What if Israel strikes Iran from the air?
With Russia and China slow-rolling any meaningful Iranian sanctions, a fundamental question being left out of the current debate about stopping Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon is this: What could happen after the Israeli Air Force (IAF) takes out Iranian weapon sites?
America, working through the United Nations, has been trying to initiate sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear weapon programs. Our efforts have proven to be rather ineffectual but probably delayed imports of some major state-of-the art weapons from Russia, China and North Korea.
But to Israel it must appear the world does not take very seriously two famous words — “never again!”
When the IAF attacks, Iranian leaders have promised to unleash their missile force. Some intermediate-range ballistic missiles have a high probability of getting through antimissile defenses and hitting Israeli population centers.
The 620-mile-range Iranian Shahab-3, a derivative of the North Korean No-dong series, is a powerful and dangerous missile. Like the V-2 barrage on London during World War II, innocent people will suffer but the nation will survive, and once an intermediate-range ballistic missile inventory is depleted, that threat is over and unless replenished, it ends.
In an attack against hardened Iranian ground targets, the IAF will first have to neutralize Iranian air defenses, including Iran’s air force. Iran’s current air order of battle includes a mix of Russian, French, Chinese and U.S. design systems, though the actual number of combat-effective aircraft is a guess because of the lack of spare parts and limited insight into the training and tactics of Iranian fighter pilots. However, even older Iranian F4s, F-14s, MiGs and Sukhois can make a nasty hash of Persian Gulf targets.
So the big unanswered question is: What do Russia, China and North Korea do to help their client? Does an IAF attack lead them to race in and provide arms to help Iran?
The great untold story of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 was President Nixon turning on the spigot of U.S. military aid to make sure Israel survived, including the stripping of U.S. squadrons of jets and sending them to Israel, almost overnight. So there is a very real potential that the Russians, Chinese and North Koreans will take a page from history and reequip Iran.
With an IAF strike, the United States will have a huge military role independent of any involvement in the initial attack because America will immediately be blamed by Iran and also vilified in the “Arab street.”
The U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, the world’s best fighter, will be needed and can make a huge difference. Hopefully, F-22s can be immediately on station over Iraq, Afghanistan and every other high value Middle East target. Do we have enough?
Naval air power from aircraft carrier strikes groups will have their hands full protecting sea lines of communication. Mine warfare will be a huge challenge because insurance companies may shut down their tanker clients until mines are swept. Allied navies and the U.S. Navy also will have to neutralize a significant Iranian cruise missile threat, many of which were supplied by China.
Do the United States and our NATO allies have enough troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to beat back an Iranian-instigated ground attack using whatever fanatical forces they can mobilize? The number of these forces is anyone’s guess because Iran can pull the trigger on a lot of fanatics, including mobilizing its terrorist clients, Hezbollah and Hamas.
So the day after an IAF strike there is the potential need for enough U.S. military forces to engage the fight simultaneously both with conventional and unconventional forces. How long this will go on is a great unknown.
With the very real possibility of their citizens being killed in Iran at weapons sites, airfields and surface-to-air missile sites, Russian, Chineseand North Korean leaders and their citizens will not be happy with Israel, the United States and NATO. If any or all of those countries decide for whatever reason to overtly or covertly help Iran, events have the potential to really spin out of control.
But if those three nations do not help Iran, and Iran has its air order of battle destroyed and intermediate missiles depleted, then the world and specifically the Middle East will ultimately be much safer. And regardless of the effectiveness in stopping military weapons flowing into Iran after an IAF strike, America and Europe will still have a very significant, dedicated and smart Iranian-instigated terrorist problem.
Ed Timperlake is a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who recently served as director of technology assessment for international technology security within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.