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The Entebbe Option

The Entebbe Option

While no one in the Barack Obama administration knows whether Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear program, America’s war planners are preparing for a wide array of potential Israeli military options — while also trying to limit the chances of the United States being drawn into a potentially bloody conflict in the Persian Gulf. 

"U.S.-Israeli intelligence sharing on Iran has been extraordinary and unprecedented," a senior Pentagon war planner told me. "But when it comes to actually attacking Iran, what Israel won’t tell us is what they plan to do, or how they plan to do it. It’s their most closely guarded secret." Israel’s refusal to share its plans has persisted despite repeated requests from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a senior Pentagon civilian said.

The result is that, at a time of escalating public debate in both the United States and Israel around the possibility of an armed strike on Iran, high-level Pentagon war planners have had to "fly blind" in sketching out what Israel might do — and the challenges its actions will pose for the U.S. military.  "What we do is a kind of reverse engineering," the senior planner said. "We take a look at their [Israeli] assets and capabilities, put ourselves in their shoes and ask how we would act if we had what they have. So while we’re guessing, we have a pretty good idea of what they can and can’t do."

According to several high-level U.S. military and civilian intelligence sources, U.S. Central Command and Pentagon war planners have concluded that there are at least three possible Israeli attack options, including a daring and extremely risky special operations raid on Iran’s nuclear facility at Fordow — an "Iranian Entebbe" they call it, after Israel’s 1976 commando rescue of Israeli hostages held in Uganda. In that scenario, Israeli commandos would storm the complex, which houses many of Iran’s centrifuges; remove as much enriched uranium as they found or could carry; and plant explosives to destroy the facility on their way out.

Centcom, which oversees U.S. military assets in the Middle East, has been given the lead U.S. role in studying the possible Israeli strike. Over the past year its officers have met several times at Centcom headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and with Fifth Fleet naval officers in Doha, Qatar, to discuss their conclusions, the sources say.  

The military analysis of Israeli war plans has been taking place separate from — but concurrent with – the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the United States present Tehran with a "red line," which, if crossed by Iran’s nuclear program, would trigger a U.S. military strike. "That’s a political question, not a war question," the senior Pentagon war planner said. "It’s not in our lane. We’re assuming that an Israeli attack could come at any time."

But it’s not clear that Israel, even with its vaunted military, can pull off a successful strike: Netanyahu may not simply want the United States on board politically; he may need the United States to join militarily. "All this stuff about ‘red lines’ and deadlines is just Israel’s way of trying to get us to say that when they start shooting, we’ll start shooting," retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman told me. "Bottom line? We can do this and they can’t, because we have what the Israelis don’t have," retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner said.

One thing is clear: the U.S. military, according to my sources, currently has no interest in a preventive strike. "The idea that we’ll attack with Israel is remote, so you can take that off your list of options," former Centcom commander Joe Hoar told me. Nor will the United States join an Israeli attack once it starts, the senior U.S. planner said. "We know there are senior Iranians egging for a fight with us, particularly in their Navy," a retired Centcom officer added. "And we’ll give them one if they want one, but we’re not going to go piling in simply because the Israelis want us to."

That puts the military shoulder to shoulder with the president. Obama and the military may have clashed on other issues, like the Afghan surge, but when it comes to Iran, they are speaking with one voice: They don’t want Iran to get a nuclear weapon, they don’t want Israel to start a war over it, and they don’t believe an Israeli attack should automatically trigger U.S. intervention. But, if they are to avoid becoming part of Israel’s plans, they first need to know what those plans are.

Three high-level U.S. military and intelligence sources have told me that Centcom has identified three options for Israel should it decide to take preventive military action against Iran.

The first and most predictable option calls for a massed Israeli Air Force bombing campaign targeting key Iranian nuclear sites. Such an assault would be coupled with strikes from submarine-launched cruise missiles and Israeli-based medium-range Jericho II and long-range Jericho III missiles, according to a highly placed U.S. military officer. The attack may well be preceded by — or coupled with — a coordinated cyber and electronic warfare attack.

