Surprise Attack on Iran: Can Israel Do It?

Israel will need to achieve surprise if it hits Iran's nuclear program—yet that's very hard to do.

According to a report in March by the Israeli daily Haaretz, Israel continues to prepare for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Quoting anonymous members of the Knesset who were present during hearings on the military budget, officials in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) have allegedly received instructions to continue preparing for a strike and a special budget has been allocating for that purpose. However, conducting a military operation against Iran’s key nuclear facilities would be a challenging task for the Israeli military. The distance from Israel to the Iranian nuclear sites is such that any strike using the air force would be challenging on its fuel capacity. Allocating tanker planes to the mission could alleviate part of this concern. Nonetheless, Israeli jets can't spend too much time in Iranian airspace before the mission itself is in jeopardy. Engaging Iran's air force in dogfights must be avoided. Therefore, surprise will be a necessary element in a successful Israeli mission.

A successful surprise attack is not easy to achieve. It rests on the ability to deceive the adversary. In general, a deception strategy might involve several elements, related to the timing of the operation, the military platforms involved, the targets, the routes chosen to the targets, the munitions used, and so on. There are several potential obstacles. First, preparations for conducting a military operation must be made without revealing the main elements of the surprise. Second, the political decision must be made covertly, that is, without revealing the timing of the operation. Could Israel pull it off?

Israel's History of Surprise

Israel has in the past utilized both of these elements in order to succeed with conducting military operations. Both the Entebbe operation in 1976 and the attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 came as complete surprises to the targets due to their lack of knowledge about Israel's military capabilities and understanding of its decision-making process and willingness to accept risk.

An example of the latter factor as an element of surprise was the 1967 attack on Egyptian airfields. At the time, Israel possessed about two hundred operational jets. 188 were used against the airfields. The costs of this strategy were obvious: only twelve planes were left to defend Israel's territory. Egypt failed to understand the Israeli willingness to accept risk, which in part led to the mission's success.

Another example of deception came before the 1982 invasion of south Lebanon. Prior to the formal Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights in late 1981, Israel amassed military forces in the north to deter a Syrian response. Instead of scaling back after tension had subdued, Israel kept the forces there in order to utilize them in the forthcoming Lebanese campaign. Getting used to the increased Israeli military presence in the north, the PLO and Syria failed to consider the possibility that these might be stationed there for a forthcoming invasion. Israel was itself the victim of this strategy in 1973. Egypt conducted several large training drills prior to its surprise crossing of the Suez Canal. This made it hard for the Israelis to assess whether the Egyptian actions were part of another drill or preparation for an actual attack. The Israeli failure to acknowledge this potential Egyptian deception strategy is also an example of how a state fails in incorporating the lessons of the past. Just five years earlier the Russian army had invaded Czechoslovakia in a move that begun as a training exercise and continued as a surprise attack. The head of Israeli military intelligence at the time, Aaron Yariv, issued a directive that every major training exercise by an adversary was to be regarded as a potential attack, but this directive was forgotten by the Israeli military and political leadership after Yariv quit his position in 1972.

There was an additional element to the 1973 Egyptian deception strategy. In 1968, Egyptian generals concluded that they did not have the capabilities to challenge the Israeli military. Still, the decision was to train as if it had the military capability to go through with the attack. After focusing all of its effort on covertly acquiring the necessary equipment and manpower—thereby making previous exercises more relevant—its capabilities came as a surprise to the Israelis who still assessed that the Egyptian military was in no shape to undertake the crossing. Israel learned the lesson of that experience and then utilized it in the 1981 attack on the Iraqi reactor. After having trained for months on fuel-saving maneuvers, and after just having absorbed their new U.S.-supplied F-16 fighters, the Israeli air force had acquired the necessary capabilities for the mission. It was Iraq's turn to fail in accurately updating its assessment of Israel's capabilities.

Surprise and Decision-Making

An element of deception must also be included in the decision-making process. The meeting of the Syrian-Egyptian Armed Forces Supreme Council in August 1973 serves as a precedent. In order to keep the meeting secret, all participants resorted to civilian means of transport and false passports. An important topic was on the agenda at that meeting—a decision on the two options for D-Day (only to be awaiting the final approval of presidents Sadat and Assad). It was deemed crucial that the Israelis did not learn of the meeting.