Three high-level U.S. military and intelligence sources have told me that Centcom has identified three options for Israel should it decide to take preventive military action against Iran.
The first and most predictable option calls for a massed Israeli Air Force bombing campaign targeting key Iranian nuclear sites. Such an assault would be coupled with strikes from submarine-launched cruise missiles and Israeli-based medium-range Jericho II and long-range Jericho III missiles, according to a highly placed U.S. military officer. The attack may well be preceded by -- or coupled with -- a coordinated cyber and electronic warfare attack.
But planners for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Centcom have concluded that, because of limits to Israel's military capabilities, such an aerial campaign could not be sustained. "They'll have one shot, one time," the U.S. military officer said. "That's one time out and one time back. And that's it."
While Israel has 125 sophisticated F15I and F16I fighter-bombers, only the roughly 25 F15Is are capable of carrying the bunker-busting GBU-28 guided missile, which has the best chance of destroying Iran's heavily fortified nuclear installations. And even then, each F15I can only carry a single munition.
This force, while lethal, is also modest. The Israeli Air Force would likely have to carefully pick and choose its targets, settling most probably on four: the heavy-water production plant at Arak, the uranium-enrichment centers at Fordow and Natanz, and the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, while leaving out the military site at Parchin and the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which houses Russian technical experts.
The Israeli attack would also likely include the F16Is to knock down Iran's air defense network, or perhaps drop other, less effective, bunker-busting munitions to reinforce the F15I sortie. Some of these F16Is, but not all of them, would be able to refuel from Israel's seven to ten KC-707 tankers.
Even with that, and even with the best of luck (good weather, accurate targeting, sophisticated refueling, near total surprise, precise air-to-air interdiction, a minimum of accidents, and the successful destruction of Iran's anti-aircraft capabilities), senior U.S. military officers say that Israel would only set back Iran's nuclear capability by one to two years at best -- not end it.
Which could be why Netanyahu is so anxious for the Obama administration to say when or if it would join an attack. As Hoar, the former Centcom commander, bluntly put it: "Compared to the United States, Israel doesn't have a military."
Included in the U.S. arsenal is the recently developed Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the GBU-57, which can punch through 200 feet of hardened concrete before detonating its 5,300-pound warhead. The United States, which recently developed the GBU-57, is rumored to have only about 20 in its inventory -- but the Israelis have zero. "There's a good reason for that," Gardiner said. "Only a B-2 bomber can carry the 57." He paused for effect: "You might know this, but it's worth mentioning," he said. "Israel doesn't have any B-2s."
Israel's likely inability to destroy Iran's nuclear capacity in a single stroke, even in a best-case scenario, has led U.S. war planners to speculate about a second, out-of-the-box, and extremely dangerous military option: what they're calling an "Iranian Entebbe."
In this scenario, the Israelis would forego a massed air attack and instead mount a high-risk but high-payoff commando raid that would land an elite Sayeret Matkal (special forces) unit outside of Iran's enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom. The unit -- or other elite units like it -- consisting of perhaps as many as 400 soldiers, would seize Iran's enriched uranium for transport to Israel.
The operation's success would depend on speed, secrecy, simplicity, and the credibility of Israeli intelligence. According to the Pentagon war planner, Israel's access to intelligence on Iranian military and policy planning is unprecedented, as is their willingness to share it with U.S. intelligence officials.
The Israeli unit would be transported on as few as three and perhaps as many as six C-130 aircraft (which can carry a maximum of 70 troops) that would be protected by a "swarm" of well-armed F16Is, according to the scenario being considered by U.S. military officers. The C-130s would land in the desert near Fordow. The Israeli commandos would then defeat the heavily armed security personnel at the complex, penetrate its barriers and interdict any enemy units nearby, and seize the complex's uranium for transport back to Israel. Prior to its departure, the commando unit would destroy the complex, obviating the need for any high-level bombing attack. (Senior U.S. military officers say that there are reports that some of the uranium at Fordow is stored as uranium hexafluoride gas, a chemical form used during the enrichment process. In that case, the material may be left in place when the commandos destroy the complex.)
"It's doable, and they have to be thinking along these lines," the highly placed U.S. military officer said. "The IDF's special forces are the best asset Israel has." That said, "In some scenarios," the U.S. military planner who told me of the potential operation said, "there would be very high Israeli casualties because of nearby Republican Guard [sic] divisions. This operation could be quite bloody."
Bloody or not, the Israeli leadership may not be quick to dismiss such an operation, given Israel's history of using such units. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are former Sayeret Matkal officers, and recently Israeli Defense Forces head Benny Gantz (himself a Sayeret Matkal veteran) said the IDF had formed an elite special operations "Deep Corps" to strike far inside hostile territory. And, of course, it bears remembering that Netanyahu's brother Yonatan was the sole casualty in Israel's Entebbe operation.
The difficulty with the Entebbe-style option is that Israel would be forced to mount "a robust CSAR [combat search and rescue] capability" to support it, a senior JCS planner noted. That would mean landing other C-130s carrying helicopters that could pick up endangered commandos or retrieve downed aircraft crews. Such CSAR units would have to be deployed to nearby countries, "or even land in the Iraqi desert," this senior officer said. This CSAR component complicates what might otherwise be a straightforward operation, as it involves other vulnerabilities -- an "escalatory ladder" that Israel may not want to climb.
Skeptics of this option include Admiral Inman. "The Israelis could get to Entebbe," he said, "but they can't get to Iran. My sense is that the fact that the Israelis are even thinking about this operation shows that they realize that their first, bombing option won't work. They're desperately grasping for a military solution, and they know they don't have one."
But Colonel Gardiner believes this Entebbe-style operation is possible. "It's a non-escalatory option, it's entirely doable, and it's not as dangerous as it seems," he said. "We have to understand what Israel's goal is in any attack on Iran. The whole point for Israel is to show that they can they can project power anywhere in the region. So let's take a look at this from their perspective. There aren't three divisions near Fordow, there's one, and it's dug in. It wouldn't take the Iranians three hours to respond, it would take them three days. This reminds me of Osirak [the Iraqi nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in a 1981 airstrike]. The last ones who wanted to admit that the Israelis did that were the Iraqis. That'll be the case here. The Iranians will be embarrassed. It has appeal. It makes sense. If it's simple, if it's done fast, if it's in and out. It could work."