U.S. airstrikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities would likely set back the regime’s quest for a weapon by one or two years and require waves of attacks spearheaded by the ultra-heavy conventional bomb known as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, according to military officials and experts.
A comprehensive attack aimed first at taking down Iran’s air defenses and destroying its deeply buried nuclear facilities would provide a “moderate confidence level” that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon would be set back by as much as two years, said a senior officer familiar with the planning.
Two senior officers involved in planning potential Iran attacks spoke to USA TODAY. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
President Obama wrote an op-ed piece this week that ran in papers across the country, saying that if Iran violates the recently negotiated agreement, “it’s possible that we won’t have any other choice than to act militarily.”
A U.S. attack on Iran, according to two officers involved in planning and several others interviewed for this story, requires more than pinpoint strikes against that country’s nuclear facilities. It could spawn retaliatory attacks in the Persian Gulf if Iran retaliates by attempting to choke off shipping.
“A strike would try to reduce as much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as possible, recognizing it wouldn’t be perfect or permanently eliminate it,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and military expert at the Brookings Institution.
An air war such as that, with as many as 1,000 aircraft sorties over several days to a week, would likely destroy power plants and other infrastructure associated with Iran’s nuclear facilities, O’Hanlon said. He estimates that would set back Iran’s nuclear program, which it maintains are for peaceful purposes, from one to five years.
The first wave of a “two-pronged attack”
Even before the first bombs fall and missiles are fired for such an attack, the Pentagon would need to shift people and weaponry to the Middle East.
Public diplomatic overtures to allies in the region will likely be made seeking access to bases and port facilities for U.S. forces, said a second senior planning officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Patriot missiles, which can shoot down enemy missiles, would be deployed to protect bases and other facilities in the region. The Air Force might even announce weapons testing of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a huge bomb capable of destroying deeply buried, fortified facilities, the second officer said.
The first wave of attacks would be aimed at Iran’s air defenses, the first officer said. Missiles fired from a safe distance — so-called stand-off weapons — would likely be used initially, O’Hanlon said.
Among the initial targets: surface-to-air missile sites and radars that would be used to track and attack U.S. warplanes. Intelligence would have to be gathered on a “fairly quick timeline” — a matter of hours — to determine if follow-on airstrikes could be safely flown, the first officer said.
The hard part
Targeting facilities where nuclear material is produced is relatively easy, the first officer said. The sites are large and hard to mask. The location of Iran’s nuclear facilities are not much of a secret, the officer said. Spy satellites and other means, including monitoring of social media, result in an assessment known as “all-source fused intelligence.”
Uranium-enrichment facilities, those with thousands of centrifuges, are large complexes that “are incredibly hard to hide,” the first officer said. The other route to a bomb — using plutonium — requires a heavy water reactor and produces tell-tale elements that air sampling can detect. There are about 20 nuclear facilities in Iran that would need to be attacked, some with as many as 60 individual strikes.
The Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound bomb capable of burrowing through rock, soil and even concrete, would probably be the weapon of choice, O’Hanlon said. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told CNN in April that the MOP can destroy Iran’s buried production facilities.
Much more difficult is pinpointing the labs and factories that manufacture the means to deliver the nuclear weapon, the first officer said. The sophisticated work of building warheads, engines and guidance systems for a missile can be done in scattered locations, including populated areas where civilian casualties would be nearly impossible to avoid.
A comprehensive attack could require as much as a week’s worth of bombing and 1,000 sorties, O’Hanlon said. And the Iranians wouldn’t be expected to take it laying down. The Pentagon would have to prepare for attacks on its ships in the Persian Gulf, he said.
A U.S.-launched attack on Iran would likely result in American servicemembers being killed, O’Hanlon said.
Asking the wrong question
To retired Air Force general David Deptula, airstrikes in Iran make little sense — and could be counterproductive — unless they’re tied to a strategy.
In Iran’s case, that strategy needs to account for Iranian leaders and their desire for a bomb. Unless that desire is changed, a U.S. attack is a temporary solution at best, said Deptula, who led the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts.