Feature

The Great Prophet 6 War

Inevitably coming soon: The execution of an Israeli war plan.

By From the June 2010 issue

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"The theocratic state adopted, in time, the features of a garrison state. In fact, Ayatollah Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader, came to use his position as commander-in-chief of the armed forces to expand his power. In time, Khamenei came to appoint many Revolutionary Guard commanders to top political positions, thus blurring the line between military and civilian authority."
-- Morris Mottale, writing in Al-Jazeera, April 22, 2010

"All war is based on deception."
-- Sun Tzu c. 2300 B.C.

While the obama administration flounders and flails trying to get the UN to impose further ineffectual economic sanctions against the ayatollahs in Tehran, Israel must be planning ahead for the day when it can no longer delay a military strike at Iran's nuclear capabilities. What would such action be? When and how could it be done?

Israel's military is sui generis: a doctrinal admixture derived from its defense against constant terrorism and conventional threats from neighboring Arab nations, equipped with nearly top-line American and European weapon systems. The IDF -- Israeli Defense Forces -- have invented their own methods of operation and adapted many of the training and operational methods of American and British units to their own needs. From the grunts on the ground to their elite intelligence and special forces, the Israeli military is limited mainly by the willingness of its government to enable it to act. And the Israelis' cyberwar capabilities surpass any nation's, with the possible exception of China.

President Obama has embargoed the sale of advanced U.S. military weapons to Israel and blocked deliveries of previously promised weapons. Among them are those most needed for a preemptive strike on Iran, such as GBU-28 bunker buster bombs, Apache attack helicopters, and design data on a stealthy version of the F-15 Eagle fighter-bomber.

What follows is fiction, at least as far as the author knows.

2 August 2010
Tel Aviv
2245 Hours

Binyamin Netanyahu looked worn, grim, and tired. And he was. The prime minister held his head in both hands, facing down at the table. His hands dropped, and he stood up.

"So, this is the plan? Are we finally agreed?" Netanyahu looked around him. The meetings of the "Security Cabinet" -- Israel's war cabinet -- had run on for days, interrupted with frustrating regularity for hours on end by other political crises -- real and imagined -- that caused the members to rush off to make private calls on their cell phones.

The 15 men and women around the table fell silent, nodding to him and each other.

"So the orders will be issued immediately. Tomorrow the Ofeq and TecSAR satellites will be permanently repositioned so that the risk of detection of the moves will be avoided, and the submarines will begin operational rotations so that three are constantly positioned for the same reasons. Thank you all for the hard work you have done."

He had no need to remind them of the need for secrecy. They understood that this would be the biggest risk their nation had taken since its existence was declared in 1948.

5 September
IAF training area
0445 Hours

The aircraft appeared suddenly in their binoculars. Even though they knew where to look, the F-15s were impossible to see until they'd slowed from supersonic speed and the smaller F-16s were still a blur. The target was a bunker built 100 feet underground and shielded by 20 feet of steel-reinforced concrete.

Though they were standing a mile away, the ground shook from the five bombs' detonations. They hit so quickly, one after another, that the distant rumbling sound was continuous. The IAF general waved, and the vehicles raced toward the impact area. When they arrived, the ground team -- wearing hard hats and face masks -- had already begun measuring the depth and width of the crater. Through the dust cloud, they couldn't see the bottom.

"Are we there yet, Ari?" asked the general. The lead engineer -- an old Israeli Air Force pilot -- shrugged in return.

"Almost, general. The guidance is almost perfect, the warhead is fine. But the penetrator, well...Maybe in another two or three weeks."

"I can't give you more than another two weeks, Ari. If it doesn't work by next Sunday, we need to find another solution."

The engineer shrugged again. "Yah, yah, yah. I know." He walked off, gesturing to his team. They had worked 24 hours a day for the past three days. He'd give them a day off before trying again.

22 October
Israeli Combined Intelligence Center
1330 Hours

"What we learned from their earlier war games you already know. In 2006, it was clear that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council was in control of not only their military but also the innermost councils of their government. IRGC demonstrated the ability to control simultaneous missile launches from different locations. From 2007 through 2010, their command and control became more sophisticated and now they appear ready to conduct operations from Venezuela to the Persian Gulf." Major General Amos Yadlin's "just the facts" manner and soft speech always had an intended effect on his audience. There were no side conversations, not even the occasional out-burst of black humor. Only silence.

"The IRGC main bases we know. Their air base near Shiraz houses their main force, and taking out the runways there is a relatively easy task. Their naval bases are near Bushehr and a few other places spread along the coast. We think we know the three locations where their missile command centers are based. And we are confident that if they follow their normal pattern, there will be a lot of detectable radio traffic from them once the exercise begins.

