In my Foreign Policy column, I explain why a missile war between Israel and Iran will be a workout for modern missile defenses, with implications for the Asia-Pacific and beyond.
An Aug. 15 Bloomberg article describes a grim and anxious Israeli public preparing itself for war with Iran. Citizens are filing by distribution sites at shopping malls to pick up gas masks while wondering when the Israeli air force will attack Iran's nuclear complex. Although it is possible that Iran would restrain itself -- leveraging potential outrage at the attack to reverse some of the political and economic isolation it has suffered in the past few years -- virtually everyone assumes Iranian military retaliation would soon follow an Israeli strike. Matan Vilnai, the outgoing civil defense minister and a former general, predicts that a war with Iran would last a month and said that Israel should brace itself for hundreds of missile hits each day, which could kill 500 people by the end of the war.
Although Hezbollah pounded northern Israel with short-range rockets for several weeks in 2006 and Hamas still occasionally strikes towns near Gaza, a war with Iran could subject Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other major urban areas and military bases to large-scale and long-range missile attack, the first such missile war anywhere since the 1991 Gulf War. Such a bombardment would test the hopes placed in modern missile defenses, affecting not only Israel but also American plans for the Asia-Pacific, where the United States has made missile and anti-missile systems a core part of its strategy for the region.
Vilnai's prediction of several hundred rocket hits per day implies that Hezbollah would join Iran, again striking northern Israel with Katyusha and other mostly short-range rockets. But even if it didn't -- fearing another bashing from the Israeli army and the prospect of having to recover without much help from a fracturing Syria -- Israel would have to face Iran's growing ballistic missile arsenal. Of particular concern is the Shahab-3 missile, which, according to an analysis prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), can fly up to 1,300 kilometers and carry a high-explosive or chemical warhead weighing 760 to 1,100 kilograms. The U.S. Congressional Research Service estimates that Iran possesses 25 to 100 Shahab-3 missiles, deployed both in underground silos and on truck-mounted launchers. (According to the CSIS report, however, Iranian policymakers will have to live with uncertainties regarding the Shahab-3's dependability, accuracy, and warhead reliability.)
Opposing Iran will be Israel's Arrow missile defense system, designed specifically for the Shahab-3 threat. The Arrow system is tested and deployed, but has yet to face combat. The United States has positioned a high-powered, long-range X-band radar facility in Israel to boost the Arrow's sensor capability and supply target data to the Pentagon's own missile defense network. The performance of both Arrow and the U.S. missile defense system will depend on how well all the various radars and sensors in the region collect, transmit, and integrate their results -- something that has yet to occur under the stress of actual combat. In particular, Arrow's operators should brace for a large attack, perhaps involving a dozen or more Shahab-3s. It is very unlikely that the system has ever gone through a live-fire rehearsal against a dozen or more simulated Shahab-3s. Iran will have a strong interest in launching such a large-scale raid, both to stress Arrow before it can work out any unknown bugs and to use its missiles before Israel destroys them on the ground during follow-up airstrikes.
The U.S. Navy has the highly capable Aegis air and missile defense system deployed on most of its guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. The Aegis system, originally designed to protect naval task forces from missile attack, has been upgraded to be a major player in national missile defense. Some of these ships could be positioned for missile defense duty over Israel. U.S. policymakers will have to decide whether to have such ships, if present, along with other U.S. missile defense capabilities, participate in the initial defense of Israel. Opting out would allow Israel to demonstrate its own missile defense capabilities and would remove an excuse for Iran to escalate the war against the United States around the Persian Gulf. Policymakers in Washington, however, will likely opt to engage, both to exercise U.S. missile defense systems in combat (revealing any glitches) and to demonstrate to allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that missile defense partnerships with the United States will be effective when needed.
The outcome of an Israel-Iran missile war will have profound implications for military strategies and investments in Asia. The expansion and modernization of China's ballistic and cruise missile forces is a recurring topic in the Pentagon's annual reports on China's military power. In a recent study CSIS performed for the Pentagon, it noted the vulnerability of U.S. military bases in the Pacific to missile attack and recommended increased missile defenses and dispersal of airfields and aircraft around the region. Should a lopsided outcome occur in an Israel-Iran missile war, military planners on all sides would likely scramble to reassess their assumptions. Should Arrow and the U.S. Navy's missile defense systems sweep a large Shahab-3 raid from the skies, American planners would undoubtedly gain confidence in their ability to sustain a forward presence in the Western Pacific in the face of China's growing missile forces. By contrast, should Iran succeed in pummeling Tel Aviv and other targets in Israel, U.S. policymakers would likely develop doubts about the long-term future of their forward-basing plans in the Pacific. The outcome of a missile war would also affect the long-running debate over funding the Pentagon's troubled effort to build limited defenses against intercontinental missiles.
