October 22, 2012
David Fulghum Tel Aviv
There is one fact on which everyone concerned with Iran's apparent drive toward nuclear capability agrees: Launching air and missile strikes against the country is a very risky strategic move. The questions are whether the risk of inaction is greater, and whether such a strike could delay or disrupt Iran's plans enough to be worth the cost.
Analysts from both the U.S. and Israel agree that Iran's program cannot be stopped. They contend that if the aggressive, but smaller, Israeli air force attacks alone, development could be slowed by about two years. If the U.S. launched a raid, with its larger inventory of specialized weapons, long-range bombers and cruise missiles, the program could be derailed for five years, and perhaps as many as 10.
An unknown in the calculus of an attack is the effectiveness of Syria's recently updated air-defense surveillance and networked intelligence-gathering in detecting and tracking an incoming raid on Iran. Syria has radar sites in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley as well as on its own territory. Both countries have extensive, updated air-defense equipment provided by Russian companies.
“The Syrians took a large step during the last 3-4 years,” says Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin, chief of Israeli air force operations. “They put all their money into two things—air defenses and [tactical] rockets and missiles. We need to find and attack the missiles because we need to keep flying from our bases, even if there is a rocket attack.”
In addition, regardless of who disables Syrian missiles, Israel will have to prepare its area defenses and work better with its intelligence systems.
“We have to be ready for the SA-24, 22 and 17,” Norkin says. Those are advanced, Russian-made, surface-to-air missiles, known to NATO as the Grinch, Greyhound and Grizzly. “You have to deal with all the layers. Cyber- and integrated air defenses in Syria and Lebanon will present something new. What the U.S. Air Force is dealing with, we are dealing with.”
Attacks that do not involve bombs but rather use cyberweapons (a joint U.S. and Israeli effort) and assassination of Iranian scientists (supported by Iranian nationals) have slowed the program over the last several years, though they have not stopped it.