Evidence is mounting that the U.S. defense community and the Obama administration view 2013 as the likely window for a bombing attack on Iran's nuclear and missile facilities.
It could be earlier, timed to use the chaos of the Syrian government's fall to disguise such an attack, or later, if international negotiations with Iran stretch out without failing completely. But there is evidence that Iran's intransigence over shutting down its uranium-enrichment program will not buy it much more time.
Because of these shifting factors, military planners and White House advisers are still debating the advisability of a kinetic attack on Iran even though they say that option is ready. Three questions need to be answered:
•Is there really any need for a kinetic bombing campaign to further delay that country's much-feared nuclear and missile programs?
•What would be the politically least painful time to launch such an attack?
•Why not continue sanctions and cyberattacks indefinitely?
Three senior war planners, now retired, offer background analyses of what could affect the timing and type of attack.
“I think it would take an extraordinarily dumb move on the part of the Iranians to force U.S. kinetic interventions before the U.S. presidential election [by abandoning negotiations],” says the first official. However, “post-election, I think the viable responses [negotiations, more cyberattacks and bombing] are wide open.”
By 2013, U.S. political pressure to avoid an attack will be at its lowest ebb with the presidential election just over and the mid-terms still two years away. The situation has also stabilized in Israel. “Israel has fewer reservations [to a U.S. kinetic attack] given the recent solidification of their government,” he says.
The nearest window of opportunity—that carries the least potential for political backlash from a bombing attack on Iran—is 2013 or 2014. However, there are threats of retribution attacks on the U.S. by Hezbollah. The stateless Islamist organization occupies southern Lebanon and is supported by Syria and Iran.
“The assessment I'm betting on is continued watching, but [with U.S. forces] close to action,” says the second planner.
The tools for such an attack are all operational.
“We would employ a totally stealthy force of, B-2s and [joint air-to-surface standoff missiles] that are launched from and [Block 40] ,” says the third planning veteran. “We should give Iran advanced warning that we will damage and likely destroy its nuclear facilities. It is not an act of war against Iran, the Iranian people or Islam. It is a pre-emptive attack solely against their nuclear facilities and the military targets protecting them. We will take extraordinary measures to protect against collateral damage.”
F-22s upgraded for the use of independently targeted, ripple-fired GBU-39 small-diameter bombs, which are designed to destroy or suppress enemy air defenses, began delivery this year. The AGM-158 Jassm-ER, with range increased to 575 mi. from 230 mi. compared with the original model, will be deployed in 2013.
Also available for 2013 missions will be a composite-skin, jamming version of the miniature air-launched decoy (MALD). The modification will make the MALD lighter (thereby increasing payload) and lower its radar signature (making it more of a problem for air defenses). The 300-lb. missile has a range of roughly 575 mi. and is currently integrated on the Lockheed Martin F-16. It is designed to penetrate air defenses. The jammer payload can blind or confuse radars from close range, and advanced payloads could be used as anti-electronic or even cyberattack weapons.
The U.S. also has two aircraft-carrier task forces in the Arabian Sea that could provide Tomahawk missile strikes as well as electronic warfare and standoff missile attacks.
During a February security conference in Israel, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dani Halutz, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, said that the Iranian uranium-enrichment plan should not be used as an excuse for Israel to attack unilaterally.
Halutz, also a former chief of the, said: “The military option should be last, and it should be led by others.” Judging from other collaborative efforts between the U.S. and Israel, Jerusalem would be heavily involved in human, signals- and cyber-intelligence-gathering and, perhaps, cyber and electronic attack.
A worrisome issue for U.S. planners is that Iran also has intelligence allies. Syria's surveillance and air defense radars, command-and-control (C2) and sigint organizations share information with Tehran. Any attack against Iran would likely have to travel over Turkey north of Syria, over Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the south, or directly over Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Any of those routes would require electronic or kinetic attack of Syrian radar, communications and C2 centers—some of which are in Lebanon—to hide the approaching force. Alternatively, the fall of Syria's current government could provide enough chaos to camouflage a raid on Iran.
In Jerusalem, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro said Washington has a military contingency plan should diplomatic talks with Iran to curtail its nuclear program fail. The military option is “not just available, it's ready,” he asserts. “The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it's ready. The international community has been unified.”
“The fundamental premise is that neither the U.S. nor the international community is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta later told U.S. audiences. “We will do everything we can to prevent them from developing a weapon. We have plans to be able to implement any contingency we have to in order to defend ourselves.”
So would it serve international purposes if the options already in play—economic sanctions, political discussions and cyberoperations—were reinforced, or punctuated, with a kinetic attack of some sort? “You don't want to foreclose any option until the desired effect is achieved, so keep your options open and your powder dry,” says the first U.S. planner.
The reason for avoiding a bombing campaign is the ease with which the attacker can be identified. Cyberattack offers an offensive capability without removing the cloak of anonymity.
“Cyberattack is not always preferred to physical damage,” says Lt. Gen. (ret.) David Deptula, former U.S. Air Force chief of intelligence. “It depends on what the objectives are. What we want to be able to do is to get our foes to act in accordance with our strategic objectives without ever knowing they have been acted upon. Operations in cyberspace allow that to happen.”
However, the crisis over Iran's continuing nuclear program may not allow the U.S. to wait until such cyber- and information-war weapons are refined and operationally fielded.
Hans Ruhle, director of the German defense ministry from 1982-88, released a report earlier this year that Iran may have been involved in North Korean nuclear weapons testing. It was published by the Die Welt news organization. The document contends that Iran was involved in at least one of the two nuclear tests in North Korea in 2010.
Iran expert Ephraim Kam of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Securities Studies told the Jerusalem Post that the claim was plausible. “There is cooperation between Iran and North Korea on missiles, but that can also spill over into the nuclear field,” Kam said.
Any attack on Iran, particularly if it is an allied effort, may well follow the Libya model, with long initial delays and then a rush to action once there is a triggering event. In Libya it was the launch of an armored attack toward lightly defended rebel forces in Benghazi. Despite plans to have F-22s in place to aid in the surveillance and destruction of air defenses, they never left their home bases. The U.S. Navy'sProwlers and cruise missiles attacked the air defenses once an electronic order of battle had been assembled by submarines and Air Force RC-135 monitoring Libya from offshore.