For the past couple of days I have been enduring the frustration that comes from attempting to teach myself chess. Two things that I understood immediately were that the placement of the pieces is all-important and that having a clear vision of what to do with those pieces is the pathway to victory.
The appointment of Amir Eshel to head the Israeli Air Force (IAF) at this critical point in time is a very clear placement of one of the most important pieces on the board. It is Eshel who will be guiding the IAF through a very difficult period, for the military and Israel as a whole, as he takes his place at the helm of one of the most powerful air forces in the world. The IAF is but one of three branches of our national military, but when it comes to the question of targeting Iran, it is certainly the one that is at the forefront. It is the IAF that is capable of projecting power across the long distances between Israel and Iran, and it is primarily the IAF that would be deployed to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, should that option be chosen.
Promoting Eshel is not the only move that Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz has made; quite the contrary, all the evidence points to the chief of staff placing his pieces on the board very carefully indeed. According to an article in Ha’aretz, he has wasted no time in putting a huge number of new staff in place throughout the top echelons of the IDF:
“Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has managed to appoint more than a third of the General Staff members within less than a year: Yair Golan as GOC Northern Command, Nitzan Alon as GOC Central Command, Eyal Eisenberg as GOC Home Front, Ram Rothberg as commander of the navy, Uzi Moscovich as head of the teleprocessing branch, Kobi Barak as head of the technological and logistics directorate, and Yossi Baiditz as commander of the military colleges. Maj. Gen. (res.) Shai Avital was brought back from retirement to head the newly created Depth Corps, and Noam Tibon was promoted to major general as head of Northern Command Corps.”
The ‘Depth Corps‘ mentioned above is a particularly important development. This term refers to the newly created Israeli Special Forces Command that has unified the very top echelon of IDF elite units (primarily Sayeret Matkal, Shayatet 13, 669 and Shaldag) into one command designed to provide greater flexibility for deep penetration missions and cohesion when these highly specialised units need to operate together.
Over and above personnel changes, there has been a huge step up in live fire exercises. In the past year there have been two brigade-level exercises involving almost exclusively reserve units, which is very unusual, as well as the first full scale paratrooper drill in 13 years. But that isn’t all. A combined arms exercise involving infantry, field intelligence forces, engineers, tanks and artillery was held on the 31st of January at the Shizafon army base, and a massive Israeli/US air defense exercise codenamed ‘Austere Challenge 12‘ is scheduled for later this year. In the New York Times it was reported that this exercise would involve “thousands of American and Israeli soldiers” and is “designed to test various Israeli and American air defense systems against missiles and rockets from a range that would include Iran.”
Colonel Ronen Cohen, an IDF reservist, has written a roundup of Iran’s defenses against air attack in Issue 6 of the magazine Israel Defense. He argues that, in the main, they consist of both antiquated and domestic copies of outdated weapons systems. There seems to be consensus among experts that Israel has the capability to neutralise the Iranian air defense network; the real question is whether IDF strikes would be capable of destroying the Iranian nuclear program altogether.
Writing in his Time Magazine blog, Karl Vick finds it unlikely that, acting alone, the IDF would be able to deprive Iran of its nuclear capability. In his post he reveals that a senior IDF official told him he had “informed the cabinet we have no ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way.” In other words, Israeli forces can get in and out of Iran, but knocking out the program altogether is beyond their ability. Vick goes on to argue the following:
“As formidable as the Israeli Air Force is, it simply lacks the capacity to mount the kind of sustained, weeks-long aerial bombardment required to knock down Iran’s nuclear program, with the requisite pauses for damage assessments followed by fresh waves of bombing. Without forward platforms like air craft carriers, Israel’s air armada must rely on mid-air refueling to reach targets more than 1,000 miles away, and anyone who reads Israel’s order of battle sees it simply doesn’t have but a half dozen or so. Another drawback noted by analysts is Israel’s inventory of bunker-busting bombs, the sort that penetrate deep into concrete or rock that shield the centrifuge arrays at Natanz and now Fordow, near Qum. Israel has loads of GBU-28s, which might penetrate Natanz. But only the U.S. Air Force has the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator that could take on Fordow, the mountainside redoubt where critics suspect Iran would enrich uranium to military levels.”
So a strike on Iran will look much more like the air attacks that preceded the 1991 coalition attack on Iraq, than Operation Orchard, the Israeli attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. There isn’t going to be a situation where Israelis will wake up one morning to find that the operation is already over — only that it has already begun. What’s more, according to experts such as Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, “[The IDF] is far from capable of disabling the Iran nuclear program. That would take at least a month of sustained bombing. That’s not something Israel can carry out alone.”
The most that an IDF strike can therefore hope to achieve is to damage the Iranian program to the extent that it buys a few years of extra breathing room. But the strike itself may be far less important than the threat of one.
I heard Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, speaking at the Herzliya Conference, argue that sanctions against Iran can make the rogue state abandon its nuclear intentions. What is certain is that the fear of an Israeli strike has motivated the UN to come down hard on Iran. Israeli officials have been warning of the danger from Iran both in private and publicly, and although experts agree that an Israeli strike wouldn’t be enough to destroy the Iranian program, none of them can say whether Israel will go ahead with one. This fear of an Israeli strike is paying dividends, as Iran is under greater international pressure than ever before. In this atmosphere of high tension it looks like Israel knows how to play the brinkmanship game, and is doing so to full effect.
In light of the continued talk of military action being an option by the United States, and harsher sanctions coming from the UN, it is entirely possible that Israel has been playing chess all along, while Iran has merely been playing checkers.