In the past week, competing analyses have appeared in the German daily Die Welt and the New York Times, supporting vastly different conclusions about how much the Israeli military might be able to set back Iran’s nuclear drive.
On Monday, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller took a grim view the Israeli military might be able to set back Iran’s nuclear drive. Quoting former U.S. military officials that in light of the distance between Israel and Iran, and Iran’s dispersal of nuclear facilities across its territory, she wondered whether the Israeli air force would be able to accomplish the task
“[S]ome 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,” Bumiller wrote.
An Israeli mission to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure could require 100 fighter jets to make the 1,000-mile trip into Iranian airspace and return to Israel, she contended.
In reading the Times’s take, the Jerusalem Post military correspondent Yaakov Katz responded that “the Americans seem to be taking a new approach – trying to undermine Israel’s confidence in its military capabilities.”
Interestingly, in his own analysis in Die Welt, Hans Rühle, who directed the planning department of the German Defense Ministry from 1982 to 1988, expressed almost supreme confidence that Israel’s air force could decimate Iran’s principal nuclear installations.
Rühle argued that a comprehensive Israeli bombing campaign could set back Iran’s nuclear program by a decade or more. To do that, Israel would need to destroy only six of the 25 to 30 facilities the Iranians are thought to use for their nuclear program: the nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz, the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, the heavy water reactor at Arak, the weapons and munitions sites in Parchin, the deep underground enrichment facility in Fordo, and the operational nuclear plant at Bushehr.
Rühle argues that with only 25 of its 87 F-15 fighter planes and a smaller deployment of F-16s equipped with GBU-28 bunker busters and additional bombs, Israel could wipe out most of Iran’s primary nuclear complexes.
Bumiller writes, “Israel would have to use airborne refueling planes, called tankers, but Israel is not thought to have enough.” Rühle, however, notes that the Israeli air force has expertise in the “buddy refueling” process that allows F-15s and F-16s outfitted as tankers to serve in midair refueling capacities. Israeli jets might also make a temporary landing to refuel in Turkey or Iraq.
Although some seem ready to write off the Israelis, it is worth remembering that a number of folks with operational know-how are not ready to do just that.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.