Iran is bigger than “Osirak”
These things matter, because the Iran nuclear problem is not one that can be dealt with via a small, pinpoint strike, in a matter of only minutes on target. There are too many targets, requiring our aircraft to range over most of the Western half of Iran. Some of the targets are hardened (e.g., Fordo), meaning that we have no standoff weapon that will destroy them. We have to get manned bombers in to the targets
Some of the facilities, like Natanz, Esfahan, and Parchin, are big industrial installations, with lots of buildings and underground or partially-underground target elements, and would require dozens of precision bombs per installation – with restrikes likely to be necessary – to have a useful destructive effect. All of the high-value installations are protected by anti-air missile batteries and anti-air artillery.
And, of course, much depends in general on how hard Iran fights back. If the U.S. can come in with a high margin of overwhelming force, that doesn’t matter nearly so much. But any strike we conduct now will lack that high margin of overwhelming force. We will have to care how hard Iran fights, and every step-down in our relative advantage means putting more into our own force protection, and less into destroying targets.
An option Israel has always had and one we are now more likely to select ourselves, is to go after only one or two target installations, hoping to set Iran back but not destroy her nuclear-weapons program to the extent that the whole thing must be reconstituted. Choosing such a limited objective, however, would mean less support for a U.S. operation from our regional partners. We can’t rely on them to let us expose them to Iran’s wrath for operations that aren’t worthwhile. We will not get to decide how worthwhile the operation must be, if we seek to calibrate it at a level too low for our partners’ confidence.
Where the squeeze hits
It would be challenging but well within our capabilities to launch a comprehensive strike, and complete it in 96 hours or less, if we had – at the ready – a deep Air Force roster and at least two carrier strike groups, with the air wings and Tomahawks they bring, in or close to the Persian Gulf. But in 2013, we no longer do. The prospect we face is that of being squeezed out of strike-option feasibility by a combination of resource attrition – driven by the sequester – and the geographic constraints that are closing in due to political shifts in the region.
With enough combat-ready forces, we could overcome the geographic constraints, at least to a large extent. If we didn’t face the geographic constraints, the forces we will have available would be enough for a limited strike package, if not necessarily for the full scope of what needs to be done, or for containing Iran in the aftermath of the strike. But we face both limiting factors now. We have gone about 80 percent of the way from being the “United States” to being “Israel,” in terms of the capability we could actually bring to bear, right now, on the Iranian nuclear problem. There is no prospect of this changing.
And it’s a problem, because, unfortunately, our current president will not have the credibility Netanyahu would have, regarding his determination to neutralize Iran’s most threatening assets. We are not Israel today, in terms of will. We are Obama’s America. Regional nations have real reason to worry that a basing concession to Obama would increase their vulnerability without taking care of the threat. We can hope that Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman would allow us to use their airfields and air space, but it’s not a given anymore.
It isn’t a given that the United States will step up to the plate when the perceived, near-term threat from Iran is not to us directly, but to our regional partners. There is no question that the threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran would be direct and existential. Few would doubt that Netanyahu would have meaningful strike intentions and would follow through on them. But with our particular president’s history of national-security decisions, it is reasonable, even prudent, to doubt his rhetoric about Iran.