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How to Bomb Iran

During the Napoleonic Wars, when it was reported that the French were preparing to invade England, Admiral John Jervis said “I do not say they the French cannot come–I only say they cannot come by sea.” Barring the movement of a regiment of sans culottes across the English Channel by a fleet of Montgolfier balloons, the Jervis comment pretty much summed up the limits to French ambitions as long as Britannia ruled the waves.

A similar bit of military overreach appears to be surrounding the alleged planning by the Israelis to stage an air assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The US media and even some Pentagon spokesmen have suggested that Israel cannot do the job alone, but the problem is much larger than that, leading to the question whether Israel can do it at all. Israel has over 400 fighters [1], but many of them are configured to establish air superiority over an opponent by shooting down opposing aircraft and disabling air defense facilities on the ground. They are fighters supporting ground operations first with a limited secondary capability as bombers.

Israel has no dedicated bomber force but it does have an estimated 125 advanced F-15I and F-16I’s, which have been further enhanced through special avionics installed by the Israel Aircraft Industry to improve performance over the types of terrain and weather conditions prevailing in the Middle East. The planes are able to fly long range missions and very capable in a bombing role but they do have their limitations.

It is generally agreed that any attempt to destroy the hardened and well-defended Iranian nuclear sites would require use of the United States-provided GBU-28 [2], a five thousand-pound laser-guided smart bomb that can be directed to the target. The GBU-28 is regarded as accurate and able to penetrate deep into a target, which is why it has been described as the “bunker buster.” Exact performance specifications of the weapon are classified, but it is believed to be able to penetrate twenty feet of reinforced concrete. Whether that would be enough to take out the expected Iranian targets at the research centers in Natanz and Fordow, the heavy water facility at Arak, and the operating reactor at Bushehr is unknown and some analysts have opined that it might require multiple hits on the same spot to do the job. As Bushehr, the most accessible target of the three, is an active reactor, an attack would release considerable contamination.

Assuming that the US has supplied Israel with a sufficient supply of GBU-28s to go around to all the available aircraft, there remain two additional problems with the weapon that impact Israeli ability to stage an attack. First, it is so heavy that only Israel’s twenty-five F15Is are able to carry it, one bomb for each plane. For optimum use against a target, the GBU-28 also requires a clear line of sight, which means that the plane has to be flying low and relatively slowly, making the fighters more vulnerable to ground defenses, particularly with their maneuverability limited due to the bomb load. This first problem creates the second problem, which is that an attack will require a separate fleet of F-16 fighters unencumbered by GBU-28s to go in first and suppress the defensive fire, further complicating the mission.

Assuming that all the Israeli fighters capable of carrying the GBU-28 are available, which would not normally be the case, twenty-five bombs might not be enough to do critical damage to the targets. Perfect intelligence is required to place the bombs where they will do the most harm, an element that will likely be lacking with the underground targets. Some bombs will miss while others might not function perfectly and will detonate before penetration. And before the bombs are dropped the planes have to arrive over Iran.

Let’s assume that the Israelis opt for an attacking force of 50 fighters, one third of which would be designated for suppression of ground fire. The planes would be equipped with conformal fuel tanks built into the fuselages for extended range. They would also have auxiliary tanks that could be jettisoned when empty. Nevertheless, the attacking force would have to take off from Israeli airfields and then almost immediately refuel either over Israel or above the Mediterranean because fighters burn considerable fuel in getting off the ground. Refueling from Israel’s twelve modified Boeing 707 and C-130 tankers would take some time even though a plane using a flying boom for refueling can top up in thirty seconds. It is the maneuvering and connecting to enable the refueling that takes considerably longer. Refueling all 50 planes will be a major task essential to the success of the mission and while the planes are in the air and forming up they will be detected by radar in Egypt and Lebanon, information that one must assume is likely to be shared with Iran.

The objectives in Iran are more than 1,000 miles from Israel and the planes must be able to spend some time over their targets, which is why the refueling is necessary. But even then there would be problems if the Israeli jets have to engage any enemy planes either en route or over Iran. They would have to drop their auxiliary tanks to take defensive action and would probably have to return immediately to Israel.


There are three possible routes to Iran. One route to the south violates Saudi airspace and it is by no means certain that the very capable 80 plus F-15s of the Saudi Air Force would not scramble to intercept. The other is to the north over Syria, skirting the Turkish border. Syria is unlikely to be able to interfere much given its current troubles though it does possess some capable Russian made anti-aircraft missiles, but a Turkish response to possible airspace violations cannot be ruled out. The third and most likely option is to fly along Syria’s southern border, avoiding Jordan, and then through Iraq, which has only limited air defense capabilities since the US military’s departure at the end of 2011.