An Israeli strike on Iran will come with no warning. Israel would like to give its citizens some time to prepare for an Iranian retaliatory barrage, but because it may get only one shot at Iran's nuclear program, Israel will want its initial airstrike to benefit from tactical surprise. Ideally, Israel's policymakers would also prefer to ready their missile defenses in coordination with the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to weigh the risk of a leak from Washington, which would prefer that Israel hold its fire. An Israeli attack would thus be "a bolt from the blue," designed to surprise Iran's air defenses, wreck the program's physical plant, kill Iran's nuclear engineers and technicians, and demoralize survivors.
Vilnai may be right that a war may taper off after a month, if only due to the exhaustion of missile inventories. But that would hardly mean the end of the war, which would be bound to take many unpredicted turns in the years ahead. If Netanyahu and his colleagues decide to strike, they will be walking into a dark room, with everyone else scurrying to adjust to the shock as best they can.
Iran's missiles and its "nuclear weapons program" are a Mare's Nest. Isramerica will strike Iran for the same fundamental reason that Iraq and Libya were trashed: when oil-producing states go off the petrodollar and start accepting other currencies/gold, they endanger the Dollar itself...and with it our entire debt-driven Ponziconomy. So the real Iranwar will be in and around the Persian Gulf, with Iran attempting to strike at the oil terminals and close the Straits, and the U.S. struggling to re-open the Straits before a sustained oil price-spike liquidates the Imperial Dollar. Of course, if Russia and/or China become directly involved on the Iranian side, then we are looking at another 1914.
The more we talk about this the more concerned, even scared, I get. I hope it isn't something akin to just before the American Civil War or WW I, when many people accepted that war would start and they didn't fear it coming because they figured it would be easy and short.
I agree that the possibility of Israeli nuclear action needs only to be tacitly understood and it may be a concern in the background of US policy already. For the reasons you state, I can't imagine the United States making first use of nuclear weapons (absent a catastrophic attack on American territory with a huge loss of life). A preemptive nuclear attack by Israel on Iran is more imaginable but could trigger a chain of consequences that no one can foresee.
I don't doubt that Iran has the backbone to resist attack if it can, which is why the situation is so dangerous. I think the problem with US and Israeli calculations has to do with Iran's capabilities after an air strike, not with Iran's intentions to resist after one.
The one serious alternative would be if Israel and Iran could evolve a relation of mutual nuclear deterrence. For that to work, though, each side would need to be rational. There were some worrisome moments in our own Cold War, eg. when Khrushchev threatened to "bury" us and then built missiles in Cuba, but fortunately both sides showed restraint.
Iran has more disturbing parallels to Nazi Germany in its public statements and there is greater uncertainty about the rationality of its leadership. The uncertainty in Israel over whether Iran constitutes a Nazi-like threat to Israel, or is an insecure dictatorship prone to vicious bombast but seeking only a nuclear deterrent, is the problem right now.
There has been some division in Israeli public opinion over a nuclear Iran, with a recent intelligence chief arguing against an Israeli strike. But the current leaders in Jerusalem have given every indication that they cannot tolerate an Iranian nuclear capability. I hope some outcome short of war is still possible and I hope at least that the gravity of the situation is truly clear to everyone who has difficult decisions to make.
(DavidPB4 is a compound of my first name, middle and last initials, and a numeral.)
DavidPB4 (how did you come up with that moniker anyway?):
Very well reasoned. But what if Israel didn't make any kind of overt or explicit threat to the US? What if they just made a few private, veiled hints and combined those with the howl the Israel lobby in the US would make? That would have the same effect as any plainly stated intention to go nuke. We would be presented with the choice of allowing them to do so with all the uncertainty that would bring, or striking and pleasing some political constituancies (sic) in the US and putting things off for a while. Both of which are politically appealing, as you state.
If Israel uses a nuke, they will do so one time. Then as you say, I imagine Russia or China or maybe even Pakistan will threaten them back with a nuke. That would put us in an impossible position, counter-threaten or threaten Israel or what? I don't think God himself has any good idea about what would happen then.
If we were to nuke Iran, God help us. To start with I can't think of any country in the world except Israel that wouldn't cast us into a diplomatic and maybe economic Stygian world. Not to mention the Quds force getting into Afghanistan in a very big way. It would be a nightmare.
There is nothing good at all that would come out of an Israeli strike. Nothing. The only way out of this is if Israel accepts, by whatever means, that they won't have a regional monopoly on nukes.
I didn't know where to put this but I think both Israel and the US are basing their thinking on the unstated idea that the Iranians don't have the backbone Israel and the US do, which you suggested. It is very dangerous to base your planning on something like that.
By making its intentions more starkly clear, Israel has already forced not only the United States but Europe and other countries to ratchet up sanctions to delay an Israeli attack on Iran. Part of the calculations in both Washington and other capitals may well be a worry that a war between Israel and Iran could escalate to the nuclear level. But the question you raise is whether Israel would use the threat of using nuclear weapons in a more explicit way to pressure the United States. I believe this course would carry two risks.
