Dan Balilty, File, AP Photos
JERUSALEM — For more than a decade, Israel has systematically built up its military specifically for a possible strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. It has sent its air force on long-distance training missions, procured American-made "bunker-busting" bombs and bolstered its missile defenses.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's threats to strike Iran, voiced last week during a high-profile visit to the White House, were not empty bluster. Although a unilateral Israeli attack would probably not destroy Iran's nuclear program, it appears capable, at least for now, of inflicting a serious blow.
"If Israel attacks, the intention is more to send a message of determination, a political message instead of a tactical move," said Yiftah Shapir, a former Israeli air force officer who is now a military analyst at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv.
Israel, along with the United States and other Western countries, believes Iran has taken key steps toward developing nuclear weapons. The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency has cited this concern in reports, but notes its inspectors have found no direct evidence that Iran is moving toward an atomic weapon.
Israeli leaders, however, argue that time is quickly running out. They have grown increasingly vocal in their calls for tough concerted international action against Iran while stressing they are prepared to act alone if necessary.
Israeli defense officials believe Iran is capable of producing highly enriched weapons-grade uranium within six months. After that, it would require another year or two to develop a means of delivering a nuclear bomb, they predict.
But Israel believes the window to act will close much sooner than that. Officials say in the coming months Iran will have moved enough of its nuclear facilities underground and out of reach of conventional airpower, and that the world will be powerless to stop it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak calls this the "zone of immunity."
Defense officials acknowledge that plans to go after Iran have been in the works for years, with the air force expected to take the lead in what would be an extremely complicated operation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military deliberations.
Israel has a total of 300 warplanes, but about 100 front-line planes would participate in the mission, officials suggest. They would include attack aircraft as well as others used to escort, target enemy warplanes and anti-aircraft batteries and provide support like communications and search and rescue.
The most powerful is the squadron of 24 F15i warplanes, American-made aircraft capable of carrying heavy payloads that could include 5,000-pound (2,200 kilogram), laser-guided GBU-28 bombs purchased from the U.S. These "bunker-busting" bombs would be at the heart of any operation.
In addition, Israel has four squadrons, or about 100, F-16i warplanes. These planes are more nimble in the air, capable of attacking ground targets but also ideal for escorting the heavier attacking aircraft. The air force also has developed long-range unmanned drones that can provide intelligence, communications and other support in any mission.
Experts believe that some of the Israeli warplanes, even F16s with upgraded fuel tanks, could not make the round trip without refueling in flight — depending on the route as well as the weight of their payload. Israel, which has eight tanker planes, can refuel an airplane in flight in a matter of minutes, though it's unclear where the task would take place since much of the airspace in the region is hostile.
There is precedent: Israeli warplanes destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and did the same thing to a nascent reactor in Syria in 2007. But an operation in Iran would be far more difficult — complicated by distance, stronger Iranian defenses and the Iranian strategy of scattering its nuclear installations in underground locations.
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