Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has announced the start of a new campaign against Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has announced the start of a new campaign against Iran
Israel may be contemplating a bunker-busting attack on Natanz / Wiki commons
By Gav Don February 10, 2022

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week announced the start of a new campaign against Iran. Speaking at the annual conference of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, Mr Bennett said “the campaign to weaken Iran has begun”. Elaborating, he described the campaign as multi-dimensional, including moves in the nuclear arena, the economy, cyber warfare, and overt and covert [kinetic] action, but gave no details on specific actions or plans.

In large part Mr Bennett’s announcement has come well after events. Israeli aircraft have been attacking Shia targets in Syria whenever intelligence has provided targeting data – in practice 187 times over the course of 2021. Targets have been described as weapons, ammunition and personnel connected with Hezbollah. Most target sites have been in and around Damascus, but in December 2021 strikes extended to the ports of Latakia and Tartus, presumably aimed at supplies arriving by sea.

Syrian forces have had no material success in destroying attacking aircraft, which may be the reason that Russian Air Force aircraft appeared on patrol over the Golan Heights last week, escorting obsolete and ineffective Syrian Air Force aircraft.

One report from Israel suggests that not all of the attacks on Syria have been delivered from aircraft. The report suggested that some (apparent) air attacks have actually been executed by covert Israeli assets on the ground in Syria.

Israeli forces have also been active in low-intensity attacks on Syria-bound merchant ships. Israel’s own IDF annual summary admitted to “around 100” maritime operations in 2021, of which “dozens” [so, most] were special operations. Attacks on Iranian shipping appear to have ceased in July 2021, perhaps because Shia militias now effectively control one of the two main road routes from Iran to Damascus, but were explained by Israeli sources as a response to the attack on the tanker Mercer Street in the Gulf of Oman.

Rear Admiral Shaul Chorev, head of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy at the University of Haifa, was quoted last month as saying: “In my view, those who had the last word here were the Iranians. They challenge our freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden, and it appears as if we stopped our activities to target Syria-bound tankers. Russia also entered the picture, saying it would guard Iranian oil tankers. The result was that strategically, a new maritime front was opened, distant from Israel and out of the operational capabilities of the Israeli Navy".

Israel has carried out kinetic and cyberattacks on Iran’s centrifuge plant at Natanz twice in the past two years. Last month a third incident was widely reported, but with ambiguous attribution. A large air-burst explosion is reported to have detonated in the vicinity of the Natanz plant. Iranian sources described this as an air defence exercise. Israeli sources attributed it to a false-flag covert operation to persuade a group of Iranian scientists to sabotage the plant. Neither explanation is likely to be true. Some corroborated witnesses described hearing and seeing the explosion from ten miles (16 km) away. If that is true it would imply a very large airburst detonation, of at least several tonnes of TNT equivalent. Until further evidence comes out the implication is that Israel delivered some kind of airborne attack, unsuccessfully.

One visible leg of the campaign is Israel’s policy to see the JCPOA restart talks in Vienna fail. Mr Bennett said “...we hope that it (sic) will conclude without an agreement because the discussed deal is not good for Israel”. Israel’s view is that the JCPOA would not be effective in preventing Iran’s road to nuclear weapons, but would release very large quantities of sanctioned cash reserves back to Tehran’s control.

Mr Bennett also pointed out that the JCPOA’s sunset clauses (key clauses sunset in 2023 and 2024) are now so close at hand that a resurrection of the JCPOA would have little delaying effect on Iran’s nuclear plans anyway. “If an agreement is signed and the stream of dollars resumes…Iranian aggression will only intensify in the region”.

The JCPOA negotiations are almost certainly doomed, since the US position is that Tehran must make further concessions and undertakings to bring the US back into the agreement, while Tehran’s position is that the US unilaterally broke its obligations under International Law by withdrawing, and must itself be the party to re-accede on the deal’s terms unchanged.

Mr Bennett stated in his speech that Israel’s regional policy is now beginning to see a near future in which US presence is diluted by Washington’s policy of confronting China, and to a lesser extent Russia. Evidence of dilution is clearly visible in Washington’s reports of foreign deployments of ground forces – with a reported total of only 1,700 troops deployed across the Middle East, 2,000 in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq. It must be said, though, that these deployments exclude US Marines (with a reported 4,500 deployed in the Middle East) and classified deployments which total some 40,000 troops worldwide.

Mr Bennett concluded his speech with announcement of the forthcoming deployment of a new 100-kW Directed Energy weapon system (using lasers) capable of destroying small rockets fired at Israel from Gaza and other locations. Until now Israel has incurred a highly adverse cost ratio – using million-dollar air defence missiles to destroy incoming rockets and drones costing a few thousand dollars. Directed Energy weapons can theoretically achieve the same result at a cost of a few dollars in electrical power, though they are constrained by atmospheric conditions since rain, dust and cloud all absorb laser energy. The new system (whose name is likely to be Iron Beam) is reported to be functional and is expected to be fully operational within a year.