But planners for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Centcom have concluded that, because of limits to Israel’s military capabilities, such an aerial campaign could not be sustained. "They’ll have one shot, one time," the U.S. military officer said. "That’s one time out and one time back. And that’s it."

While Israel has 125 sophisticated F15I and F16I fighter-bombers, only the roughly 25 F15Is are capable of carrying the bunker-busting GBU-28 guided missile, which has the best chance of destroying Iran’s heavily fortified nuclear installations. And even then, each F15I can only carry a single munition.

This force, while lethal, is also modest. The Israeli Air Force would likely have to carefully pick and choose its targets, settling most probably on four: the heavy-water production plant at Arak, the uranium-enrichment centers at Fordow and Natanz, and the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, while leaving out the military site at Parchin and the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which houses Russian technical experts.

The Israeli attack would also likely include the F16Is to knock down Iran’s air defense network, or perhaps drop other, less effective, bunker-busting munitions to reinforce the F15I sortie. Some of these F16Is, but not all of them, would be able to refuel from Israel’s seven to ten KC-707 tankers.

Even with that, and even with the best of luck (good weather, accurate targeting, sophisticated refueling, near total surprise, precise air-to-air interdiction, a minimum of accidents, and the successful destruction of Iran’s anti-aircraft capabilities), senior U.S. military officers say that Israel would only set back Iran’s nuclear capability by one to two years at best — not end it.

Which could be why Netanyahu is so anxious for the Obama administration to say when or if it would join an attack. As Hoar, the former Centcom commander, bluntly put it: "Compared to the United States, Israel doesn’t have a military."

Included in the U.S. arsenal is the recently developed Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the GBU-57, which can punch through 200 feet of hardened concrete before detonating its 5,300-pound warhead. The United States, which recently developed the GBU-57, is rumored to have only about 20 in its inventory — but the Israelis have zero. "There’s a good reason for that," Gardiner said. "Only a B-2 bomber can carry the 57." He paused for effect: "You might know this, but it’s worth mentioning," he said. "Israel doesn’t have any B-2s."

Israel’s likely inability to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity in a single stroke, even in a best-case scenario, has led U.S. war planners to speculate about a second, out-of-the-box, and extremely dangerous military option: what they’re calling an "Iranian Entebbe."

In this scenario, the Israelis would forego a massed air attack and instead mount a high-risk but high-payoff commando raid that would land an elite Sayeret Matkal (special forces) unit outside of Iran’s enrichment facility at Fordow, near Qom. The unit — or other elite units like it — consisting of perhaps as many as 400 soldiers, would seize Iran’s enriched uranium for transport to Israel.

The operation’s success would depend on speed, secrecy, simplicity, and the credibility of Israeli intelligence. According to the Pentagon war planner, Israel’s access to intelligence on Iranian military and policy planning is unprecedented, as is their willingness to share it with U.S. intelligence officials.

The Israeli unit would be transported on as few as three and perhaps as many as six C-130 aircraft (which can carry a maximum of 70 troops) that would be protected by a "swarm" of well-armed F16Is, according to the scenario being considered by U.S. military officers. The C-130s would land in the desert near Fordow. The Israeli commandos would then defeat the heavily armed security personnel at the complex, penetrate its barriers and interdict any enemy units nearby, and seize the complex’s uranium for transport back to Israel. Prior to its departure, the commando unit would destroy the complex, obviating the need for any high-level bombing attack. (Senior U.S. military officers say that there are reports that some of the uranium at Fordow is stored as uranium hexafluoride gas, a chemical form used during the enrichment process. In that case, the material may be left in place when the commandos destroy the complex.)

"It’s doable, and they have to be thinking along these lines," the highly placed U.S. military officer said. "The IDF’s special forces are the best asset Israel has." That said, "In some scenarios," the U.S. military planner who told me of the potential operation said, "there would be very high Israeli casualties because of nearby Republican Guard [sic] divisions. This operation could be quite bloody."