Israel’s previous attacks on nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria hit targets that were above ground while relying on the element of complete surprise. Upon arrival over Iran, the Israelis would be confronted by something quite different, targets that are deep underground or hardened with reinforced concrete and further protected by layers of ground defenses that will be alert and waiting. Iran is known to have batteries of Russian supplied SA-5s for high altitude targets and SA-15s for lower level attackers. Both systems are regarded as very effective. It has also been alleged that Tehran has been able to acquire advanced Russian S-300 long range missiles, which, if true, would pose a serious problem for the Israeli fighters. The Israelis would have to be very lucky to avoid losses.

Assuming that the Israeli Air Force is able to carry out the refueling, fly successfully to Iran, suppress ground defenses, and carry out its bombing, it still has to return home, again flying over Iraq with every air force and air defense battery in the region on full alert. Depending on how much maneuvering was required while over Iran, some planes might well need to be refueled again which would mean deploying highly vulnerable tankers over Iraq or Jordan.

Back at home the Israelis would have to expect volleys of missiles of all kinds and varieties launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon to retaliate for the attack. The US-funded Iron Dome defense missile system would intercept many of the incoming missiles, but some would certainly get through and Israeli civilian casualties could be high.

It is clear that staging the attack on Iran would be fraught with difficulties and intelligence estimates suggest that at best the bombing would set back the Iranian ability to construct a weapon by only a year or two. Plus the attack would make certain that Iran would pursue a weapon, if only for self-defense, an essentially political decision that has not yet been made by the country’s leadership.

Israel has other military assets–including ballistic missiles and submarine-launched cruise missiles–that could be used to attack Iran, that would invite retaliation from Iran’s own ballistic and cruise missiles, considerably complicating post-attack developments. There is also the Israeli nuclear weapons capability, use of which would invite worldwide condemnation and instantly escalate the fighting into a regional or even broader conflict.

On balance, all of the above suggests that the frequently repeated threat by the Israeli leadership to attack Iran is not a serious plan to take out Iran’s nuclear sites. It is more likely a long running disinformation operation to somehow convince the United States to do the job or a deliberate conditioning of the Israeli and US publics to be supportive if some incident can be arranged to trigger an armed conflict. If one believes the two presidential candidates based on what they said in Monday’s debate, both have more-or-less conceded the point, agreeing that they would support militarily any Israeli attack on Iran. Whether Romney or Obama is actually willing to start a major new war in the Middle East is, of course, impossible to discern.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

57 Comments (Open | Close)

57 Comments To "How to Bomb Iran"

#1 Comment By Chris Travers On October 31, 2012 @ 7:42 am

The other thing that occurs to me regarding some of the other outlandish theories in the comments is that Israel really needs to return most or all of the planes intact to Israel as quickly as possible. The reason is that not only do you have the possibility of such an attack sparking direct retaliation but you have the possibility of a regional war. This is a real issue if, for example, Saudis decide to give Israel access to their airspace. One thing Israelis would have to decide is whether the Saudis are playing both sides. Let Israel hit Iran, then take them and their tankers out on the way back. Let there be an Israeli war with half if the IAF out before it really starts. In fact the possibility that it could result in an assault on Israel by neighbors is not something that could be ruled out.

In general, this article makes me feel even more strongly that the talk of an Israeli attack is not really realistic.

#2 Comment By Daniel Baker On October 31, 2012 @ 9:38 am

What exactly is Hezbollah’s missile armament? Hamas has fired eight or nine thousand rockets at Israel and has killed fewer than 30 people. Is Hezbollah’s arsenal likely to be much more effective?

I’m just picking at one loose end. The article’s overall conclusion appears unassailable: attacking Iran would be futile folly. And that conclusion is corroborated by all the thoughtful articles I’ve read on the subject.

#3 Comment By NoMoreYouPrats On October 31, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

Above all these considerations of Middle Eastern wars and rumours of Middle Eastern wars is Pepe Escobar’s analysis of the role Western control of the globe’s energy resources plays in maintaining the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The bankers’s global debt Ponzi scheme will only keep spinning so long as the bulk of the world’s energy (and most other) commodities are traded in petrodollars. The moment the dollar is no longer the de facto reserve currency is the moment there is no longer a market for U.S. debt and the moment the dollar crashes with catastrophic consequences domestically and abroad for the American Imperium.