First, Israel already has wide support in America. For Israel to try to pressure us beyond sanctions and defensive backup into actually launching a massive air strike on Iran could undermine public support for Israel here and would give the President, if he is privately disinclined to launch such a strike, a more defensible public reason not to do so, since no President can submit to an openly declared blackmail threat by another state. I can't imagine Israel contemplating such a threat.
Second, it is not clear that the United States could be sure of halting the Iranian program without intrusive random inspections on the ground. For the United States to become involved in combat in the ways that America would be willing to become involved, ie. from the air and sea but not by invading Iran on the ground, would not guarantee success.
If Israel sees no alternative to military action against Iran, it will have only one chance, and I am quite sure that Israeli leaders would prefer to act as decisively as possible rather than stretch out the crisis with the attendant risks of Iran covertly rebuilding its capability and outside support for Israel faltering. Israel might conceivably launch a conventional strike first and issue terms that Iran rejects, which would give Iran some time to evacuate civilians from around its nuclear sites, but I don't think Israel would hesitate then to go nuclear.
The option of a protracted conventional bombing campaign waged by the United States (or the US and Israel together) from a safe distance presumes that Iran can be bombed into compliance. I don't think the record of previous wars supports the presumption that conventional bombing is enough. It is particularly objectionable to proceed on this basis if it concedes already that Iran's nuclear program can only be set back. Israel is not looking to set back Iran. It is looking to stop Iran.
If Israel does launch a conventional strike first and issues terms, the result will be either (1) that Russia and China intervene to prevent any nuclear attacks by Israel on Iran, or (2) that Israel uses nuclear weapons on Iran until the country agrees to intrusive inspections to prevent that country from building or rebuilding any nuclear activity, missile capability, and anti-missile defense.
Israel might still find it difficult to sustain a regional order based on its own nuclear supremacy. Although the Sunni Arab Gulf states might be privately grateful, the United States could find itself in a more hostile world in the aftermath. I could be wrong if conventional air strikes would buy more time; the temptation for leaders everywhere to postpone difficult choices may encourage them to do so if they can. But once a conflict begins, I don't think either the US or Israel will see any advantage to dragging it out, and if America doesn't resort to nuclear weapons, Israel will make use of them if Russia and China don't intervene.
You are right to bring this up and to highlight Mr. Jones' e-note. Over the past months and years we have been guilty of minimizing, hugely minimizing the danger of an Israeli strike against Iran. It is almost as if we have been progressively de-sensitizing ourselves with technical talk and rationalizations about why this or that won't happen.
As many have noted, if you are realistic, there are only two ways Israel can seriously slow down or maybe stop Iran's nuclear program, get the US fully involved or use Israeli nukes. There are no other ways. From the Israeli standpoint the best of those two options is to get the US fully involved. So the question then becomes how to insure that, not to improve the likelyhood (sic), but how to insure that we get fully involved.
I wonder, could Israel insure that by using their nukes to blackmail us, the Americans? They could launch a conventional strike or two that they know would fail, then they could say to us "Our only option now is to use our nukes unless you guys join in." They would put us in the position of getting involved in a war with Iran or seeing Israeli nukes go off in Iran resulting in consequences unimaginable. Israeli nukes wouldn't be used to threaten Iran, they would be used to threaten the US and force us into doing something we absolutely don't want to do.
That would be a novel use of the atom bomb, force your friends into doing things they don't want to do by threatening to make things even worse if they don't.
In March 2012, the Foreign Policy Research institute in Philadelphia circulated an e-note from a retired CIA officer (Garrett Jones), who argued that only an Israeli nuclear strike would have any chance of success against hardened targets and that Israel has never seriously considered a conventional strike alone. Here is the note:
The note references a New York Times article from February 19, 2012, on the difficulties that Israel would face conducting a conventional air strike:
If Israel launches a conventional strike and US-Israeli missile defenses fail, causing Israel to sustain civilian casualties in the thousands (equivalent to several hundred thousand Americans), it is nearly certain that Israel would come under enormous domestic pressure to retaliate with nuclear weapons, especially given the likelihood that Israel's own strike will have only set back, not ended, an Iranian nuclear threat.
But it is also highly likely that even if a US-Israeli missile defense is effective and Israeli civilian casualties are minimal, Israel cannot and will not simply stand by and wait for Iran's nuclear program to recover and develop a bomb. The question is whether an outside nuclear power, such as Russia, would extend a nuclear umbrella to Iran. If it does, then we are back in a Cold War world that would in a matter of a few years result in a hot war triggered by a recovered Iran. If not, then there would be nothing to stop Israel from threatening a nuclear attack on Iran and carrying it out if Iran does not meet Israel's terms.
The crisis looming is I think much more serious than the prospect of testing missile defenses. It is about a threat to the present world order posed by the combination of Iran's nuclear program and stated foreign policy aims. We need to brace ourselves for a real crisis if it is true that Israel is preparing for a showdown soon.