Bloody or not, the Israeli leadership may not be quick to dismiss such an operation, given Israel’s history of using such units. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are former Sayeret Matkal officers, and recently Israeli Defense Forces head Benny Gantz (himself a Sayeret Matkal veteran) said the IDF had formed an elite special operations "Deep Corps" to strike far inside hostile territory. And, of course, it bears remembering that Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan was the sole casualty in Israel’s Entebbe operation.

The difficulty with the Entebbe-style option is that Israel would be forced to mount "a robust CSAR [combat search and rescue] capability" to support it, a senior JCS planner noted. That would mean landing other C-130s carrying helicopters that could pick up endangered commandos or retrieve downed aircraft crews. Such CSAR units would have to be deployed to nearby countries, "or even land in the Iraqi desert," this senior officer said. This CSAR component complicates what might otherwise be a straightforward operation, as it involves other vulnerabilities — an "escalatory ladder" that Israel may not want to climb. 

Skeptics of this option include Admiral Inman. "The Israelis could get to Entebbe," he said, "but they can’t get to Iran. My sense is that the fact that the Israelis are even thinking about this operation shows that they realize that their first, bombing option won’t work. They’re desperately grasping for a military solution, and they know they don’t have one."

But Colonel Gardiner believes this Entebbe-style operation is possible. "It’s a non-escalatory option, it’s entirely doable, and it’s not as dangerous as it seems," he said. "We have to understand what Israel’s goal is in any attack on Iran. The whole point for Israel is to show that they can they can project power anywhere in the region. So let’s take a look at this from their perspective. There aren’t three divisions near Fordow, there’s one, and it’s dug in. It wouldn’t take the Iranians three hours to respond, it would take them three days. This reminds me of Osirak [the Iraqi nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in a 1981 airstrike]. The last ones who wanted to admit that the Israelis did that were the Iraqis. That’ll be the case here. The Iranians will be embarrassed. It has appeal. It makes sense. If it’s simple, if it’s done fast, if it’s in and out. It could work."

A third operation is less exotic, but perhaps most dangerous of all: regime decapitation. "The Israelis could just take out the Iranian leadership," the senior Pentagon war planner said. "But they would only do that as a part of an air strike or a commando raid." The downside of a decapitation strike is that it would not end Iran’s nuclear program; the upside is that it would almost certainly trigger an Iranian response targeting U.S. military assets in the region, as it would leave the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces in charge of the country. It would be the one sure way, U.S. officers with whom I spoke believe, for Israel to get the United States involved in its anti-Iran offensive, with the U.S. mounting operations in a conflict it didn’t start.

How would the U.S. military respond to an Iranian attack? "It depends," the Pentagon planner said. "If the Iranians harass us, we can deal with it, but if they go after one of our capital ships, then all bets are off." Even so, a U.S. response would not involve a full-scale, costly land war against the Tehran regime, but rather a long-term air interdiction campaign to erode Iranian military capabilities, including its nuclear program, the planner said.  

But a decapitation campaign would deepen the rift between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. The war talk in Jerusalem has already eroded the views of many senior U.S. military officers who were once strongly committed to Israel, but who now quietly resent Netanyahu’s attempt to pressure the United States into a war that it doesn’t want. "Our commitment to Israel has been as solid as with any ally we’ve ever had, and a lot of officers are proud of that," Lt. General Robert Gard, a retired Army officer, said. "But we’ve done it so that they can defend themselves. Not so they can start World War III."

This U.S. distaste for involvement in an Israeli strike has been percolating for some time. In March, the New York Times detailed a Centcom war game dubbed "Internal Look," in which the United States was "pulled into" a regional conflict in the wake of an Israeli attack. The results "were particularly troubling" to Gen. James Mattis, the Centcom commander. Among its other conclusions, "Internal Look" found that Iranian retaliation against U.S. military assets could result in "hundreds of U.S. deaths," probably as the result of an Iranian missile attack on a U.S. naval vessel. The simulation, as well as Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, suggest why Mattis requested that the White House approve the deployment of a third aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.

