Briefing paper February 2006
Published by Oxford Research Group, 2006
From a US perspective, there would be two main reasons for taking action
against Iranian nuclear facilities. One would be to damage the overall
programme to the extent that any plans to produce nuclear weapons could be
set back at least five years and preferably longer, but a second would be to
make it clear that the United States is prepared to take significant
preventative military action in this regard, and would, by implication, take
action against other Iranian activities that it might find unacceptable, not
least any Iranian interference in Iraq.
The core problem is that any military action would, in practice, have to involve more than just a series of attacks on a small range of directly nuclear-related sites. Moreover, once such action started, it would be virtually impossible to maintain any relationship with Iran except one based on violence. Apart from anything else, all the available evidence suggests that any military action would have a very powerful unifying effect within Iran, bringing a wide range of political and religious opinion behind the administration, increasing both its power base and its stability. Even the current administration could be expected to be a focus of support. Those elements of the theocracy that are at present suspicious of Mr Ahmadinejad and may still resent his unexpected electoral success, would not stand in the way of a united Iran faced with US military action.
Although the United States has a major problem of overstretch affecting its Army and Marine Corps, an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be undertaken almost entirely by the Air Force and the Navy. To have the maximum impact, it would be done by surprise, utilising land-based aircraft already in the region, long-range strike aircraft operating from the United States, the UK and Diego Garcia, and naval strike forces involving carrier-borne aircraft and sea-launched cruise missiles.
At any one time, the US Navy keeps one aircraft carrier battle group on station in or near the Persian Gulf. Such groups rotate, and there are periods when two are on station, providing over 150 aircraft, together with several hundred cruise missiles.(4)
Similar numbers of land-based aircraft could be assembled with little notice, given the range of US bases in the region, and B-1B and B-2 bombers could operate from outside the region. In particular, the specialised facilities required to operate the stealth B-2 aircraft are now available at Fairford air base in Gloucestershire.(5)
Air strikes on nuclear facilities would involve the destruction of facilities at the Tehran Research Reactor, together with the radioisotope production facility, a range of nuclear-related laboratories and the Kalaye Electric Company, all in Tehran. The Esfahan Nuclear Technology Centre would be a major target, including a series of experimental reactors, uranium conversion facilities and a fuel fabrication laboratory. Pilot and full-scale enrichment plants at Natanz would be targeted, as would facilities at Arak (6)
The new 1,000 MW reactor nearing completion at Bushehr would be targeted, although this could be problematic once the reactor is fully fuelled and goes critical some time in 2006. Once that has happened, any destruction of the containment structure could lead to serious problems of radioactive dispersal affecting not just the Iranian Gulf coast, but west Gulf seaboards in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. As well as the direct human effects, since these comprise the world’s most substantial concentration of oil production facilities, the consequences could be severe.(7)
All of the initial attacks would be undertaken more or less simultaneously, in order to kill as many of the technically competent staff as possible, therefore doing the greatest damage to longer-term prospects. This would be a necessary part of any military action and would probably extend to the destruction of university laboratories and technology centres that indirectly support the Iranian nuclear scientific and technical infrastructure.
Such an aspect of the attack is not widely recognised outside of military planning circles but would be an essential component of the operation. Given that the aim is to set back Iranian nuclear potential for as long as possible, it would be essential to go well beyond the destruction of physical facilities that could be replaced quite rapidly. The killing of those with technical expertise would have a much more substantial impact on any efforts to redevelop nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, since such expertise is known to include foreign nationals, the killing of such people already working in the country would serve as a deterrent to the involvement of others in the future.
Iran currently has limited air defences and a largely obsolete and small air force. Even so, defence suppression would be a major aspect of military action, primarily to reduce the risk of the killing or capture of US aircrew. It would involve the targeting of radar facilities and command and control centres, as well as Western Command air bases at Tehran, Tabriz, Hamadan, Dezful, Umidiyeh, Shiraz and Isfahan, and Southern Command air bases at Bushehr, Bandar Abbas and Chah Bahar.(8)
A particular concern for US forces is the continued deployment by Iran of 45 or more of the American F-14A Tomcat interceptors and their long-range AWG-9 radar equipment. 79 planes were originally procured before the fall of the Shah and around 30 are available operationally at any one time out of those still
Research, development and production facilities for Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile programme would be priority targets, as would bases at which these mobile missiles are deployed. Because of their mobility, surprise would once again be essential.
