Sunday, January 22, 2006

Iran. And Israel. Oh God.

Shaul Mofaz has been at it again, threatening that Iran's president, novelty fascist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would spread misfortune and suffering over the Iranian people if he attempted to build nuclear weapons. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he. Even though Iran wouldn't have a bomb for at least three years from now, long before which it would be beyond doubt they were trying, the war drums are a-beating, useful idiots like Simon Heffer are being completely fucking stupid on a daily basis, and Denis MacShane isn't the only one, it seems, to feel a sort of Guns of August 1914 "I hear the train a-coming, it's rolling down the track" doom in the air. Can we at least have the exciting fin -de-siƩcle creative decadence first, please?

So, will it happen? And will the Israelis really bomb Iran? This question is in the end one about deterrent credibility. I personally suspect the Israelis have it, what the 200 nukes, full delivery triad, UAV and satellite recce capability. It's a superpower in a box - all the trappings of high Cold War nuclearity. One argument against this, though, is that Iran is undermining this by improving its air defences, specifically by acquiring SA-10 (Tor) surface-to-air missiles from Russia.

Now, my first instinct is to say - meh. The Americans spent hyperzillions trying to undermine Soviet nuclear capability by building air defences and did it work? Bollocks did it. The Russians, for their part, worked away like hell doing the same thing. And we didn't think our missiles wouldn't get through, nor yet our aircraft. Iran is meant to have an ABM defence system? Bwaahaahaahhaaha. Yes, SA-10 is a pretty impressive capability, but I'd be astonished if it shot down more than a couple of Israeli IRBMs - Patriot, after all, never actually hit any Scuds the only times it was destroyed. In fact, wasn't that RAF Tornado the only real live target it's ever hit?

It's not just the IRBMs, either. There are the Tomahawks to consider. A degree of debate is currently going on as to whether the SA10 gives Iran a credible ability to shoot them down, too. Well, no doubt they have more of a capability than Iraq in 1991 or (certainly) 2003, or Afghanistan in 2001. Essentially all countries ever targeted with Tomahawk in real life had as good as no air defences - the exception, of which more later, was Yugoslavia in 1999, which did indeed shoot down a few. But a capability that would let them blink at the prospect of nuclear attack? Neither Russia, China nor the US have that. TLAMs could be launched from Israel, but also from any of the seas involved, from submarines. reckons the missiles are deployed in a point defence mode, i.e. around targets.

Some people, usually the ones who are arguing for attack, think they are concentrated on the western border in a sort of neo-Kammhuber Line. "Concentrated on the western border," by the way, is a very unclear term in this case - it's a long old border, and if they are there, then it can't be a very dense defence. And if they are concentrated on the front nearest to Israel, there must be a lot of border without serious air defence. Read Arms and Influence's post on the risks of forward defence and the Maginot Line. Tomahawk would be capable of being launched from submarines, perhaps in the Persian Gulf or even the Black Sea, or routed south over Iraq and in through the back door. So could aircraft, which brings us to our next point.

The third leg of the triad is of course good old-fashioned bombers. F-15s and F-16s. The Israeli air force is superior to the Iranian as...well...hounds to foxes? They would probably be the most concerned by greater SAM capability, but also have the greatest ability to do anything about it. Since the 1982 war, when the Israeli air force used extensive electronic warfare, airborne command and control, UAVs and anti-radar missiles to wreck the Syrian air defences with ease, they have been pretty good at the so-called "first night of the war". And if they were to go nuclear - they would, of course, be free to go tactical nuclear for suppression of enemy air defences

Now, did anyone spot the logical flaw in the argument? That's right. Those SA10s are meant to kill ballistic missiles - arriving on a ballistic trajectory from space - and extreme low level cruise missiles and aircraft? The technical requirements for the two roles are completely different. This can't possibly be right. And another thing - the Israeli air defences. What of them? How is this Iranian bomb to be delivered? By cruise missile? Whoops. By aircraft? The Kurds would be finding bits down rabbit holes and up trees for months. By ballistic missile? Now you're talking. But surely, if the Iranian SAMs are a credible ABM capability, wouldn't the Israeli Arrow system be as good? And the Iranians are only likely to have a couple of warhead s to begin with in the bolt-from-the-blue scenario this is all based on.

There is nothing, then, to make a deterrent balance impossible.

Another question. Everyone seems to think that there are an awful lot of targets in Iran for a conventional strike. So folk like John Robb have been talking about attacking the electricity grid. A "de-modernisation EBO" he calls it. Whoopee doo. In reality this is nothing but a warmed-over version of the same old airpower school bollocks. "De-house" enough people in the Ruhr and the German working class will lynch Hitler. Turn off the Iranian street's electricity and they will rebel. It doesn't work. It never has done.

One of the reasons for the failure of the Suez operation was that a chunk of the timetable was taken up with the "aero-psychological phase" the Air Staff insisted on writing into the plan. The Navy, Marine and Para types wanted an attack on air defences, then intensive tactical air cover to deal with tanks moving up through the desert. The Air Staff demanded their chance to prove that this time it was going to be different, that the bombing of Cairo and Alexandria would cause the mob to rise up and destroy their rulers. Robb gives Kosovo as an example of such an operation as a success (so do all latterday Trenchards) - but as far as I know, they never actually did shut down the power for any length of time. Anyway, it was a very different air threat that induced Milosevic to give up: although the JNA's heavy kit could be concealed from NATO tactical airpower in Kosovo effectively, it could only be concealed as long as it wasn't needed.

The arrival of 60,000 mostly British and German troops next door changed this: if Option B-Plus had been put into effect, the choice would have been to abandon the strategic goal, or fight. And, once the T72s were rolled out to face the invasion, the USAF's tank-killing capability would have come into play. Add to that the battering of a full army battalion in Kosovo, a couple of days before the end, by B52s called in by "someone" on the ground, and you have your finish.

Even if we were to bomb the electricity grid, presumably we would have to keep bombing in order to keep it shut down (remembering that presumably, continuing nuclear activity would be an overriding national priority). And, with God knows what happening to the army in Iraq and the world economy - would we? could we? If not, then presumably enrichment would start up again as soon as the power was on. Bombs again, broke again, stop again, restart again, bombs again, rinse and repeat...until, presumably, the thing's finished. Recrimination all round. Defeat.

In related news, this is interesting if true.

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