Hasan Sarbakhshian/Associated PressOne possible Israeli target, the uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran, was guarded in 2007 by antiaircraft artillery.WASHINGTON — Should Israel decide to launch a strike on Iran, its pilots would have to fly more than 1,000 miles across unfriendly airspace, refuel in the air en route, fight off Iran’s air defenses, attack multiple underground sites simultaneously — and use at least 100 planes. That is the assessment of American defense officials and military analysts close to the Pentagon, who say that an Israeli attack meant to set back Iran’s nuclear program would be a huge and highly complex operation. They describe it as far different from Israel’s “surgical” strikes on a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 and Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. “All the pundits who talk about ‘Oh, yeah, bomb Iran,’ it ain’t going to be that easy,” said Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who retired last year as the Air Force’s top intelligence official and who planned the American air campaigns in 2001 in Afghanistan and in the 1991 Gulf War. Speculation that Israel might attack Iran has intensified in recent months as tensions between the countries have escalated. In a sign of rising American concern, Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Jerusalem on Sunday, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, warned on CNN that an Israeli strike on Iran right now would be “destabilizing.” Similarly, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, told the BBC that attacking Iran would not be “the wise thing” for Israel to do “at this moment.” But while an Israeli spokesman in Washington, Lior Weintraub, said the country continued to push for tougher sanctions on Iran, he reiterated that Israel, like the United States, “is keeping all options on the table.” The possible outlines of an Israeli attack have become a source of debate in Washington, where some analysts question whether Israel even has the military capacity to carry it off. One fear is that the United States would be sucked into finishing the job — a task that even with America’s far larger arsenal of aircraft and munitions could still take many weeks, defense analysts said. Another fear is of Iranian retaliation. “I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’ll say, ‘Here’s how it’s going to be done — handful of planes, over an evening, in and out,’ ” said Andrew R. Hoehn, a former Pentagon official who is now director of the Rand Corporation’s Project Air Force, which does extensive research for the United States Air Force. Michael V. Hayden, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2006 to 2009, said flatly last month that airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran’s nuclear program were “beyond the capacity” of Israel, in part because of the distance that attack aircraft would have to travel and the scale of the task. Still, a top defense official cautioned in an interview last week that “we don’t have perfect visibility” into Israel’s arsenal, let alone its military calculations. His views were echoed by Anthony H. Cordesman, an influential military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There are a lot of unknowns, there are a lot of potential risks, but Israel may know that those risks aren’t that serious,” he said. Given that Israel would want to strike Iran’s four major nuclear sites — the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo, the heavy-water reactor at Arak and the yellowcake-conversion plant at Isfahan — military analysts say the first problem is how to get there. There are three potential routes: to the north over Turkey, to the south over Saudi Arabia or taking a central route across Jordan and Iraq. The route over Iraq would be the most direct and likely, defense analysts say, because Iraq effectively has no air defenses and the United States, after its December withdrawal, no longer has the obligation to defend Iraqi skies. “That was a concern of the Israelis a year ago, that we would come up and intercept their aircraft if the Israelis chose to take a path across Iraq,” said a former defense official who asked for anonymity to discuss secret intelligence. Assuming that Jordan tolerates the Israeli overflight, the next problem is distance. Israel has American-built F-15I and F-16I fighter jets that can carry bombs to the targets, but their range — depending on altitude, speed and payload — falls far short of the minimum 2,000-mile round trip. That does not include an aircraft’s “loiter time” over a target plus the potential of having to fight off attacks from Iranian missiles and planes.
Scott Shane contributed reporting.
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