But while Mattis was worried about the Iranians, he was also worried about Israel, whose saber-rattling he views with discomfort, his closest colleagues say. "Internal Look" not only showed that the results of an Israeli attack were unpredictable, as the Times reported, but, according to a Pentagon official, it also showed that the less warning the United States has of an Israeli attack, the greater the number of casualties the United States will suffer. "The more warning we have, the fewer American lives we’ll lose," a Pentagon civilian familiar with U.S. thinking on the issue told me. "The less warning, the more deaths."

According to another senior Pentagon official, Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey "have discussed in detail" the likelihood of an Israeli attack. As early as the autumn of 2011, when Dempsey became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama told him that the United States would "neither help nor hinder" an Israeli strike, this official said. While Obama’s closely guarded formulation hasn’t made it into the American press, his words are common knowledge among Israeli officials and had appeared just six months after Obama took office, in July 2009, in a prominent editorial in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom.

Obama, the editorial stated, "will try to have a dialogue with Iran" while knowing that such an effort will probably not succeed. Obama "would prefer that there be no Israeli attack but is unprepared to accept responsibility for Israel’s security if he fails [in a diplomatic dialogue] and the U.S. prevents Israel from attacking," the editorial added. "Thus it arises that while Israel has no green light to attack Iran, it does not have a red light either. The decision is Israel’s. The U.S. will neither help nor hinder."

Nevertheless, the U.S. military fears that Iran will assume the United States has approved an Israeli strike, even if it hasn’t — and will target U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf. That may be why Dempsey told a roundtable of London reporters in August that he did not want to appear "complicit" in an Israeli attack. The remark touched off speculation that the United States was softening its stance toward Tehran or pressuring Israel to back away from using military force. In fact, nothing had changed: Dempsey was explicitly telling Iran that any Israeli attack would not have the approval or the help of the United States. So while Israel waited for Obama to explain or correct Dempsey’s statement, no clarification was forthcoming. "Dempsey knew exactly what he was saying," the highly placed military officer said, "and he wouldn’t have said it without White House approval." After a moment, he added: "Everything the military says has to be cleared, and I mean everything."

Those outside the U.S. government who follow these issues closely agree. "The administration’s message has been remarkably consistent," U.S.-Iran expert and author Trita Parsi said. "We always hear about how America believes war is ‘the last resort,’ but in this case, President Obama really means it."

Gard, the retired Army officer, agreed: "It’s clear to me that President Obama will do everything he can to stop Iran from getting a bomb," he said. "But no president will allow another country to decide when to shed American blood. Not even Israel." Gard has a reputation as a military intellectual, has led several initiatives of retired military officers on defense issues, and is a useful barometer of serving officers’ views on sensitive political controversies. "There is a general disdain in our military for the idea of a preventive war," he said, "which is what the Israelis call their proposed war on Iran."

George Little, the Pentagon spokesperson, provided this statement: "The United States is prepared to address the full range of contingencies related to potential security threats in the Middle East. But it’s flatly untrue — and pure speculation — to suggest that we have definitively ruled anything in or out for scenarios that have not taken place. Meanwhile, the United States and Israel are in complete agreement about the necessity of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

Still, according to a respected retired military officer who consults with the Pentagon — and who speaks regularly with senior Israeli military officers — Israel’s political elite is likely to be surprised by Obama and the U.S. military’s response should Israel launch a preventive attack on Iranian nuclear sites. "If Israel starts a war," this retired officer said, "America’s first option will be to stop it. To call for a ceasefire. And, by the way, that’s also our second and third option. We’ll do everything we can to keep the war from escalating. We’ll have 72 hours to do that. After that, all bets are off."