Late in the summer of 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked the Air Force to plan a nuclear first strike on the Soviet Union. The plan involved 55 B-52 bombers hitting 80 targets to degrade Soviet Long Range Air Force and Strategic Rocket Forces by 80 to 90 percent. Since these bases were located in remote parts of the USSR, estimated casualties numbered less than one million. Having lost over 20 million people in their recently concluded Great Patriotic War, the thinking was Moscow might not respond, especially since its vastly degraded nuclear forces would render any response uncoordinated and ineffective while the United States retained a full counter-strike force able to obliterate the Soviet Union. President Kennedy thought the unthinkable 51 years ago.
Today, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) considers various strike options against Iran. Striking Iran confronts the IAF with the formidable operational challenge of hitting targets across 1,000 miles of hostile airspace. Israel has no long range-bombers. Its relatively small force of F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers will have to refuel at least once during the 2,000-mile round trip.
Distance is only part of the problem. To reach Iran, the Israeli strike force must fly over hostile territory. One possible route involves traversing Syria, which has the capability to respond. Another route takes the IAF over Saudi Arabia; the Saudis might acquiesce, given their apprehension of a nuclear-armed Iran. The other possibility is to fly over Iraq, whose air defenses are incapable of impeding such an operation, but Baghdad may warn Tehran of what’s headed its way.
The Iranian air assets consist of American F-14 and Russian MiG-29s, generational equals of the Israeli F-15s and F-16s. Iran also has a few obsolete American F-4 Phantoms and F-5s. The Israeli planes are newer, have enhanced capabilities, and are flown by superior pilots. Iran possesses an array of surface-to-air missiles, including the SA-5 for high altitude threats, SA-15 to meet lower-level penetrators, and U.S. Super Hawk missiles. It also has a number of Russia’s newest air defense missiles, the S-300. Since Israel doesn’t have the resources to soften up this air defense system, it would have to deal with it during a strike. The IAF faces the prospect of possible high losses.
Moreover, the small number of Boeing KC-135 tankers in the Israeli inventory (the IAF’s Achilles’ heel) would need to be protected by fighter escorts, unless refueling took place over the Mediterranean prior to entering Syrian or Saudi air space going in and again coming out. In that case, Israel’s fighters will have little margin for air combat along the way or over Iran. Otherwise, refueling must occur in potentially hostile air space.
For Israel, Iranian targets spread from outside Tehran in the north to Busheher in the south, meaning a multiple axis attack may be necessary. Additionally, some targets are underground. Each F-15 can carry one American-produced GBU-28 “Bunker Buster” bomb. It is far from certain that these bombs can do the job on deeply buried targets. Multiple strikes would be necessary to dig away rock, soil, and concrete.
Whether successful or not, Israel faces international condemnation. So will the United States, even if it remains on the sidelines. That leaves two added alternatives:
First, the United States could join with Israel in a comprehensive conventional attack. Unlike Israel, the United States can degrade Iranian defenses, as it did Libyan air defenses last year. Furthermore, B-2s, dropping far larger bombs, can do so undetected. The Israelis can take the high-level tactical risks but with active U.S. support it is less likely Syria or Saudi Arabia will interfere. A broader attack to degrade Iranian military capabilities will lessen the possibility of retaliatory efforts like mining Hormuz or undertaking a worldwide terror campaign.
Second, for Israel, a conventional strike involves high risks for potentially little gain. A fiasco on the scale of the Dieppe Raid of World War II is a distinct possibility. Therefore, in the mind of some planners, using nuclear weapons would make sense. Low-yield, tactical nukes would solve problems of penetration. The bonus effect includes making those sites unusable for years. Underground detonations also minimize radioactive fallout.
Most nations and peoples cower at the thought of a nuclear first strike. Israel’s history of facing annihilation from its neighbors gives Israelis a different perspective. The “Never Again” factor is an Israeli cultural imperative. The unthinkable remains an immutable part of Jewish history.
Such an attack, if expanded to take out Iranian military response capabilities, would make clear that Israel won’t tolerate retaliation from Tehran’s surrogates in Lebanon, Syria, and their Hamas allies in Gaza. Israel would have demonstrated its willingness to respond at places and by means of its own choosing.
If the United States sits this one out, Israel may be forced to act with enormous ramifications and consequences. Such is the fallout from Washington’s strategic policy of leading from behind.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.
Publication date: March 6, 2012