It is conceivable for U.S. forces to secure a base in southeastern Iran for launching and recovering strike sorties on the nuclear-related facilities. But that would entail an operation of significantly larger scope – one with boots on the ground – since the airfield would have to be secured and defended. Besides the problem of paying for such an operation, which would require more forces than we have deployed to the Gulf today, the American public is not likely to support it. But if we don’t have the use of an airfield in the Gulf, we need territory for the Air Force somewhere within a feasible radius of the targets in Iran. (We can be certain Russia will not allow us to use bases in Georgia or Turkmenistan. The threats Russia would issue, and the movement of forces she would undertake, would presumably cause us to draw back from such a plan).
Yet conducting a strike on Iran’s nuclear-related installations is hardly conceivable without the use of strike-fighters for bombing as well as for escort operations. Preparing the environment for successful strikes on the nuclear-related facilities requires neutralizing Iran’s early-warning and counter-air systems. Such requirements, which entail bombing and electronic suppression as well as escort functions, are roles filled by the strike-fighters, and by special-purpose electronic warfare assets on strike-fighter airframes: that is, the Navy’s EA-18G Growler, on an F/A-18 Super Hornet airframe. (The Growler, new to the fleet in the last three years, is the follow-on to the older EA-6B Prowler, which uses an A-6 Intruder airframe).
The strike-fighters are also very powerful bombing platforms in their own right, and are better suited than the strategic bombers for some applications – even some that are integral to taking out the nuclear-related installations.
But the geographic constraint has a larger, “one-sided” aspect to it as well, in that the combat support and logistic chain will be all on the Pacific side.
Long-range refueling tankers, command and control, intelligence and surveillance aircraft: all would have to operate out of Diego Garcia, if the operation had to be mounted in the most basing-limited conditions. The option of putting logistics and other support in the Eastern Mediterranean – or at bases in Europe – belongs to another time. We still had some capabilities in this regard four years ago, but with the political uncertainty created by the Arab Spring, along with the other political shifts which have ensued on the Obama presidency, we can’t be sure we will have it today.
There may even be a question whether it would be feasible, given European politics, for U.S. forces to operate out of Europe to support an attack on Iran. Certainly, we will not have Turkey, and we might not have Jordan, as approach corridors for combat support.
Tomahawks and drones are not a magic pill
Conducting stand-off strikes with Tomahawk missiles would be a feature of any attack plan, but Tomahawks cannot do sufficient damage by themselves to the Iranian nuclear-facility targets. They cannot guarantee, either, that the Iranian fighter-aircraft forces will be paralyzed.
There is also a very real possibility that the Iranians will be able to shoot some of them down. The Tomahawk is a subsonic cruise missile; it is only a matter of time before someone shoots one down. Iran would be the best-equipped target nation the Tomahawk has gone up against, far outstripping Afghanistan and Sudan, and even better armed than Iraq and Serbia. A Tomahawk launched from the Persian Gulf would spend more than an hour over Iranian air space en route a target in central Iran; its vulnerability would increase with each mile covered. If the U.S. attack force did not come in, blitzkrieg-style, and render the entire air defense network non-functional in the first 24-48 hours – as we did in the attack on Iraq in 2003 – Iran would retain a credible capability to shoot down slow-moving missiles.
The same is true for armed drones. We cannot count on them to take the place of manned attack aircraft in a non-quiescent air combat environment. It is hard to shoot down an F-22, but it isn’t that hard to shoot down a Predator. We haven’t used the Predator against modern, organized anti-air capabilities and Iran would not be the place to start doing so.