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Israeli Options for Direct Attacks on Iranian Nuclear Sites

Ehud Eilam
RUSI Defence Systems, 23 February 2021
Iran, Israel
The Israeli government sees Iran’s nuclear programme as an existential threat. The Biden administration is attempting to re-open negotiations, but if these fail and Iran tries to produce a nuclear weapon then Israel might attempt to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. US supplies of new bombs and the B-52 bomber would be critical to any prospects of success.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) would face multiple challenges if it attempted strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, since most are hardened and well protected. The IAF has access to ‘bunker buster’ bombs, including the 5000 lb GBU-28, but these are unlikely to be powerful enough for this task. The US Air Force has developed the much larger 30,000 lb Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bomb specifically for attack capabilities against deeply buried Iranian (and North Korean) facilities like the nuclear enrichment site at Fordow.

However, even if Israel could obtain the MOP, its F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighter bombers could not carry this giant bomb. In order to deliver the weapon, Israel would need to obtain a strategic bomber from the US. There is no chance that Israel could purchase either the B-2, let alone the upcoming B-21, but export approval would be somewhat more feasible for the venerable B-52 Stratofortress. The proposal has been raised by various groups in the US in the past, and rumours persist that Israel has privately enquired about a potential sale of these aircraft. Despite their age, the US Air Force’s B-52s have been continuously upgraded over the years and are expected to fly until the 2050s, so it would not be a short-term investment for Israel. Another potential option might be for the IAF to use its C-130J transports to deliver the MOP using a parachute-retarded ramp-drop, although the weapon is not currently cleared for such deliveries. However, C-130s have previously been used to deliver the 21,600 lb Massive Ordinance Air Blast weapon, as part of the war in Afghanistan.

The US is committed to keeping Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) over neighbouring states. It could be argued that selling refurbished B-52s and/or at least the MOP to Israel is in line with this QME commitment. 

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