Britain’s Sunday Times has reported that Israel has developed plans for eliminating three of Iran’s most important nuclear facilities, by using low-yield tactical nuclear weapons.

According to the paper, Israeli military planners believe that nuclear “bunker buster” bombs may be required to eliminate the Iranian reserach facilities at Esfahan, Arak (Khondab) and Natanz, viewed as critical to Tehran’s nuclear weapons program. Portions of those facilities are buried beneath up to 70 feet of soil and concrete; Israeli targeting officers suggest that only the nuclear bunker busters have the penetrating and explosive power to reach underground research chambers and completely destroy them, significantly crippling Iran’s nuclear development efforts.

If the Times is correct, planning for such a raid is already well advanced. Defense sources indicate that two Israeli Air Force squadrons have been training for the mission, and are prepared to carry it out. The squadrons are located at Hatserim AB (home to the IAF’s F-15I Strike Eagle squadrons), and Tel Nov, which houses Israel’s advanced F-16Is. The paper indicates that IAF jets have been flying navigation missions to Gibraltar in recent weeks, rehearsing some of the skills required to Iran. Sources tell the Times that three potential routes have been mapped out for the mission, including one over southern Turkey.

Long-time readers of this blog may notice some similarities between this scenario, and previously-leaked Israeli attack plans. And with good reason. Most of Israel’s options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear facilities center on some sort of long-range air strike, executed by its most advanced aircraft, the F-15I and the F-16I. We’ve written at length about Israel’s military plans in the past, beginning in December 2005 (“Israel’s Military Options“), and more recently in February (“Getting to Iran“) and July of last year (“Can Israel Strike Iran?) These previous posts offer more information on the challenges–and risks–associated with a long-range strike against Iran.

Suffiice it say, the proposed attack wouldn’t be easy. While the Israelis are masters of military deception, achieving (and sustaining) tactical surprise over that distance would be difficult. Even a long-range, over-water flight (through the Red Sea, around the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, and up the Persian Gulf) would carry Israeli formations through hostile radar and SIGINT coverage, increasing the risk of detection (and early tip-off for the Iranians).

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That’s one reason we find the recent training flights to Gibraltar a bit intriguging. Flying all the way across the Med (and back) suggests preparations for an over-water profile, rather thana cross-country route. The IAF has mounted that sort of attack before, most recently in the 1995 strike against PLO Headquarters in Tunis. While that raid was successful, flying undetected along the Red Sea-Arabian Sea-Persian Gulf route would be more challenging–and require more air refueling support from IAF KC-707s.

As we’ve noted in the past, tanker support represents the real Achilles heel for any IAF operation of this type. By most estimates, the IAF has no more than 5-7 KC-707s that could accompany fighter formations to the edge of Iranian airspace, then lead them back to Israel. Assuming a “maximum” effort (at least 5-6 tankers launch, with no ground or air aborts), the KC-707s could support roughly two dozen strike aircraft. However, those numbers are based on a shorter, over-land route (across Syria and Turkey, or through Jordan and Iraq). Utilizing the Red Sea path would mean a longer flight, less fuel off-load for the fighters, and (consequently), fewer strike aircraft in the package.

In fact, those limitations may be one of the driving factors in Israeli planning for a potential strike against Iran, using nuclear bunker-busters. If the Times’ report is accurate, then IAF planners envision a limited attack against each complex. Under that scenario, the first jet across the target would drop a conventional, hardened penetrating weapon, designed to punch an access hole into the facility (or the soil and concrete covering it). The second jet would drop the nuclear bunker-buster into the same shaft; the existing crater would make it easier for the nuclear weapon to breach–and destroy–underground nuclear research labs and storage facilities, while minimizing the release of radioactive debris/fallout. Implementing the “nuclear” option would allow the IAF to substantially reduce the size of its strike force, fly a longer, over-water route (avoiding its neighbors’ airspace), place less strain on its limited tanker fleet, and increase prospects of achieving tactical surprise.

Would it work? Quite possibly, given the IAF’s expertise, and the relatively chaotic status of Iran’s air defense system. But perhaps a better question is: can Israel afford such an option, politically and diplomatically? Launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would significantly delay Tehran’s bomb-making program, but it would also (inadvertently) “legitimize” those efforts, and provide the impetus for a wide range of retaliatory attacks against the Jewish State, including chemical and biological strikes, delivered by Iran’s Shahab-3 medium-range missiles. Israel’s missile defense system is the most advanced in the world, but there’s no assurance that the Arrow-II and Patriot interceptors will knock down all of the Iranian MRBMs. And, the casualties could be devastating from even a single, successful chemical or biological attack on an Israeli population center.

In reality, the tactical nuclear strike is but one military option that Israel has for dealing with Iran. Plans for a conventional airstrike have never been shelved, and there is also evidence that the MOD has considered a larger-scale, air and commando assault against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. A final decision on which option might be used (if any), will hinge on a variety of factors, including assessments on the status of Iran’s nuclear program, and U.S. efforts to deal with that threat. Tel Aviv has long preferred that Washington take the lead in this issue. realizing that we have the conventional combat power to sustain an air campaign against Iran, using aircraft carriers in the Arabia Sea and Persian Gulf, and (possibly) land bases in the region.

But the Olmert government is also aware that the U.S. has been stung by its experience in Iraq, and is reluctant to initiate another conflict in that region. That’s why the “leaked” plan has a political component, reminding Washington that if it falls to deter Iran, the job will be left up to the Israelis, and they are quite willing to take on that task.

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