Small Wars

The Ticking Clock

Four reasons why -- this time -- you should believe the hype about Israel attacking Iran.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius created a tempest last week when he reported U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's prediction that Israel will attack Iran and its nuclear complex "in April, May or June." Ignatius's column was as startling as it was exasperating. When the sitting U.S. defense secretary -- presumably privy to facts not generally available to the public -- makes such a prediction, observers have good reasons to pay attention. On the other hand, the international community has been openly dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue for nearly a decade, with similar crescendos of anticipation having occurred before, all to no effect. Why would this time be different?

Further, an Israeli air campaign against Iran would seem like an amazingly reckless act. And an unnecessary one, too, since international sanctions against Iran's banks and oil market are just now tightening dramatically.

Yet from Israel's point of view, time really has run out. The sanctions have come too late. And when Israeli policymakers consider their advantages and all of the alternatives available, an air campaign, while both regrettable and risky, is not reckless.

Here's why:

1. Time pressure

In his column, Ignatius mentioned this spring as the likely deadline for an Israeli strike. Why so soon? After all, the Iranian program is still under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and Iran has not made any moves to "break out" toward the production of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium.

But as a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center discusses, Iran's uranium enrichment effort continues to advance, even after the Stuxnet computer attack and the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists. According to the report, Iran seems to be successfully installing advanced, high-efficiency uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which foreshadows a significant increase in enrichment capacity and output in the near future. More ominously from Israel's perspective, Iran is now installing centrifuge cascades into the Fordow mountain site near Qom, a bunker that is too deep for Israeli bombs to penetrate.

On-site IAEA inspectors are currently monitoring Iran's nuclear fuel production and would report any diversions to military use. As Tehran undoubtedly assumes, such a "breakout" (tossing out the inspectors and quickly enriching to the bomb-grade level) would be a casus belli, with air strikes from Israel likely to soon follow. Israeli leaders may have concluded that Iran could break out with impunity after the Fordow site is operational and the enrichment effort has produced enough low-enriched uranium feedstock for several bombs. According to the Bipartisan Center report, Iran will be in this position later this year. According to the New York Times, U.S. and Israeli officials differ over their calculations of when Iran will have crossed into a "zone of immunity." Given their more precarious position, it is understandable that Israeli policymakers are adopting a more conservative assessment.

2. Alternatives to military action now fall short

Israeli leaders undoubtedly understand that starting a war is risky. There should be convincing reasons for discarding the non-military alternatives.

The international sanctions effort against Iran's banking system and oil industry are inflicting damage on the country's economy and seem to be delivering political punishment to the regime. But they have not slowed the nuclear program, nor are they likely to have any effect on the timeline described above. And as long as Russia, China, India, and others continue to support Iran economically and politically, the sanctions regime is unlikely to be harsh enough to change Israel's calculation of the risks, at least within a meaningful time frame.

Why can't Israel's secret but widely assumed nuclear arsenal deter an Iranian nuclear strike? Israel's territory and population are so small that even one nuclear blast would be devastating. Israel would very much like to possess a survivable and stabilizing second-strike retaliatory capability. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union achieved this mainly with their ballistic missile submarine fleets, which were always on patrol and held each others' cities at risk. Israel does not have large numbers of submarines or any nuclear-powered subs capable of long submerged patrols. Nor can it be confident that its policymakers or command-and-control systems would survive an Iranian nuclear first strike.

Even if Iran sought a nuclear weapons capability solely to establish its own defensive deterrent, the outcome would be gross instability in the region, very likely leading to one side or the other attempting a preemptive attack (the Iranian government denies that its nuclear program has a military purpose). Very short missile flight times, fragile early-warning and command systems, and no survivable second-strike forces would lead to a hair-trigger "use it or lose it" dynamic. An Israeli attack now on Iran's nuclear program would be an attempt to prevent this situation from occurring.

3. The benefits of escalation

A strike on Iran's nuclear complex would be at the outer boundary of the Israeli Air Force's capabilities. The important targets in Iran are near the maximum range of Israel's fighter-bombers. The fact that Iraq's airspace, on the direct line between Israel and Iran, is for now undefended is one more reason why Israel's leaders would want to strike sooner rather than later. Israel's small inventory of bunker-buster bombs may damage the underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, but they will likely have no effect on the Fordow mountain complex. Iran has undoubtedly dispersed and hidden many other nuclear facilities. An Israeli strike is thus likely to have only a limited and temporary effect on Iran's nuclear program.

If so, why bother, especially when such a strike risks sparking a wider war? Israel's leaders may actually prefer a wider escalating conflict, especially before Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state. Under this theory, Israel would take the first shot with a narrowly tailored attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Paradoxically, Israel's leaders might then prefer Iranian retaliation, which would then give Israel the justification for broader strikes against Iran's oil industry, power grid, and communication systems. Even better if Iran were to block the Strait of Hormuz or attack U.S. forces in the region, which would bring U.S. Central Command into the war and result in even more punishment for Iran. Israel's leaders may believe that they enjoy "escalation dominance," meaning that the more the war escalates, the worse the consequences for Iran compared to Israel. Israel raided Iraq's nuclear program in 1981 and Syria's in 2007. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Bashar al-Assad opted to retaliate, very likely because both knew that Israel, with its air power, possessed escalation dominance. Israel's leaders have good reason to assume that Iran's leaders will reach the same conclusion.

