If Israel Can’t Bomb the Iranian Nuclear Program to a Halt, What About the U.S.?

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IAEA, CRS, Battleland Research Division

The New York Times on Monday spelled out just how much of a challenge it would be for Israel to try to derail Iran’s nuclear program using military force. Reports Elizabeth Bumiller:

…an Israeli attack meant to set back Iran’s nuclear program would be a huge and highly complex operation…The possible outlines of an Israeli attack have become a source of debate in Washington, where some analysts question whether Israel even has the military capacity to carry it off.

This is all part of a huge mind game designed to keep Iran – as well as Pentagon war-planners – off balance. So let’s ask the question that’s being batted about whenever a handful of military geeks have gotten together in recent weeks: how much more successful would a U.S.-led strike be against Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that attacking Iran’s nuclear sites would, “at best, it might postpone it [Iran joining the nuclear-weapons club] maybe one, possibly two years.” If he’s right – and most U.S. experts concur with his view – the U.S. probably can wound, but not kill, Iran’s nuclear dreams with military force.

But U.S. military experts say Washington could do far more to damage Iran’s nuclear program than Tel Aviv. Israel “has a much smaller air force and further to fly,” says Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution. “I worry most about its ability to robustly deal with Iranian air defenses.”

Jeffrey White, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, says it’s not the initial punch that would set a U.S. attack apart from an Israeli one, but the ability to keep it going. “We have a lot more capability than Israel does, in terms of the number of aircraft, the kinds of attacks we could carry out, and the kinds of ordnance we could put on the targets,” says White, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.

“But more important that anything is that we could sustain attacks. We’ve got B-1s, B-2s, carrier aviation, we might be able to launch out of the gulf states, we’ve got cruise missiles to knock down the air-defense system before we launch,” White says. “We have all kinds of capabilities that Israel doesn’t have.”

But an Israeli attack would not be puny — it could involve, as the Times noted, as many as 100 aircraft. “They could get enough aircraft up there to hit a number of targets,” White says, “but it would probably be a one-shot deal.”

That’s because its smaller military would have to dedicate itself to the blowback sure to come: “The Israelis are pretty creative, but my tendency is to think of it as a one-time event, and then the forces used in that operation would be reconfigured to prepare for anything coming out of Hezbollah or Hamas,” White says. “The real difference is our ability to sustain these attacks,” White says. “I’m thinking it would be an air campaign of attacks lasting days, versus a single operation.”

And it might – if the U.S. were serious about stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – have to be repeated again and again.

That’s why at least some national-security heavyweights are urging military restraint by both Israel and the U.S. “Proponents of rushing to war now, before we’ve exhausted all other options, tend to replay the mistakes made by proponents of the 2003 Iraq war,” says Colin Kahl, who until December served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. “They hype the threat, exaggerate the benefits of war, and downplay the risks and costs.”