"It is our firm opinion that their leadership, key personnel, and most dangerous weapon systems will be most vulnerable on the day before the exercise begins. If they gather around the regional command centers and deployment sites for the exercises -- as they usually do -- it will be the best opportunity we may ever have again to deliver a decisive attack.

"Everyone knows the main nuclear facilities are at Natanz, Bushehr, and Qom. We also know -- from the earlier Great Prophet exercises -- where many of the command and control centers are, where their missile storage facilities are, and where the main IRGC leaders are likely to be.

"They have their headquarters in Tehran and 13 regional command centers, which are known to us. These centers are all located within two kilometers of the missile storage sites, which they will activate for the wargame.

"We are moderately confident that what Unit 8200 did in the operation against the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 can be replicated against Iran's air defenses. But the scale of the requirement here is at least 100 times greater." Unit 8200, Israel's secret cyberwar group, reported directly -- and only -- to Yadlin.

"The Iranians use Russian-made computer equipment almost exclusively, especially Lenovos. We have already penetrated much of it. As before, when the attack is under way, the air-borne jamming should conceal the cyber attack.

"We have high confidence that we can, with assets on the ground and the satellite reconnaissance, provide the necessary targeting information and update it at least once while our forces are in the air.

"The only question I have left is if your forces will be able to digest this information and make major adjustments to the target list while the operation is going on."

The military leaders around the table looked at him and each other.

The air force commander spoke first. "We've been practicing that for two months, and we will continue practicing until the day comes. It all hinges on the airborne command and control and the tanker aircraft. We will make it work. But after the first attack, we may have to fight our way home. And the second attack, well..."

"Yes," said Yadlin. "It will be the beginning of a very long day which none of us may survive."

16 March 2011
Tel Aviv
0745 Hours

"It's almost a certainty," Amos Yadlin told the War Cabinet. "We have intercepted the same kind of traffic, at about the same volume, as we have in the previous Great Prophet exercises. They usually pick a date of religious or military significance to them or us. One Great Prophet exercise began on Yom Kippur. Last year's began on the anniversary of the IRGC's founding. And tomorrow is one of the dates the Shia consider most significant: the birthday of Imam Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed."

"So we go at first light tomorrow?" asked Netanyahu.

"That is my recommendation, Prime Minister."

16 March
Iran
2030 Hours

It would be another long night for the IRGC commanders, their missile crews, and scientists. The welcoming receptions for government dignitaries were almost over, and the VIPs would soon retire, except for the inevitable few who were determined to watch the entire exercise from the IRGC temporary headquarters set up near the largest launch site.

Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, President Ahmadinejad, and a few others would insist on watching as they completed the setup of three long-range Sajjil-2 missiles and six Shahab-3s, together their crown jewels. The launch sites -- spread out in five locations across Iran -- would also fire short-range missiles, including three dozen "FROGs" -- free rocket over ground -- short-range, unguided missiles.

Crews would be busy through the night, loading and deploying mobile missile launchers at three other sites. All the IRGC commanders would be spread out among the regional command centers, running other parts of the exercise. The big naval base near Bushehr was a beehive of activity, crews fueling and arming dozens of small, fast patrol craft to demonstrate "swarm" attack tactics designed to defeat big naval combatant ships such as the U.S. DDG-51 destroyers. At Shiraz, the main air force base, aircraft including the newly purchased Russian Su-30 Flankers were being fueled and armed with 500-pound bombs for their flights to targets in the Iranian desert.

16 March
Southern Persian Gulf
0355-0450 Hours

Aboard the four Israeli submarines, activity mirrored the Iranians'. Each of the German-built Dolphin-class subs were loaded to capacity with Popeye cruise missiles, each capable of reaching targets about 930 miles away. They would be fired quickly, and each launcher would be reloaded and fired again as quickly as the crews could manage. Missile crews were checking and rechecking the navigation settings, jet engines, and everything else that could be tested. They couldn't afford a single failure.

The first salvo, aimed at the IRGC headquarters near Tehran and the four known Iranian air bases -- including Shiraz -- from which defenses against the later air attack could be mounted, were launched at 0410. They would hit their targets at 0630, about 15 minutes after sunrise. The second round, aimed at the 13 IRGC regional command centers and the naval base near Bushehr, were launched an hour later.

The boats submerged to reload again and await further orders.