We are witnessing the opening salvos in a fight to the finish between the anti-hegemonic forces (the BRICs, Iran, Venezuela) and the Hegemon (the U.S., Britain, NATO, Israel) over whose currency or basket of currencies, and in whose markets the world’s energy supplies will be priced and sold. Iraq, Venezuela, Libya, and Iran at one time or another have threatened to or succeeded in opening their own oil bourses where payment in dollars is unacceptable. China has greatly diminished or altogether stopped buying U.S. debt (hence the reason for QE3), and entered into bilateral trade agreements with Putin’s Russia denominated in the yuan and rouble. More and more anti-hegemonic and non-aligned nations are concluding bilateral trade pacts in their own currencies. And Iran, possessor of one of the world’s greatest underdeveloped natural gas reserves, wishes to build a pipeline to Europe with which to supply much of its energy demand–these contracts will not be written in petrodollars.

Beyond the desire and ability of the Eretz Israel crowd to involve America in Likud’s plans for regional dominance, the United States has compelling reasons of her own in seeing to it that Iran, like Iraq and Libya before it, does not make good in its bid for economic independence, perhaps the most sovereign power a sovereign nation may wield. Petrodollar Uber Alles or Bomb, Bomb, Iran.

#4 Comment By mannning On October 31, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

Chris Travers:

So your take is that the world would condemn Israel and boycott its trade because they used EMP bursts in their attack. My take is that Israel cannot pull off such an attack without the use of EMP, since they would lose too many of their aircraft and would not disrupt Iran’s nucear push for very long. So the Israelis are definitely between a rock and a hard place–they face either an eventual nucloear attack by Iran, or, if they employ their EMP weapons they will lose their economy from the EU and US by boycott.

I suggest that they do not have a choice; they will use their EMP attack, and take their chances on many nations not going along with a boycott. This path leads to survival, whereas the other path leads to total destruction.
I have the distinct impression that any such boycott would not hold up, any more than the US use resulted in much more than wringing of hands for a while; nations do understand the survival syndrome very well, and some Arab nations would applaud the action, and lend their support, probably very quietly.

#5 Comment By Joe On November 4, 2012 @ 11:59 am

Why on earth would you want to bomb a nation that has never attacked (self defence excluded) you or any other nation in the last 300 years? Do you Americans really want to send your soldiers to die for Israel?

#6 Comment By mannning On November 5, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

Joe: Few if any Americans want war with anyone. What we have been discussing are the possibilities for Israel’s attack, given that they have decided to do so.

It has been recognized also that if Israel does attack Iran, it is entirely possible that Iran would retaliate against not only Israel but also the US, thus forcing us to take action whether we want to or not purely in defense of ourselves, around the world.

As to the 300-year history of Iran not initiating a war, the advent of nuclear weapons could change the thinking of Iran’s leadership, as was threatened by their current president earlier. I am certain also that Israel is not counting on Iran’s passive history today; not with their national survival at issue.

#7 Comment By Arnold Sourman On November 17, 2012 @ 2:58 am

A nuclear armed Iran is a real and concrete threat. Iran is dominated by fanatics, as there are many in Israel too (the ultra-Orthodox and die-hard Zionists). Furthermore, Iran has far-reaching expantionists ambitions. they see themselves as a nation of 65 million Shias plus 16 million or Iraqi Shias, plus another 12 million or so Shias of various denominations in the Middle East. Basically we have 100 million or so Shias in the Middle East, excluding those in Pakistan, Azerbajan, Turkey (Alavites), Afghanistan, and North Africa (only a few hundred thousands). If you add those Shia outside Iran and the Arab World (but near the Middle East), you would get in all about 150 millions or so. The Zionist Israel can count only on its population of about 6 million Jews, and probably on a chunk (only a chunk) of another 12 million Jews or so scattered around the world. The Jews could make a bid to gobble up some more Arab lands, but only within limits. Certainly not from the Euphrates to the Nile because the numbers in terms of population do not favor them. It remains a dream, but not a realistic one. Iran, on the orther hand, has a strategic depth, not only in terms of geography, but also population wise. That’s why Iran has a different set of calculations. Add to that the sort of religious apocalyptic and messianic fanaticism dominating the vertices of Iran’s leadership, and mixe it with the atomic bomb, and there you have what most probably could be the biggest threat to the Middle East and world peace humankind has ever faced since the Mongol invasions. This is why a nuclear armed Iran is a not an ordinary nuclear threat as we have theorized or witnessed in the past. It is not similar to the Communist nuclear threat we have seen during the Cold War. It is a totally different ballgame. It is religious fanaticism driving a leadership who thinks that Shiism must prevail over all other religions or sects (especially in the Midlle East) no matter what sacrifices might be required. And needless to say, religious wars are the worst kind of wars one could ever imagine.