Mr Bennett dropped an open hint that Iron Beam would be available for purchase by the UAE (attacked last week by Yemeni Shia forces with missiles supplied by Iran), and possibly even by Saudi Arabia, but these defensive steps don’t amount to much in the terms of an active Campaign.

In the offensive arena Israel’s options appear to be constrained in several directions. Offensive action at sea looks highly confined by Iran’s active support from both Russia and China (who together conducted naval drills with Iran in the Persian Gulf last month). Russia has told Israel that it is prepared to protect Iranian tankers from attack.

Kinetic offensive action against Iran is in practice dependent on the agreement and co-operation of the United States. Secretary of State Blinken met Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in October 2021. After that meeting Mr Blinken stated baldly that if negotiations to restart the JCPOA failed then the US would turn to “other options”. Since all the senior members of the State Department are strong natural supporters of Israel only Mr Biden’s possible objections would have to be overcome for a strike to gain US blessing, and Mr Biden is on record as vowing that Iran will never be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapon. Israel’s Defence Minister Gantz visited Washington in December 2021, where he is reported to have tabled the proposed timetable for an Israeli strike.

An air strike on Iran would probably aim to damage Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges using bunker-busting bombs delivered by either F15 or F16 strike aircraft. Israel is already equipped with the BLU 109 bomb but this is far from guaranteed to succeed, since its penetration capacity is measurable in small numbers of metres of combined overburden and reinforced concrete. Tehran has spent the past year visibly building deep bunkers underneath a mountain adjacent to Natanz, which are almost certainly too deep for the BLU 109 to damage.

Open source intelligence analysts estimate that the new plant is protected by about 150 metres of overburden. That is hard enough, but to add to Israel’s problem it is unknown whether the centrifuge galleries have been built even deeper than the levels of the visible entrance portals, or at a lateral distance from them, or both. These uncertainties amplify the problem. The actual overburden may be much deeper, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to target bunker-busting bombs precisely. With marginal effect already a given, even a near miss caused by inaccurate targeting will leave the centrifuge plant undamaged.

The US Air Force has developed a larger bunker-busting bomb, the 2.5-tonne GBU 72, whose first (successful) test-drop from an F15 took place in July 2021. Israel has a handful of F15s, but no GBU 72s. Reports suggest that budget has been allocated to acquire them. The GBU 72’s penetration capabilities are not in the public domain but one source suggests that its design specification is to penetrate 50 metres of overburden and 5 metres of concrete. That effect may not be enough to damage Iran’s equipment at Natanz and Fordow, even if the bombs are accurately targeted.

An air strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would require a 4,000-km/six-hour mission (probably across Saudi air space). The mission would require at least one, and probably two, air-to-air refuels from Israel’s small (and old) air tankers, or ground-based refuelling in Saudi Arabia. Israel has just carried out a major long-range strike exercise over the eastern Mediterranean, practising air-to-air refuelling over distance and long endurance missions. Greece and Cyprus will necessarily have co-operated by providing airspace access permissions – an example of Israel’s new defence deal with Greece at work.

Washington’s stated timetable for the Vienna talks runs until the end of March. Israel has scheduled major joint military exercises for this coming May. Exercises can easily be used to cover preparations for actual war. An attack would require much more than just the delivery of bunker-busting bombs. Iranian air defences would have to be detected and suppressed in advance, and assets would have to be placed in readiness to recover aircrew whose aircraft were either shot down or lost to accident or mechanical failure en route. An attack on Natanz would be likely to commit most of the Israeli air force and would require active co-operation and support from Sunni Gulf states in the provision of bases for search and rescue, emergency diversion and ground bases for electronic warfare assets.

Given the marginal success prospects for the large GBU 72, Israel may seek access to the even larger Massive Ordnance Penetrator. The MOP is a 14-tonne bunker-busting bomb which is reported to be capable of penetrating 60 metres of overburden, where it detonates a 2.5-tonne high explosive warhead and therefore has a much larger kill-radius, easing the targeting problem. Use of the MOP would require use of USAF strategic bombers (the B2 Spirit, in practice) to deliver it, which would require the US to become an active participant in an Israeli attack on Natanz.

Mr Bennett’s speech may be the first public step towards conditioning the population of Israel to accept an attack on Iran. If an attack is to take place the next indicator we might expect would be similar conditioning of US public opinion, executed by means of escalating threat-related rhetoric. In this arena the high volume of threat-rhetoric around Russia and Ukraine is an obstacle. A contra-indicator of an attack would be the provision to Iran of Russia’s S400 air defence system (long discussed and deferred) or of Russian air force air patrols over Iran.

Time would also need to be invested in analysis of Iran’s likely responses to an air attack on Natanz. These would probably include Tehran declaring “open season” on Israeli-owned shipping in the Persian Gulf, Hormuz, Bab el Mandeb and elsewhere, and the release of Hezbollah’s stock of small ballistic missiles and rockets on Israel from Lebanon. Reported to number in the tens of thousands (one report puts the stock at over 100,000), Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has the potential to kill hundreds of Israeli civilians. Israel’s calculus for an attack is neither simple nor a given.