17 March
Over northern border of Syria and southern Iraq
0445 Hours

There weren't enough of them, and they knew it. The 25 F-15s and 40 F-16s were ordered to attack Iran twice in one day. The F-16s would attack the Great Prophet 6 command center as well as nearby missile launch and storage facilities following close behind the cruise missiles, and then recon for a bomb damage assessment.

The F-15s were doing the heavy lifting in the most literal sense. Seven of them were carrying 5,000-pound bunker busters and headed to Qom, some for the longest flight, south to the nuclear facility at Bushehr, and the rest headed to Natanz.

A second wave of F-16s was in flight a half hour behind them, targeting the remaining IRGC regional command centers, air bases, and missile launch facilities that would already have been hit with cruise missiles. While that was under way, the first wave would return to Israel and rearm for a third attack.

The pilots had a lot to cope with. Fuel management was the biggest worry. But the minimized radio chatter all had to be in coded Arabic and Russian phrases they'd studied for months and were now lying along their left legs, written out in bold print. Being pilots, they'd added a few of their own phrases -- graphically sexual -- in Russian.

The F-15s, divided into two operational wings, were all in the air. They'd refueled over the eastern Mediterranean and were now cruising at 35,000 feet, conserving fuel, headed to their targets. Half were flying along the northern border of Iraq, skirting Syria.

Each flight was accompanied by two F-16s fitted with radar jamming equipment and air-to-air missiles. As they flew along, their passive sensors beeped weakly from time to time. Unit 8200 was doing its job, hacking into air defenses along the way, letting them pass undetected. The jammers remained quiet. They would be used only closer to the targets and on the return leg.

17 March
Tel Aviv
0745 Hours

"But can they counterattack?"

"Are we going to sound the air raid alarms or not?

"How can we not? Thousands will die if we don't get the people underground. What about their chemical weapons?"

Netanyahu raised his hands, trying in vain to quell the Security Cabinet's meltdown. Finally, he threw his chair back with a crash, shouting, "Enough!"

He looked over to his intel chief. "Amos, please tell us -- quietly -- what we know and what we don't."

Yadlin stood. "TecSAR -- with the synthetic aperture radar -- indicates that Qom has been penetrated and its dome is mostly collapsed. We don't know how extensive the internal damage is. Natanz and Bushehr are heavily damaged, as indicated by the digital photos transmitted by the F-16s.

"The cruise missile attack and the first attacks on 10 of the IRGC regional command centers, including the central Great Prophet 6 command center, have inflicted significant damage. All but two of their operational runways have been heavily damaged, and none of their air forces or naval aircraft that weren't in the air before our attack should be able to take off. Those in the air already may not be able to land except at civilian airfields where they won't be able to rearm.

"The Ofeq satellites and TecSAR show some activity in and around the missile launch sites, but we can't tell if they are able to rearm and launch any missiles yet. Even if they can, the F-15s will have returned in another hour and will begin preparations for the third attack. They will destroy the remaining Iranian air forces. Meanwhile, it will take the Iranians at least seven hours to retrieve undamaged missile launchers, load them, and target the missiles to reach us. Before then, the third attack will be reaching them, and we still have 11 cruise missiles left on the submarines.

"We apparently have lost four F-15s and three F-16s, all to unknown causes.

"But that is not the worst. Al-Jazeera is already broadcasting reports from Iran. They are saying we haven't done any significant damage to any of the Iranian nuclear facilities, and only killed innocent civilians in towns and cities across Iran. Hizballah will soon launch everything they have in Lebanon at us. Gaza will erupt in missile launches."

Netanyahu closed his eyes briefly. "Avi, how soon can we expect the UN's condemnation, sanctions, and so forth?"

Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, shrugged. "Probably later today. I have already received a note from Hillary Clinton condemning the attack. The Americans may sponsor a Security Council resolution condemning us. You can expect a call from Obama himself any minute."

"Will anyone stand with us?"

"No, Prime Minister, we are alone."

•••••••••••••••

No war plan survives the first contact with the enemy and any Israeli attack on Iran will be no exception. Equipment can fail, people usually don't appear where and when expected, and if the element of surprise isn't achieved -- if Iran has the two or three hours it would need to retarget missiles being readied for a wargame -- it could be a shambles. And -- in the aftermath of the attack -- Israel may suffer catastrophic casualty levels, especially if Iran launches missiles that can hit Tel Aviv or Haifa with chemical weapons. Israel will be isolated diplomatically and -- unless the Obama administration turns its policy 180 degrees -- Israel may suffer economic sanctions that will bring its government down. If Israel is destroyed -- and without direct and consistent American support it may be -- it will, I believe, go down fighting. 

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.