Estimates of the time necessary to enrich enough uranium to construct a bomb range from months to as much as a year, say Israeli analysts. U.S. officials contend that the Iranians have not made the decision to build bombs and the deadline for action against Iran's bomb program is more than a year.
“The U.S. strategy is to launch a military attack only if they see the Iranians actually breaking out [with enrichment of uranium beyond 20%],” says Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli fighter pilot and head of military intelligence who is now director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “Unfortunately, I think most of the estimates in Washington are wrong.”
Given that Iran has shown no willingness to abandon its uranium-enrichment program throughout a series of fruitless negotiations, only the timing of a military strike by the U.S. or Israel—followed by a series of retaliatory attacks by Iran—appears uncertain. The U.S. elections and the crisis in Syria are providing distractions, but both countries say Iran will not be allowed to create a bomb.
“It was [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, the president of Iran [from 1989-1997], who in 2001 said that Israel is a one-bomb country, while Iran can absorb two or three bombs [and still survive],” Yadlin says. “The real threat is a nuclear weapon exploding over Tel Aviv. I served under three prime ministers, and each asked me if Iran would launch a nuclear weapon against Israel. As chief of intelligence, I said the chances are 90% [that it will not]. But with a nuclear weapon, that 10% is a lot.”
At least one U.S. expert, though, former U.S. Air Force Gen. and Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden, says the Israeli air force alone cannot neutralize the Iranian bomb development capability.
“I do not underestimate the Israeli talent, but geometry and physics tell us that Iran's nuclear program would pose a difficult challenge to any military,” he said in an interview with Israel's Haaretz daily newspaper last year.
The crux of his argument is that a single raid cannot inflict enough damage. The targets “will have to be revisited, which only the U.S. Air Force would be able to do” with its stealth bombers and larger, earth-penetrating weapons, Hayden says. He also contends that the Iranians will not be able to begin work on a nuclear weapon until 2013 or 2014, which makes it possible to delay action.
Any air force contemplating an attack on Iran with manned aircraft will have to field some well-trained aircrews with the ability to fly complicated routes to evade detection and concentrated air defenses. To that end, during the last 15 years, the Israeli air force has trained to fly long distances and meet unfamiliar opposition.
“Israel is very small, with long borders and a complicated neighborhood,” Morkin says. “The Israeli air force [first] flew across the Atlantic [in 2002] to Davis-Monthan [AFB, Ariz.,] and Red Flag [at Nellis AFB, Nev.]. Then we started working with others like Italy, Britain and Germany, and this summer we flew to Bulgaria, engaged its air force and flew back without landing. We learned from the U.S. Air force that we needed to be better at flying long missions.”
The Israeli air force is aware of its weak points. “We need more unmanned aerial vehicles and tankers,” Norkin says. “We're going to keep developing [new] UAVs. Tankers have a very small chance” of being funded. But even if Israel does not have the resources for a large aircraft such as the KC-767 tankers, there may be other more affordable solutions. In the meantime, the aircraft are able to conduct fighter-to-fighter, buddy-tanking.