What about the rockets possessed by Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran's proxies north and south of Israel's population centers? Israel's leaders may believe that they are much better prepared to respond to these threats than they were in 2006, when the Israeli army struggled against Hezbollah. There is no guarantee that Hezbollah and Hamas will follow orders from Tehran to attack -- they understand the punishment the reformed Israeli army would inflict. Hezbollah may now have an excellent reason to exercise caution. Should the Assad regime in Damascus collapse, Hezbollah would likely lose its most important protector and could soon find itself cut off and surrounded by enemies. It would thus be a particularly bad time for Hezbollah to invite an Israeli ground assault into southern Lebanon.

4. Managing the endgame

An Israeli raid on Iran's nuclear complex would probably not lead to the permanent collapse of the program. Iran could dig out the entrances to the Fordow site and establish new covert research and production facilities elsewhere, perhaps in bunkers dug under residential areas. Israel inflicted a major setback on Iraq's program when it destroyed the unfinished Osirak reactor in 1981. Even so, Saddam Hussein covertly restarted the program. Israel should expect the same persistence from Iran.

So is there any favorable end-state for Israel? Israeli leaders may envision a long term war of attrition against Iran's program, hoping to slow its progress to a crawl while waiting for regime change in Tehran. Through sporadic follow-up strikes against nuclear targets, Israel would attempt to demoralize the industry's workforce, disrupt its operations, and greatly increase the costs of the program. Israeli leaders might hope that their attrition tactics, delivered through occasional air strikes, would bog down the nuclear program while international sanctions weaken the civilian economy and reduce political support for the regime. The stable and favorable outcome for Israel would be either Tehran's abandonment of its nuclear program or an internal rebellion against the regime. Israel would be counting more on hope rather than a convincing set of actions to achieve these outcomes. But the imperative now for Israel is to halt the program, especially since no one else is under the same time pressure they are.

Israel should expect Tehran to mount a vigorous defense. Iran would attempt to acquire modern air defense systems from Russia or China. It would attempt to rally international support against Israeli aggression and get its international sanctions lifted and imposed on Israel instead. An Israeli assault on Iran would disrupt oil and financial markets with harmful consequences for the global economy. Israel would take the blame, with adverse political and economic consequences to follow.

But none of these consequences are likely enough to dissuade Israel from attacking. A nuclear capability is a red line that Israel has twice prevented its opponents from crossing. Iran won't get across the line either. Just as happened in 1981 and 2007, Israel's leaders have good reasons to conclude that its possession of escalation dominance will minimize the worst concerns about retaliation. Perhaps most importantly, Israel is under the greatest time pressure, which is why it will have to go it alone and start what will be a long and nerve-wracking war.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Small Wars

This Week at War: What Is NATO Good For?

The U.S. pivot to Asia could give the military alliance a chance to find a new identity.

BRUSSELS — In a briefing delivered at NATO headquarters on Jan. 30, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that "NATO is the most successful alliance in history." Rasmussen and his colleagues are hoping that success lies not only in the past but in the future, too. While 2011 was NATO's busiest year ever for military operations -- with ongoing stabilization missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo and a surprise seven-month air campaign over Libya -- the alliance still struggles to define a convincing organizing principle that will be relevant in the future, a problem it has struggled with since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ironically, NATO's leaders may now find the compelling rationale for alliance's future, and the strongest motivation for long-needed institutional reform, on the far side of the world. The emerging security rivalry between the United States and China, and the U.S. government's "pivot" away from Europe to address this challenge, may now focus the minds of European statesmen on their own security shortcomings like nothing else has since the end of the Cold War.

Before NATO's leaders can give full attention to the alliance's future missions and strategy, they must first attend to a heavy backlog of unfinished projects. In May, NATO will hold a heads-of-government summit in Chicago in an attempt to clear away up some old business and make way for contemplating the alliance's future.

Afghanistan will naturally dominate the "old business" agenda. This week, on the flight to a preparatory meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may have preempted the upcoming discussion on Afghanistan when he revealed the Obama administration's intention to suspend direct combat operations by U.S. forces by mid-2013, up to 18 months earlier than previously assumed. This early switch to a purely training and advisory role for U.S. forces closely followed last week's decision by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan next year, instead of in 2014.

At the last NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, alliance leaders pledged to maintain the current military mission in Afghanistan through 2014, when they projected it would be possible to complete a transition to Afghan security forces. The Chicago summit will have to assess whether a new timeline is now required. Leaders will also have to discuss how NATO and the rest of the international community intend to support -- seemingly in perpetuity -- the large Afghan army and national police force after the transition is complete.

