Attacking Bushehr: Now an Impossibility?
Attacking Bushehr: Now an Impossibility?

Israel may soon be left with no realistic option to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities and no time to find another solution.

The United States has turned down Israeli requests for military assistance in attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. This will hamper the tiny Jewish state in facing off alone against the much larger Islamic Republic, which is equipped with some of the latest military technology from Russia. As compensation, the U.S. has agreed to bolster Israel’s missile defense system.

Israel would not be allowed to refuel its military planes in Iraq, or even use Iraqi airspace for a flyover on the way to Iran. Even if Israeli jets were to reach Iran, they might not be able to carry powerful enough bombs to do the job. The U.S. has refused to supply Israel with equipment such as bunker-buster bombs critical in destroying heavily fortified nuclear installations.

Israeli officials have been in talks with their American counterparts for several months over specific requests for military assistance, and U.S.reticence over an Israeli strike has led American military and diplomatic officials to decide against supporting what they see as Israel’s growing commitment to an attack on Iran.

Among the requests most critical for a successful Israeli solo strike on Iran is the ability to use Iraqi air fields as a refueling point for Israel’s fighter-bomber fleet that would be used in the attack.

The dropping of guided bombs on targets as small and sensitive as a nuclear reactor requires the precision and agility that could be likely achieved only by a very low-altitude release.

The distance between Israel and Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr is over 800 miles. A large bomber aircraft would have the fuel range for such a non-stop round-trip flight from Israel. However, the necessity of a low-altitude approach to the target, combined with the heavier aircraft’s low speed and maneuverability and lack of sufficient armaments such as rockets or cannon, would render it extremely vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire or attacking Iranian jets. Last December, Russia installed one of its latest anti-aircraft missile networks in the hostile Islamic Republic.

Such operations are therefore usually performed with supersonic fighter-bomber aircraft, such as the F-15s and F-16s used in the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor and last year’s bombing of the nascent Syrian reactors. However, these aircraft do not have the fuel range to safely make a trip to Iran and back without refueling. Unless the Israeli planes would be able to refuel somewhere along the way – American-occupied Iraq being the only viable choice – a bombing run on Iran would likely become a suicide mission.

Even if Israeli pilots volunteered for a kamikaze mission, the expense of the aircraft, in addition to the risk of Iran obtaining the Israeli-modified jets – some of the most advanced in the world – even in partially destroyed condition, would make it unlikely that Israel’s Defense Ministry would approve of such an attack.

Israeli aircraft would not need to actually land in Iraq to refuel, as it is common practice to refuel in the air using long-range air tankers. However, the tankers that the Israeli Air Force currently has are outdated, making it difficult to coordinate refueling for such a long-distance mission. To address this concern, Israel reportedly requested the more modern Boeing 767-based refueling tankers, but the U.S. has also rejected this request, as reported several weeks ago by Israel’s Channel 10 television.

Even if the Israeli jets were able to be refueled in the air by long-range air tankers, a mission to Iran would require an overflight of Iraq, the only country that would possibly be willing to allow Israeli aircraft in its airspace. A glance at El-Al passenger flight routes from an in-flight magazine illustrates this clearly:  Flights en route to Asia and the Far East, normally represented by graceful curves for non-Israeli airlines, suddenly become sharp turns northward or southward in order avoid flying over Middle Eastern countries.

However, the United States has apparently refused to authorize Israel to fly over Iraq as well, and according to one report, American officials told their Israeli counterparts to ask permission from the Iraqi prime minister themselves. It is very unlikely that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would volunteer to allow Israel to use his country’s airspace without pressure from the U.S., since such a move would antagonize many Arab countries in the region.

In an apparent attempt to compensate for its unwillingness to assist Israel’s needs for an Iran strike, the U.S. has offered to deliver an advanced radar warning system, to be installed in the Negev and manned by a permanent U.S. staff working alongside Israeli military personnel. The Pentagon has apparently placed the order already.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Russian state-owned company building Iran’s Bushehr reactor announced last week that the construction of the reactor will reach a state of “no return” by early 2009.

While a better radar system promises to greatly enhance Israel’s ability to detect a long-range aerial attack from Iran, Israel may soon be left with no realistic option to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities and no time to find another solution.