What would a nuclear conflict in the Middle East look like? The results would be catastrophic for everyone involved and disastrous for the rest of the world, but realistically, how would it come about?
Herman Kahn, the founder of the Hudson Institute, built his reputation on his unflinching look at the way a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union would actually be fought. His speculations were so realistic, or sounded so realistic, that Soviet intelligence supposedly imagined that Kahn’s ideas reflected actual US military doctrine. His seminal work “On Thermonuclear War” is still one of the best examinations of what a real conflict using nuclear weapons would be like.
Since Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, published his grim but outstanding 2007 study there has been little unclassified speculation about what a near-term (2014-2020) Iranian nuclear attack on Israel might look like. Cordesman estimated that Iran would have less than 50 nuclear weapons, 30 of which would be missile warheads and 20 of which would be bombs dropped from aircraft. He guessed that Iran’s weapons would be mostly in the 20 to 30 kiloton range, with a few having as much as 100 kilotons of explosive power. By comparison, the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 is estimated to have had a yield of about 15 kilotons.
What follows is based purely on information available from open sources and on my own understanding of nuclear war-fighting doctrine. It is what Herman Kahn used to call a “thought exercise” — an exercise of the imagination made in order to examine possible courses of action.
In Israel, 200,000-800,000 dead
An attack by Iran on Israel would likely take place in the context of a regional political and military crisis similar to what happened during the 2006 Second Lebanon War or the 2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza. Iran would find or invent a pretext and then launch its attack on the Jewish state. This attack would be accompanied by bloodcurdling threats against the US and its Arab allies and a complex propaganda campaign.
The propaganda campaign would send different messages to different audiences without much regard for consistency or logic. To the Europeans, Iran would stress that Israel is a threat to peace, to the Third World, they would claim that Israel is a Western colonial intrusion, and to the the Arab and Muslim world they would proclaim they they are wiping out a stain on Muslim honor with nuclear weapons.
The first phase of the attack would consist of several volleys of between 50 to 100 missiles each. All the missiles in each volley would be fired within a few minutes of each other. The goal of the first phase of the attack would be to overwhelm Israel’s missile defenses. In each volley there would be one or two missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. The other missiles in each barrage would be equipped with either high-explosive or chemical warheads. These would serve as decoys whose primary purpose would be to confuse and exhaust the defenders and allow the nuclear weapons to reach their targets.
The first volley might not even include any nuclear weapons; its purpose would be to degrade and wear down Israel’s defenses and pave the way for the nuclear warheads that would be included in the second and third volleys. The second phase of the attack would hit Israel with a large number of chemical and biological weapons. The goal would be to wipe out the bulk of the surviving Jewish population.
Each phase of the attack from Iran would be accompanied by a volley of shorter range missiles and rockets launched from Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. The rockets coming from Gaza and Lebanon would be armed with high explosives, while the ones from Syria would probably be a mix of high explosives and chemical and biological weapons.
The scale of destruction would mostly depend on the success or failure of Israel’s missile defense systems. Israel’s civil defense system, including public bomb shelters and private precautions, might also play a role in limiting the number of Israelis killed in the Iranian attack.
Tehran would probably not be able to fire more than three or four of these volleys before it ran out of missiles and/or had to deal with the Israeli response. Iran would have to assume that up to 20 percent of its missiles would explode on launch or otherwise malfunction. The reliability of the nuclear weapons attached to these missiles would also be questionable.
According to current, publicly available estimates, Iran has less than 400 missiles of various types capable of hitting Israel. In, say, 2015 or 2016, only five or six would be equipped with nuclear warheads — that is, assuming that Iran tests its first nuclear weapons in 2012. Without a large number of weapons tests, Iran’s leaders could not be sure how many of their nuclear weapons would actually detonate in the Jewish state.
The target would obviously be Tel Aviv, the cultural, commercial, industrial and military heart of Israel. The casualties would be horrendous. In 2007, Cordesman estimated that 200,000 to 800,000 Israelis would die in and Iranian nuclear attack, with additional casualties caused by long-term radiation effects.
The vast majority of Israel’s population would take some sort of shelter when the early warning sirens went off. Unlike most Western nations, Israel has an extensive civil defense program, and lots of bomb shelters, some of which are betters maintained than others. The shelter program has mostly been geared toward protecting the population from high-explosive and chemical attack, but its usefulness in providing at least some protection against nuclear weapons should not be underestimated.
Israel’s response would depend on both Israeli nuclear plans and doctrine, and on the character of Israel’s leader. Israel’s inventory of nuclear weapons is now estimated — according to reports outside Israel — at between 150 and 200 nuclear weapons. It consists of bombs, air- and submarine-launched cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and reportedly a small force of roughly 20 long-range Jericho ballistic missiles (though the numbers are unconfirmed). Cordesman pointed out that Israel has at least a few megaton-sized weapons; the damage caused by the use of such weapons would dwarf anything Iran could do. The Israeli government might be expected to use half of its weapons, including all of its long -ange missiles, in an early retaliatory response against Iran and its allies.
One major unknown factor is just how effective and how large Israel’s missile defense would be. Could they, for example, remain operational after suffering the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effects of a nuclear detonation? Israel’s long-range Arrow 2 anti missile weapons now deployed might knock out half or more of Iran’s missiles. The effectiveness of Israel’s upgraded US-supplied Patriot weapons, which would try and hit any warheads that “leaked” through the Arrow system, would be supremely important. However, if Israel was able to deploy very large numbers of the “David’s Sling” missile defense system now in development, and if this weapons system were given the capability of hitting the warheads of long-range missiles as they approach their targets, the impact of the Iranian attack would be dramatically reduced.
What would happen after an Iran-Israel nuclear exchange would depend almost entirely on the US president. He or she would probably try to persuade the Israeli prime minister and his security cabinet to refrain from further strikes against Iran, its allies and possibly against other Middle East nations with which Israel is still technically in a state of war. The US president would have to convince the Israeli leader that no further attacks, of any sort, on Israel will be tolerated. This might mean that the US would have to carry out strikes of its own against any nation or force that threatens Israel during the days, weeks and months after the attack.
It is important to note that an attack of this type, while devastating — at least according to Cordesman — would not be fatal to Israel. The country would probably have lost up to 30 percent of its Jewish population, but the other 70% would be in a position to rebuild the nation and reconstitute its armed forces, including its nuclear forces.
On the other hand, Iran and its Arab allies would find themselves in deep trouble. The devastation that they would have to live with, and the high probability that they would not have much or any humanitarian assistance in recovering from the Israeli and American strikes, means that they would cease to be a factor in Middle East politics for decades, maybe centuries. The Palestinian Arabs would lose any hope of having their own state and would be lucky if they were not expelled wholesale from the West Bank and Gaza.
Outside of the Middle East, the European Union’s effort to play an independent role on the world stage would decisively end. Russia, India Pakistan, the US and China would all seek to dramatically build up their nuclear warfighting capabilities. While nuclear nonproliferation would begin to be violently enforced, including with nuclear weapons.
The whole idea of nuclear arms control and nuclear non proliferation diplomacy would disappear. International institutions such as the UN would either cease to exist or would be transformed out of all recognition. Catastrophic global economic disruption would be the least of the world’s problems.
As Cordesman wisely wrote, “Rational actors do not fight nuclear wars, but history is not written about rational actors behaving in a rational manner.”