Speaking in Brussels this week, Rasmussen predicted that the Chicago summit will include a declaration that NATO's new ballistic missile defense capability will have achieved an initial level of capability. In spite of Russian complaints, he asserted that "NATO's decision to have a missile defense system has been taken and will be implemented." Rasmussen said that Moscow wants "guarantees" that NATO's missile defense program is not directed at Russia. Rasmussen did not see how he could provide such guarantees and implied more friction in the future over this issue.

Another major topic in Chicago will be NATO's "smart defense" initiative. "Smart defense" is another attempt by NATO leadership to improve efficiencies in defense procurement, maintenance, and training through better multinational coordination and planning. After 63 years of trying otherwise, decisions on what weapons to buy, how to maintain equipment and facilities, and how to train military forces, are still largely made at the national level. Defense budgets everywhere are political acts taken with the interests of contractors, defense industry workers, and voters in mind. For a military alliance like NATO -- composed of many relatively small countries -- uncoordinated defense spending leads to the fielding of incompatible equipment, non-economic production, and military forces that can't function together. The alliance has struggled with these problems since the 1950s and the latest "smart defense" initiative is one more attempt to make progress toward a solution.

Ivo Daalder, the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, provided two examples of how "smart defense" could efficiently improve the alliance's military capability. He noted how the Dutch government opted last May to disband all of its army's tank battalions, implicitly putting trust in the German Army and others to defend Dutch territory. In exchange, the Netherlands will invest the savings in new ballistic missile defense radars for four Dutch frigates, a capability that would benefit all alliance members. Daalder noted that the Dutch government's decision was logical only in the context of its membership in a larger alliance. Similarly, 13 alliance members are pooling their money to buy five high-altitude Global Hawk strategic reconnaissance drones, a platform the U.S. Air Force used last year over Libya to locate targets for NATO strike aircraft. With this purchase, European alliance members will acquire a critical capability that only the United States currently has.

The NATO staff has drawn up a list of 170 more ideas to further the goals of smart defense. But such a list makes one wonder what specific military capabilities NATO imagines it will need in the future. Defense budgets in Europe are under even more pressure than they are in the United States. NATO and European countries should undertake an assessment of future military threats and available resources and then set defense priorities and risks accordingly, as the Obama administration attempted to do with its defense strategy guidance.

Last year found NATO involved in a manpower-intensive ground war in Afghanistan and a relatively high-tech air and naval battle over Libya. The Libyan campaign revealed critical shortcomings in European defense capabilities which had to be patched by the United States. These included a lack of strategic reconnaissance platforms, inadequate intelligence analysis, a hole in command-and-control capacity, and several countries running out of precision-guided munitions in the middle of the campaign.

Did the wars of 2011 show what NATO should prepare for? Probably not. After Afghanistan, European leaders will be even less eager for another prolonged stabilization campaign than are U.S. officials. The Libyan campaign is also likely a one-off; Rasmussen gave a firm "no" to any thought of NATO intervention in Syria, even in the very unlikely event that the United Nations Security Council approves such a venture.

So what should NATO plan for? Primarily, it should consider how Europe will defend itself against likely future threats after the United States is no longer able to support the alliance to the extent European policymakers have become accustomed to over the past six decades.

The sharp decline in U.S. military support for European security began long before the Obama administration's pivot. Over the past decade, the U.S. Navy has permanently transferred more and more of its ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a trend that will continue as the Chinese fleet continues to expand. The United States still has a two-ocean navy, but those two oceans are now the Pacific and Indian. Last week, Panetta announced that two of the four remaining U.S. Army brigade combat teams in Europe will be removed. More U.S. bases in Europe will be closed, military staffs reduced, and headquarters downgraded. With China's cost advantages in shipbuilding and manufacturing, the United States will find itself hard-pressed to keep up should Beijing elect to ramp up production of warships and combat aircraft. The result will be even fewer U.S. military capabilities available to NATO.

The shift in U.S. priorities could provide NATO, especially its European members, with the organizing principle it has been looking for since 1991. First, with the U.S. pull-back from the continent accelerating, Europe's defense ministries should cooperate to defend their sea, air, space, and cyberspace "commons." U.S. attention on the Pacific and Middle East should provide a powerful incentive to Europe to use smart defense coordination to acquire the high-end naval, air, space, and cyber capabilities needed to defend their interests in the commons over the continent and in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, and the Arctic.

Without a conventional ground threat to the continent, Europe should reduce and fully professionalize its ground forces. In addition to a mobile crisis response force, Europe should develop a broad special operations adviser capability. These advisors would engage in security force assistance and foreign internal defense missions with partner military and police forces in Africa and central Asia, and thus help extend Europe's security perimeter far beyond the continent's borders.

The result of these moves should be an alliance less dominated by the U.S. and instead led by a Europe motivated to become more self-reliant. That need for self-reliance should energize the defense restructuring and reform Europe has long needed. Changes on the far side of the world will make NATO more important a decade from now than it is to today. But NATO will have to endure some wrenching change if it is to stay relevant.

Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images