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What Would an Air Attack on Iran Look Like?

Commentary, 30 March 2012
Aerospace, Middle East and North Africa
A ground invasion is impossible. But Israel lacks the long-range assets unilaterally to neutralise a dispersed Iranian nuclear capability, whereas a large US co-ordinated air campaign against Iranian nuclear weapon facilities is eminently feasible. Nevertheless the effectiveness and fallout from such a campaign remains in doubt.

A ground invasion is impossible. But Israel lacks the long-range assets unilaterally to neutralise a dispersed Iranian nuclear capability, whereas a large US co-ordinated air campaign against Iranian nuclear weapon facilities is eminently feasible. Nevertheless the effectiveness and fallout from such a campaign remains in doubt.

By Andrew Brookes for


Back in 2006, I evaluated the prospects for the air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in the RUSI Journal. Six years later, not much has changed. Iranian centrifuges and engineers are capable of producing practicable, deliverable nuclear weapons and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently called the 'Zionist regime' a 'cancerous tumour that must be cut out'.

On 7 June 1981, an Israeli Air Force (IAF) strike formation of eight F-16As and eight F-15s took-off from an airbase in the Sinai to fly low-level across the Gulf of Aqaba, southern Jordan and then northern Saudi Arabia. While two of the F-15s remained over Saudi Arabia to act as a communications link back to Israel, six F-15s and the F-16s flew on to deliver a successful low‑level precise attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor some ten miles west of Baghdad. The reactor was totally destroyed.

The Iranians learnt from that episode, and they have dispersed sites with a role in the nuclear programme. Many are hidden and buried, with some facilities up to seventy-five feet underground. Sabotage by Special Forces is not feasible, and with US forces rushing for the exit in Afghanistan, there is no enthusiasm for a new invasion of Iran with its army of 350,000. The only credible military option is an air attack.

Until recently, the head of military intelligence at the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) was the lead pilot in the Osirak operation. By January 2006 Israel had identified the high-priority targets to be bombed to ensure meaningful degradation of Iran's nuclear weapons programme. The IAF has acquired a precise, all-weather weapon delivery capability since Osirak, including guided bombs with 2,130kg warheads designed to breach targets under thirty metres of earth or six metres of concrete.

But countering Iranian nuclear aspirations requires more than bunker-busting weapons and precise intelligence. The cutting edge of the IAF long-range strike force are twenty-five F-15I Ra'am (Thunder) and around 100 F-16I Block 50 Suf (Storm). There are an additional 101 multi-role F-16Cs and Ds but the F-16s only have a combat radius of action of 735 nautical miles (1,360 kilometres) and it is around 1,100 nautical miles (2,100 kilometres) from IAF strike bases in the Negev to Natanz. As the IAF lacks any meaningful air refuelling capability, the bulk of its heavily-laden strike assets would be hard pressed to get home from an attack on Iran, especially on the longest option (some 2,600 kilometres) via Turkey.

Iranian planners have long recognised the problem of providing their large, mountainous country with an integrated air defence architecture. Thanks to the skills of reverse engineering, Iran still operates F-14A Tomcat fighters left over from those bought by the Shah. A couple of squadrons of Tomcats can only do so much over a country the size of Iran, and these 1970s generation of aircraft could not cope at night against the IAF. So the emphasis is on point defence around strategic points such as Tehran and Natanz, based on Russian ground-based air defence (GBAD) systems. Iran could also have the latest Russian fifth-generation integrated mobile air defence systems positioned out along incoming attack tracks to pick up all-comers.  If Saddam Hussein's Air Defence Command had possessed these, it would have been a very different Iraqi Freedom campaign.

Former IAF commander Major General Eitan Ben Eliahu, another participant in the Osirak air raid, publicly stated that there are too many Iranian sites for Israel to target on its own. 'If this is operation is to be conducted, it must be done in continuing waves [of air strikes]', said Ben Eliahu. 'Therefore, we are talking of an international effort.' The IAF conducts exercises with more than a dozen foreign air forces, but for any strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, the co-operative effort that really matters is with the United States.

