An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear plant will be costly
Obama’s bunker-busters will not be enough to deal with the centrifuges’ hiding place
IF IT'S TRUE that Iran is just six months away from producing a nuclear weapon with enriched uranium from its IR-2 centrifuges, then we may just be weeks away from an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations.
According to what looks like a deliberate leak from the US government, President Obama agreed in 2009 to the delivery of fifty-five GBU-28 (Guided Bomb Unit) bunker-busting bombs to the Israeli air force.
Some have seen the revelation through a political prism – the Obama administration is polishing its pro-Israeli credentials in the run-up to the presidential election in just over a year's time. Others have detected sabre-rattling, a warning to the mullahs that the US is prepared to support military action by Israel. There is something in both.
The GBU-28 is an impressive weapon, initially improvised in the First Gulf War to attack Saddam Hussein's underground command bunkers. In its first test it embedded itself 100 feet into the Nevada Desert. It would have made mincemeat of Hitler in his Fuhrerbunker (26ft underground with a further 1 ft of concrete) and was instrumental in forcing Saddam Hussein's retreat from Kuwait in 1991.
There is just one snag. In August the Iranian nuclear energy chief, Fereidoun Abbasi, revealed on state television that the centrifuges have been transferred from Natanz (central Iran) to the Fordo facility (from the name of the nearest village) near the city of Qom. They are now not just buried beneath the ground, but dug into the side of a bareback mountain.
In satellite photographs the set-up looks remarkably similar to the North American Air Defence (NORAD) command centre at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, buried more than a mile inside the Rockies.
Iranian military engineers have a good record in both concealment and digging. Their expertise was particularly useful to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the 2006 war with Israel. So there is reason to believe that the Fordo installation has been properly built.
The current in-service GBU-28 is an improvement on the first version of 20 years ago. Its penetrative power has doubled to 200ft and it is packed full of clever electronics to find its target accurately.
Unfortunately, the weapon has two major drawbacks for attacking Fordo. It can penetrate a mixture of sand, earth and steel effectively, but it is not designed to chew through solid rock.
Also, it can be dropped with reasonable accuracy from the air. But for the kind of bulls-eye required to get the bomb into a tunnel or air vent the target has to be designated by laser from the ground. Even then the GU-28 is unlikely to be a showstopper. State-of-the-art bunkers are designed to channel blast away from vital areas.
This is going to be difficult. The perimeter of the area is secured by elite and aggressive units of the Revolutionary Guard. The mountains offer little cover. There is little chance of a few Israeli commandos being covertly inserted - even Andy McNab would struggle to carry out the mission.
But from the Israelis' point of view, an Iranian nuke, however crude, poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. Their military and intelligence planners will be prepared both to accept more risk to their own side and inflict more damage on the opposition.
Mossad and the CIA will have worked up the basic lay out, defences and security routine at the plant from various intelligence sources including the visit of International Atomic Energy Authority officials to the site in July.
If bombs alone won't do the job what are the other options? American and Israeli planners could do worse than arrange a screening of The Heroes of Telemark, the 1965 film depicting the Norwegian Resistance attack on the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant, vital to the fledgling Nazi atom bomb programme.
The RAF had repeatedly tried to bomb the plant built into the side of a steep valley without success. The only other realistic option was a commando attack against heavy German defences which duly went ahead. Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris played the Resistance leaders superbly.
Back to Fordo. Air power will be useful. But if the Israelis want to destroy the Iranian facility they are going to have to raid it with a substantial military force – overwhelm the Revolutionary Guards with firepower. They will have to gain access to key parts of the installation and destroy them. Not just boots on the ground but boots underground. It can be done. But it will be costly. ·
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