One potential military option that would be available to the United States includes the use of air strikes on Iranian weapons of mass destruction and missile facilities.
In all, there are perhaps two dozen suspected nuclear facilities in Iran. The 1000-megawatt nuclear plant Bushehr would likely be the target of such strikes. According to the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, the spent fuel from this facility would be capable of producing 50 to 75 bombs. Also, the suspected nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak will likely be targets of an air attack.
American air strikes on Iran would vastly exceed the scope of the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osiraq nuclear center in Iraq, and would more resemble the opening days of the 2003 air campaign against Iraq. Using the full force of operational B-2 stealth bombers, staging from Diego Garcia or flying direct from the United States, possibly supplemented by F-117 stealth fighters staging from al Udeid in Qatar or some other location in theater, the two-dozen suspect nuclear sites would be targeted.
Military planners could tailor their target list to reflect the preferences of the Administration by having limited air strikes that would target only the most crucial facilities in an effort to delay or obstruct the Iranian program or the United States could opt for a far more comprehensive set of strikes against a comprehensive range of WMD related targets, as well as conventional and unconventional forces that might be used to counterattack against US forces in Iraq.
Even though the uranium facility at Natanz has been buried underground, it remains vulnerable. As Lieutenant Colonel Eric M. Sepp noted, “The “cut-and-cover” facilities are constructed by digging a hole, inserting a facility, and then covering it up with dirt and rocks. These cut-and-cover facilities can be just below the surface of the ground or may reach a depth of perhaps 100 feet, and represent the vast majority of underground facilities today. In the case of contemporary cut-and-cover facilities, there is no question that conventional munitions can defeat them.”
The air strikes option does have the same problems that one would face in North Korea, namely that Iran has a rather significant air defense capability, which could complicate use, plans. However, unlike North Korea, Iran is not in a position to hold US soldiers or allied civilian populations (Iraq) hostage. A full-scale Iranian military retaliation, though possible, is highly unlikely; especially with the significant US force presence in Iraq. It is possible that Iran could use its ballistic missiles to strike US or allied targets throughout the Persian Gulf region, and in fact Iranian officials have explicitly promised to do just that.
As some of the facilities are still under construction and not yet active the United States may have a window of opportunity that would allow it to destroy those locations without causing the environmental problems associated with the destruction of an active nuclear reactor.
The window of opportunity for disarming strikes against Iran will begin to close in 2005. It appears that the Uranium conversion facility in Esfahan will begin operation some time in 2005, as will the heavy water production plant at Arak. Barring further delays, the fuel for the reactor at Bushehr is also slated to be delivered in 2005, with reactor operations commencing some months after delivery. Significant Uranium enrichment could begin at Natanz in 2006, and plutonium production could begin at Arak by 2010.
Available US Forces
Many aircraft are still in the region supporting Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. By late June 2003, the United States had aircraft at multiple locations throughout the Persian Gulf, including Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Diego Garcia. While the number of aircraft in the region has declined significantly since the end of major hostilities in Iraq, the United States continues to have a number of F-15Es, F-16s, naval aircraft, and some unidentified number of heavy bombers in the region.
Information regarding how many aircraft are actually in the Persian Gulf region is scant as units are returning to the United States and it is not clear if units are being sent as replacements. By mid-June 2003 there were no longer any AWACs in region and stealth aircraft had long since departed for the United States. Insufficient information regarding available aircraft makes it impossible to predict how many Joint Direct Attack Munitions capable aircraft were available for strikes and how many potential aim points this would provide to mission planners.
Redeploying US forces to the region would take a small amount of time, but the absence of significant numbers of stealth aircraft, early warning aircraft, and other assets by late June 2003 indicates that the United States was not actively considering the air strikes options.
Since the end of major hostilities in Iraq the United States has kept only one aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf region in support of Iraqi Freedom. Tomahawk cruise missiles deployed on cruisers, destroyers, and submarines could also be used to strike fixed locations. The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, the only group located in the Persian Gulf in June 2003, has nearly 500 vertical launch system cells, which could mean that roughly 250 Tomahawks were available for tasking.
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