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National Security
3:49 pm
Fri March 9, 2012

Experts: A Strike On Iran Poses Many Challenges

Originally published on Sun March 11, 2012 8:12 am

The question hanging over Washington for months has been this: Will Israel strike the Iranian nuclear program?

The Obama administration seems to have bought some time this week after rounds of meetings and speeches with Israeli officials in Washington.

Still, the president assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. will do all in its power to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

So the military option is still on the table.

Obama talked tough this week and made it clear that the nuclear program that Iran insists is for civilian use will never be permitted to develop weapons.

"We will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon," the president said.

Not much ambiguity there. The question is what would the U.S. do if it decided that military action was necessary.

There is not just one military option.

Israel could act on its own. It could send waves of planes, American-made F-15s and F-16s, to attack Iran's nuclear sites. They might get just one chance at their targets.

The Israelis have first-rate military capabilities, says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula.

Deptula, who designed the U.S. air campaign for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, notes that Israeli warplanes successfully destroyed an Iraqi nuclear site in 1981 and another in Syria in 2007.

Iran Would Be A Tough Target

But Iran is a much more difficult military challenge that involves dozens of potential targets, he says.

In addition, Iran's secretive program is at least partially shielded under mountains.

"So a certain enrichment capacity, a certain hiding of facilities, a certain impenetrability of Iranian facilities would already be a reason to move militarily," says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli government official who's now at the New America Foundation.

For all these reasons, Israel might want to move sooner rather than later. But these are also reasons Israel might not succeed without U.S. help.

For an attack on Iran, Deptula says, the Israelis just don't have enough aircraft or the right warplanes.

"There is a capacity issue," he says. "The number of aim points or target points that one would want to respond against is relatively large ... to set back the program a significant period of time."

Most defense analysts, like Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, say any Israeli strike might set back Iran's program by no more than a year or two. Israel might have a sophisticated air force, but not the kind needed to destroy Iran's nuclear program.

"They don't have the aircraft to carry the really big bombs," he says.

Big Bombs Require Big U.S. Planes

Israeli planes can carry 2,000-pound bombs. The Americans have 30,000-pound bombs designed to eliminate the type of underground facilities Iran has constructed. Goure says only the Americans have the planes that can carry those enormous bombs.

"You need a bomber, you'd need a B-52, a B-2 bomber to carry something that massive," he says.

Daniel Levy says that's what Israel would like to see: American bombers heading toward Iran. He says Israeli leaders know they can't destroy Iran's nuclear program on their own, they can only delay it.

"I think the focus from Israel's perspective is still more on how do you walk America further down the road to almost inevitable conflict rather than any immediate Israeli action," he says.

Deptula says even for the U.S., any air campaign against Iran would be a long, complex operation.

"This is not a walk in the park," he says. "It would require an orchestrated campaign of some duration, weeks not days, against a wide variety of very challenging target sets."

Deptula says those who talk lightly of airstrikes and bombing need to answer this question: What are you trying to achieve? If it's halting Iran's nuclear program for good, it may take more than air strikes.

"To eliminate the program, one then has to address how far are you willing to go in terms of removing and replacing the regime," he says.

And replacing a regime, he says, means ground troops to support that effort.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And a huge question hanging over Washington, D.C., for months now has been this: Will Israel strike the Iranian nuclear program? President Obama and Pentagon officials have urged diplomacy and sanctions against Tehran, but the president assured Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his visit this week that the United States will do all in its power to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. NPR's Tom Bowman looks at the possible military options from both countries.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: President Obama talked tough this week. He made it clear that the nuclear program Iran insists is for civilian use will never become a military program.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

BOWMAN: Not much ambiguity there. The question is how to stop it if military action becomes necessary. There is not just one military option. Israel could act on its own. It could send waves of planes, American-made F-15s and F-16s, to attack Iran's nuclear sites. They might get just one chance at their targets.

LT. GEN. DAVE DEPTULA: The Israelis have one of the most first-rate military sets of capabilities in the world.

BOWMAN: Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula designed the U.S. air campaign for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He says Israeli warplanes successfully destroyed an Iraqi nuclear site in 1981 and another in Syria back in 2007. Iran is different, and a much harder military challenge. It involves dozens of potential targets. And Israel is alarmed that Iran's secretive program is at least partially shielded under mountains, according to Daniel Levy. He's a former Israeli government official who's now at the New America Foundation.

DANIEL LEVY: So a certain enrichment capacity, a certain hiding of facilities, a certain impenetrability of Iranian facilities would already be a reason to move militarily.

BOWMAN: A reason Israel would want to move sooner rather than later, but also a reason Israel might not succeed without U.S. help. For an attack on Iran, General Deptula says the Israelis just don't have enough aircraft or the right war planes needed to hit Iranian targets.

DEPTULA: There is a capacity issue because the number of the number of aim points or target points that one would want to respond against is relatively large that you would need in order to set back the program a significant period of time.

BOWMAN: Most defense analysts like Dan Goure, of the Lexington Institute, say any Israeli strikes might set back Iran's program by no more than a year or two. Israel might have a sophisticated Air Force, but not the kind needed to destroy Iran's nuclear program.

DAN GOURE: So they don't have the aircraft to carry the really big bombs.

BOWMAN: Israeli planes can carry 2,000 pound bombs. The Americans have 30,000 pound bombs, designed to eliminate the type of underground facilities Iran has constructed. Goure says only the Americans have the planes that can carry those enormous bombs.

GOURE: You need a bomber, you'd need a B-52, a B-2 bomber to carry something that massive.

BOWMAN: And Daniel Levy says that's what Israel would like to see. American bombers heading toward Iran. He says Israeli leaders know they can't destroy Iran's nuclear program on their own, only delay it.

LEVY: I think the focus from Israel's perspective is still more on how do you walk America further down the road to almost inevitable conflict rather than any immediate Israeli action.

DEPTULA: This is not a walk in the park.

BOWMAN: Again, General Deptula. He says even for the U.S., any air campaign against Iran would be a long, complex operation.

DEPTULA: It would require an orchestrated campaign of some duration, weeks not days, against a wide variety of very challenging target sets.

BOWMAN: General Deptula says those who talk lightly of airstrikes and bombing need to answer this question: What are you trying to achieve? If it's halting Iran's nuclear program for good, it may take more than air strikes.

DEPTULA: To eliminate the program, one then has to address how far are you willing to go in terms of removing and replacing the regime.

BOWMAN: And replacing a regime, he says, means ground troops to support that effort.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.