Surprise Attack on Iran: Can Israel Do It?

April 16, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Israel

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.

Offensive Preparations

Complex military operations require lengthy preparations that cannot be concealed. However, although an adversary might know about the intention to attack, the timing and conduct of the operation are more difficult to dissect. In recent years, the Israeli military has conducted numerous offensive exercises to prepare for a potential green light from the political leadership. Two recent exercises demonstrating the capabilities of the Israeli air force took place in December 2013 and January 2014. Such exercises do not only prepare the pilots for a potential mission, it may also serve as part of a deception strategy. For several years prior to the Six Day War in 1967, Israeli aircraft could routinely be seen in the mornings hovering over the Mediterranean. As the Egyptians became familiar with the flight pattern, its air force did not pay much attention when Israeli planes followed the same route on the morning of June 5, 1967. The Israelis then launched a surprise attack. The trick used was to manipulate the adversary's perceptions and expectations. Although Iran is not neighboring Israel and does not have significant satellite surveillance assets, it does have some intelligence capabilities that it uses to monitor Israel. For example, an Iranian radar is stationed in Syria. Iran is also known to be studying Israel's military conduct in past campaigns. The head of the Iranian Civil Defense Organization Gholam Reza Jalali recently stated that it had sent a team to Lebanon after the 2006 war to study the effect of Israeli munitions on destroyed buildings. Apparently, Iran is also monitoring Israeli intentions and decision making. On January 26, 2013—four days prior to an Israeli attack on a convoy carrying missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon—Supreme Leader Khamenei's close advisor Ali Akbar Velayati stated that Iran would perceive an attack on Syria as an attack on Iran itself. Velayati might have known about the transport in advance and attempted to increase its chance of reaching its destination by creating a deterrent against an Israeli attack. This suggests that the Iranian regime have some understanding of Israeli intentions and redlines. Two Israeli signals are typical of an impending attack: deployment of Iron Dome batteries in areas of likely fallout and unscheduled meetings in the security cabinet. However, since the Israelis know there are under surveillance, they can also use it for deception. As long as the Syrian civil war continues, it would be difficult for Iran to know whether Israeli preparations are intended for the Syrian or Iranian arena. If Iran gets used to the Israeli behavioral pattern, then a surprise attack would be easier to achieve.

Operational Surprise

The need for surprise requires that Israel is the one choosing the date of the operation. This may sound as an unnecessary consideration since by definition a preemptive attack is triggered by a decision in the leadership of the attacking country. However, with regards to the timing of an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities, there are some limits that constrain the time frame available to an attacker. Iran's nuclear program offers two potential routes to a nuclear weapon—enrichment of uranium in centrifuge facilities or the production of plutonium in a yet-to-be-operational heavy-water reactor. Both of these routes must be considered when deciding on the date of an attack. The problem with linking the attack date to developments of the program is that Iran would have some control over the time frame available for an attack, thereby decreasing Israel's ability to achieve surprise. Since an operational nuclear reactor is a politically difficult target and as such is off limits, the date when the Arak reactor will go “hot” serves as the outer boundary of the available time frame. Iran would have an incentive to get it operational in order to reduce the utility of an Israeli operation against the other facilities (it makes less sense to attack the enrichment facilities when Iran could subsequently move to produce plutonium using the surviving reactor). On the other hand, its operational status constitute an Israeli redline, so Israel will have a strong incentive to launch an attack before it goes “hot.” From the Iranian perspective, there is a dilemma between halting the work on the reactor—thereby reducing tension with Israel—and continuing with the work to dictate Israel's available time frame.

The element of surprise is also related to the choice of flight route to targets in Iran. Early detection by neighboring states situated along the Israeli route is not necessarily an operational threat as long as the Israeli planes are not targeted by Arab antiaircraft systems and early warning is not passed on to the Iranian government. Given Israel's dependence on achieving the element of surprise with regards to the operation's timing, coordinating the operation with an external actor might be problematic and would involve considerable risk. Over the years, several such alleged partnerships have been suggested. In April 2012, a rumor emerged that Israel had been granted access to Azeri bases. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been named for this purpose as well. In June 2010 news reports surfaced in Western media saying that the Saudi military had conducted a test of its antiaircraft systems and radars to ensure that it did not attack Israeli jets en route to targets in Iran. And again, in November 2013, The Sunday Times reported that Riyadh had given its consent to Israel's use of its airspace. However, coordinating a leak-sensitive operation with another state involves huge risks. Israel recently learned the price of regional cooperation with regards to sensitive operations. According to a October 2013 report by The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Turkey-Israel intelligence relations experienced a severe setback after Turkish espionage chief Hakan Fidan provided Iran with a list of Iranians who had met Mossad case officers in Turkey. There is thus an inherent dilemma between coordinating with an external actor—thereby easing the operational obstacles represented by the length of the route, the number of planes necessary for destroying the targets, and the requirements for conducting rescue operations—and minimizing the risk of leaks.

In order to avoid early detection, Israel would need to reduce the external signals of the strike force. This can be done is several ways. One way is to jam or blind radars located along the route to the nuclear sites. Another option is to avoid the radars' detection range. On June 7, 1981, Israeli jets on their way to the Iraqi reactor were flying low above the desert to avoid detection by radars. Similar low-profile flight paths could be chosen to Iranian nuclear sites. A third option is to use decoys to lure Iran into focusing its attention on the wrong targets. This was Israel's deception strategy in the 1982 Bekaa Valley attack on Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. A fleet of Israeli UAVs was detected by Syrian radar. Subsequently, the anti-aircraft positions were exposed as the decoys were targeted. One can also try to pretend that the planes belong to the adversary. This might be the reason for Iran's recent decision to copy Israel's Heron design for its Fotros UAV. Iranian-made UAVs operated by Hezbollah have penetrated Israeli air space several times in the past: twice during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and once in October 2012. Should a Fotros UAV penetrate Israeli airspace, it might take some time for Israel to identify it as hostile. The same could apply to Israeli jets or UAVs operating in Iranian air space.

As they examine the difficulties of carrying out a strike, Israeli operational analysts can take comfort in the fact that Israel has achieved surprise many times before. Iran, as the intended target of a potential attack, is faced with several problems. One is to detect the decision to attack. Another is to accurately assess the timing and conduct of the operation. And a third problem is to take measures to prevent it. Iran was caught off guard by Iraq’s invasion in September 1980. Could it get caught napping again?

Thomas Saether is a Norwegian security analyst and a post-graduate from the MA program in security studies at Tel Aviv University.