By MATTHEW B. STANNARD
San Francisco Chronicle
October 04, 2006
It flies past the empty silos where Minuteman nuclear missiles slumbered through all the long years of the Cold War, past the nation's capital, across the Atlantic Ocean, to where the first of three giant KC-135R Stratotankers it will encounter in the long night waits with fresh fuel.
More than 19 hours later, the bomber slices above the Karkas mountains of central Iran and releases a 4,500-pound "bunker buster" over a complex of buildings guarded by aging missiles and obsolete guns. Explosions echo across the countryside.
That, according to many experts, would be the opening gambit in a war against Iran - should the United States decide to undertake that risky option.
"Iran has been a focus of war gaming for many years both inside and outside the Pentagon, and I have been around and participated in some of that. I have 'invaded' Iran probably 20 times; I have 'bombed' Iran 30 or 40 times," said Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College.
The Bush administration is constantly reiterating its desire for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. But the administration emphasizes that nothing is "off the table," including military action.
"The evidence is overwhelming that plans have not only been dusted off, but they are at the White House," Gardiner said. "The president believes that he has got to do this."
Other analysts are far more guarded.
"Only the president and a small number of his intelligence advisers can know at this point," said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "I think this could go both ways."
What would a military strike look like?
U.S. military options range from the subtle to the extreme.
Washington could sponsor Iranian dissidents, or employ U.S. Special Forces to conduct covert operations within Iran, sabotaging nuclear facilities or assassinating key scientists. In the view of many analysts, however, such operations, while important as part of any broader military approach, are insufficient to stop Iran's nuclear program.
At the other extreme, the United States could launch a full-scale invasion. That would be enormously demanding - Iran is much larger and more mountainous than Iraq, and is likely to put up far more resistance.
"Nobody that I know of is talking about the use of ground forces," Gardiner said. "I think the one thing the administration has learned from (the Iraq war) is don't invade."
Between those options are several air-strike scenarios ranging from limited attacks on Iranian military assets or carefully selected research sites to sustained and broad strikes against political, military and scientific targets seeking not only to wipe out Iran's nuclear program but to topple its government.
Analysts consider the latter idea unlikely - air power alone has not proven effective at toppling governments in the past and such a sustained assault would take months and come at enormous political and diplomatic cost. But some analysts say there is little point in limiting the strikes.
"There's no difference between bombing one site and bombing 1,000 sites, politically," said Andrew Teekell, a security analyst at Stratfor, a private intelligence consultant.
The most likely option, in the view of many experts, is a campaign of air strikes limited in time and breadth, but enough to significantly delay or destroy Iran's nuclear program.
Analysts disagree on the wisdom of such an attack. But there is broad agreement that the U.S. military has the ability to strike nearly at will against the outdated Iranian defense, even if it must do so alone, but there is also agreement that the effectiveness of a bombing campaign is uncertain, and that the possible consequences of such action could be wide-ranging, long-lasting and unpleasant.
As such an attack unfolded, Stealth B-2A bombers from the continental United States would be joined by fighters, bombers and missiles from submarines, carriers and cruisers based in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian defenses are outdated - its air force comprises a few hundred fighters, many of them poorly maintained, including Soviet-era MiG-29s and U.S.-made F-14s that predate the collapse of U.S.-Iran relations three decades ago - and its surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft weapons have little chance of overcoming modern U.S. countermeasures.
According to Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iran has clustered land-based air defense systems - U.S.-made Improved Hawks dating from the 1970s and Soviet-era SA-2s - around some obvious targets, such as the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, south of Tehran, and the heavy-water reactor at Arak, southwest of Tehran.
The Russian-designed reactor being built at Bushehr, along the Persian Gulf coast, is also defended, and would be a risky target because of the several hundred Russian workers there who might be killed. Another hurdle is uncertainty over Iran's nuclear research program - where it is, how large, and how well it is protected.
Even the known components of Iran's program are widely dispersed, and recent satellite images suggest the Iranians have constructed underground chambers, protecting their equipment with as much as 45 feet of reinforced concrete and dirt.
Those challenges, say military experts, can be surmounted with multiple bombing sorties. But that exposes U.S. pilots and Iranian civilians to greater risk.
It's unclear how many targets U.S. bombs would need to hit, and how often. The International Atomic Energy Agency identified 18 nuclear sites in Iran, but Gardiner and other analysts say new construction has increased the number of necessary "hit points," by Gardiner's count, to about 400 for the nuclear program alone.
Whatever does survive a U.S. attack - and most analysts suspect some portion of Iran's nuclear program would - is likely to become the kernel of a new program, said analysts who cited Israel's 1981 destruction of the Osirak reactor, where Iraq responded by vastly increasing investment in its nuclear program, from 400 scientists with a budget of $400 million, to 7,000 scientists with a budget of $10 billion.
There are several ways Iran could retaliate after an attack. Iran could immediately expand the acts it is already accused of doing: using its proxies in the Middle East - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militias in Iraq, for example - to foment violence and instability.
Israeli and U.S. forces in several nearby nations are within range of Iran's Shahab-3 missiles, too. Iran already has threatened to attack Israel's nuclear reactor if its own is attacked.
Some analysts foresee post-attack Iran sponsoring acts of terrorism against U.S. interests around the world, and perhaps within the United States itself. But others say Iran would see such acts as too provocative.
That risk might ultimately depend on how hard the United States hits Iran.
"The problem is if you go too high up on the escalation scale ... it starts to look like regime change, and then you've got an enemy who thinks his back is against the wall," Eisenstadt said. "Do we want to put them there? I'm not sure we do."
Perhaps Iran's most effective weapon would be withholding the oil it sells to the rest of the world - although that has its own risks. Halting sales would be economically self-destructive.
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