel is also thought to be behind a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists over the last year. If so, that means it has either managed to recruit Iranian agents or made common cause with Iranian regime opponents. Could these agents (or allies) also be capable of sabotaging Iran's air defenses at the critical moment, or creating a timely diversion? While Israel wouldn't rely solely on an outside party for a step as critical as bringing down Iran's air defenses, well-placed agents could play supporting roles that would enable Israel to lower its own profile.
Since Israel's exact capabilities are known only to a handful of senior Israeli officials, it's impossible to predict exactly what an Israeli strike would look like. But based on past experience, one can confidently predict that it won't resemble the American blueprint. The combination of limited resources and the need to avoid provoking massive retaliation will force Israel to keep any attack as low profile as possible.