Battle Plan

Suggestions of an orchestrated tactical nuclear strike on Iran are preposterous. This would be wholly disproportionate with one major target, the Esfahan uranium conversion facility, lying uncomfortably close to a major heritage site and home to 4.5m people. The US would veto any action that would alienate moderate regional allies including Gulf Cooperation Council states that tacitly support a pre-emptive conventional strike against Iranian domination.

Although the Obama administration is nowhere close to endorsing the military option, the Pentagon has planned for an extensive air operation lasting four or five days. The US enjoys basing facilities and over-fly permissions around much of Iran, plus a huge maritime capability from which to launch missiles and aircraft. Back in 2007 and citing an 'urgent operational need', the Pentagon sought funding to modify B-2 stealth bombers to deliver an experimental 30,000lb (13.6 tonne), GPS-guided bunker busting bomb. Known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), this weapon was optimised for hard and deeply buried Iranian underground facilities.

A large, multi-directional air effort co-ordinated in time and space will swamp the Iranian defences and command system within minutes, leaving any surviving F-14s or GBAD batteries adrift in electronic isolation. A range of Special Forces teams, including Israeli elite units dedicated to laser target designation and real-time bomb-damage assessment, would deploy inside Iran to supply target intelligence and sabotage communication links. Corridors would be cleared through Iran's air defences and the Iranian air force destroyed. Among the first assets used would be land-attack cruise missiles and around sixty stealthy B-2s and F/A-22s. Once air superiority had been achieved, less stealthy US and IAF aircraft would sweep in from all directions, including heavy bombers replete with bunker-busting ordnance.

The Impact

President Ahmadinejad has warned that Iran will 'cut the hand off any aggressor' but Iran is in no position to defeat a concerted US air campaign. Notwithstanding any initiative displayed by individual technical and maintenance personnel, Iranian warfighting capabilities are hindered by general obsolescence and a culture that focuses on loyalty to the regime rather than professional competence. The Iranian Air Force is proud of being 'an ideological force that is bound to Islamic and revolutionary values,' but that does little to equip Iranian commanders to out-think their Israeli and US equivalents who have honed their campaign skills in recent years.

The cards in the Iranian hand are dispersed nuclear facilities and world opinion. Iran is an earthquake zone, so its engineers have developed some of the toughest building materials in the world. Such materials will be used to protect hidden nuclear installations from the artificial equivalent of small earthquakes. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently admitted that the US Air Force's new MOP bunker-busting bomb now needs an upgrade to take on the deepest Iranian bunkers. But even that may not be enough, thanks to Iran's mastery of smart 'ultra-high performance concrete'.

A massed, all-azimuth US air campaign will be precise, tailored and very effective, but at what long-term cost? Iran could retaliate with rocket attacks on Israel from its client groups in Lebanon and Gaza (even though both have declared they would not take part). Terror cells around the world might strike Jewish and Western targets. It might threaten Arab oil infrastructure, in an attempt to use oil prices to wreck the world economy. Finally, there is the Al-Jazeera effect on the rest of the Muslim world, further alienating the West from the Arab spring.

If a decision is made to use air power for the systematic destruction of nuclear and missile centres, and the killing of as many technically competent people as possible, what about the timeframe? Tehran now has enough fissile material for four nuclear weapons but the ultimate deadline is when Iran's dispersal, camouflage, decoy and military protection programme is complete. Natanz is already one of the most protected sites on earth, and the apparently never-ending diplomatic minuet over Iran's nuclear activities may be no more than Tehran stringing out negotiations until its nuclear protection programme is completed.

In sum, the IAF lacks the long-range assets unilaterally to neutralise a dispersed Iranian nuclear capability, whereas a large US co-ordinated air campaign against Iranian nuclear weapon facilities is eminently feasible. Perhaps America could bomb Iran every few years but how would it justify such policy to the world? Regime change might produce a government with which the West could do business, but the nuclear programme has broad support in Iran. The idea that a bomb is the only defence against an implacable Great Satan might become stronger than ever.

Like the invasion of Iraq, the military outcome of a US air campaign against Iran is a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, the political, economic and terrorist impact of any such air campaign is just as predictable.

Andrew Brookes is Director of The Air League and a former RAF long-range bomber pilot. He is a Fellow of RUSI.

The views presented here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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