US forces have already used reconnaissance drones to map Iranian facilities and these, combined with satellite reconnaissance and a range of forms of electronic surveillance, have provided considerable information on the nuclear infrastructure and more general defence forces.
The attacks described so far would involve a strong element of surprise in relation to the core nuclear infrastructure and the air defence system, with these undertaken in a matter of hours. Up to a hundred sorties by strike aircraft, backed up by several hundred additional sorties by aerial refuelling, defence suppression and reconnaissance aircraft would be accompanied by two hundred or more cruise missile sorties.
Following immediate bomb damage assessment, major targets would be revisited in the following days in parallel with attacks on less time-urgent targets. For US forces, the main period of intense military activity might extend over 4-5 days but could continue for several days more, depending on Iranian responses.
In addition to the substantial programme of air strikes and missile
attacks on nuclear, missile and defence facilities, US military operations
would also be aimed at pre-empting any immediate Iranian responses. Most
significant of these would be any possible retaliatory Iranian action to
affect the transport of oil and liquefied natural gas through the Straits of
Hormuz. On the assumption that this would be an obvious form of retaliation,
it would be necessary to destroy coastal anti-ship missile batteries and
Iran’s small force of warships. The main base and dockyard is at Bushehr;
the operational headquarters is at Bandar Abbas which is also the base for
Iran’s small flotilla of Russian-built Kilo-class submarines, although Chah
Bahar is due to become the new base for these three boats.
Other bases for light naval forces include Kharg Island at the head of the Gulf and islands in the Abu Musa group south-west of the Straits of Hormuz, these being heavily defended and well supplied.(10)
It is very difficult to predict the level of Iranian military and
civilian casualties, but two points may be made. The first is that, as in
Iraq during the first three intense weeks of war, early civilian casualty
reports will be incomplete and the full extent of casualties unlikely to
come to light for several months.
However, any reports of civilian casualties which do emerge would be widely disseminated by the Iranian media and by commercial media networks such as al-Jazeera elsewhere in the region. The second is that any surprise attack will catch many people, be they civilian or military, unawares and unprotected. There will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas as was possible in the days and weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
Military deaths in this first wave of attacks against Iran would be expected to be in the thousands, especially with attacks on air bases and Revolutionary Guard facilities. Civilian deaths would be in the many hundreds at least, particularly with the requirement to target technical support for the Iranian nuclear and missile infrastructure, with many of the factories being located in urban areas. If the war evolved into a wider conflict, primarily to pre-empt or counter Iranian responses, then casualties would eventually be much higher.
(4) A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier typically
carries 72 fixed-wing aircraft and six helicopters, including 36 F/A-18E
Super Hornet strike aircraft. A carrier battle group may normally include a
cruiser, two destroyers and an attack submarine, all equipped with
sea-launched cruise missiles.
(5) Because of the nature of its radar-absorbing surfaces, the B-2A aircraft requires special climate-controlled hangars. These were previously available only at its home base in the United States and at Diego Garcia, the US base on a UK-owned atoll in the Indian Ocean. Two shelters at RAF Fairford were completed and became operational in early 2005. Given the capabilities of the aircraft, both Fairford and Diego Garcia would be essential operating locations for any attack on Iran, thus involving the UK, at least indirectly, in the operation.
(6) Frank Barnaby, Iran’s Nuclear Activities (Oxford: Oxford Research Group, 2005).
(7) This would become more severe with time as the reactor produced larger quantities of radioactive waste products.
(8) Information from www.globalsecurity.org.
(9) Michael Knights,“Iran’s conventional forces remain key to deterring potential threats”, Jane’s Intelligence Review (Feb 2006).