Isaac Gerstman

Israel’s Hail Mary?

Israeli elections for the 20th Knesset and essentially for the next Prime Minister to lead Israel’s next government is hanging in the balance. Israel has long been split between along two main party lines: the Likud and Labor. The former a conservative center-right leaning party that always aligned itself with many of the rightist parties and the latter a more liberal center-left leaning party that has historically aligned itself with many of the parties on the left, including the Arab-bloc parties (who represent close to 20% of the Israeli population). Initial polls show that the Labor and Likud are in for a close race.

Elections are in effect dominated by two central characters: Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running for his fourth term at the head of his Likud party, and political neophyte Isaac Herzog who is leading the current reincarnation of the Labor party together with Tzipi Livni. While I don’t intend to prognosticate about the possible outcome of the upcoming Israeli election, one thing needs to be taken into account: the possibility that PM Netanyahu will launch a pre-emptive attack on two or three nuclear sites essential to the Iranian nuclear program. I don’t think anyone in the West is fooling themselves into believing that the Iranian program can be halted or destroyed. This is not the Iraqi Osirak reactor of the 1980s, which was essentially a stand-alone unit. Iran has dozens of nuclear sites (reactors, enrichment sites, isotope separation plants and research facilities) many of them hardened from attack and/or buried underground behind formidable concrete walls. Some are even located in or near populated centers. Thus the possibility of destroying the program is little more than a pipe dream.

However, it is theoretically possible to buy some extra time by destroying key parts within the Iranian nuclear supply chain. By doing so, Israel (and the West) would possibly gain a few more years – perhaps as little as a year and a half – towards a hoped-for regime change in Iran. What with low crude oil prices exerting increasingly strenuous forces upon the current Iranian regime, there is a greater likelihood of such change appearing than there was in the past decade or so. The Iranian economy is extremely dependent upon its export-driven oil and gas economy with Iran producing around 3 million barrels a day, making it the second largest OPEC producer.

If crude oil prices remain low ($40-50 p/b) it is possible that over time a regime change will occur, but it is not certain that such change will take place (if at all) before Iran succeeds in building its first few weaponized nuclear devices.

So where does this leave the present Israeli government run by PM Netanyahu? Israel and its allies have employed numerous tools from their impressive toolbox – many of them possessing unique and at the same time, Pandora Box-like qualities. Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame were the first manifestations of state-sponsored targeted computer viruses (STCV) to be used against specific countries as well as specific industries, with the intention of delaying the Iranian nuclear program and gaining insight thereto. So amongst the many assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and mysterious explosions at related facilities, when Israel together with the USA, and Great Britain to a lesser degree, let upon the world the first STCV they actually let the genie out of the proverbial bottle by inadvertently sanctioning a new form of warfare much like the advent of the tank in WWI or the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) firing a missile in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Ironically, North Korea, possibly with Iranian assistance, also successfully employed an STCV against the Sony Corporation exposing many trade secrets, as well as seriously embarrassing the company. Yet an even earlier example is the robust STCV that was launched in 2012 against the Saudi Aramco company, one of the largest companies in the world. It was believed that the attack was initiated by Iran and that Iran had acquired the budding expertise in STCVs from analyzing and developing defenses learned from…the Stuxnet STCV.

Iran has since been testing the defenses of other US based companies and government agencies for weaknesses to STCVs and is listed by US government agencies as being one of the leading STCV countries threatening the US (along with China and North Korea).

Regarding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) it may surprise many to know that Israel is the unofficial inventor of the modern day unarmed drone. In fact, the UAV market which is valued at around $90 billion a year, is led by US and Israeli companies. Israel pioneered the military UAV market with the aptly named Pioneer, which was a small (200kg) reconnaissance drone with a tiny piston engine that was first fielded, in its earlier form, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israeli drones have developed along similar lines, invariably they are piston driven and while their size and payload has increased they are still relegated to the lower tier of the market. UAVs are classified by their payload, endurance and attainable altitude. The smaller UAVs are used mostly for tactical reconnaissance on the battlefield, closing the gap between ‘sensor and shooter’ and are commonly integrated amongst the actual ground forces operating in the theatre. While medium-sized drones can fly longer with a heavier payload and can even be armed, they are still mostly tactical in nature. The small and medium UAV market is dominated by Israeli companies (Elbit and IAI, in particular) and although Israel’s largest drone, the IAI Heron TP, can stay aloft for more than 72 hours, like all the other Israeli drones it is powered by a propeller-driven engine and has no real offensive role. While Israel has extensively used armed UCAVs of the smaller variety to carry out what are essentially small tactical strikes, often involving a single vehicle or house they have nothing in their arsenal that would amount to a large UCAV with a capable strategic strike capacity.

The USA on the other hand has taken the ‘higher road’ of developing larger drones, which have a heavier payload and greater reach. These drones are known as HALE UAVs for High Altitude, Long Endurance. The Global Hawk UAV can circumnavigate the globe on a single flight and can cruise at 60,000 feet. More impressive are the newer drones being developed by leading US defense companies, which are much faster, larger and stealthier. They would be the most lethal UCAVs ever developed and would certainly possess a serious strike capacity. It is clear that instead of manned bomber airplanes, the future is rapidly evolving toward UCAVs. In fact, the new F-35 fighter airplane, which is still being developed and won’t enter service until later next year will probably be the last manned fighter jet developed by the US.

A HALE UCAV capable of stealthily covering great distances (say to Iran and back) would ideally be at the top of Israel’s wish list. So where is Israel on developing these future fighters? Well, that is the million-dollar question. There are rumors that Israel has been developing a HALE for many years now but Israel has been suspiciously silent on the issue.

Is it possible that Israel has developed such a HALE UCAV? And if so, would Israel debut the new HALE UCAV on a secret mission to destroy key Iranian nuclear sites? An attack led by HALE UCAVs would be ideal for Israel because it would risk no Israeli servicemen or servicewomen; there is a greater degree of deniability for unknown aircraft with no identifying markings (if any fail to complete the mission); UCAVs could pull off aerial maneuvers that manned flights simply cannot (due to the limited G forces that pilots can withstand); UCAVs can employ ‘swarm technology’ whereby a lost unit on a particular mission can automatically be replaced by a redundant unit on a different mission belonging to the same group; and human error is much less a factor.

With the current P5+1 nuclear talks between the US and Iran coalescing into a politically expedient agreement for both parties while failing to address those local interests closely affected by the Iranian nuclear program, much to the chagrin of the Sunni-dominated Arab world and Israel, it is clear that now more than ever an Israeli government led by PM Netanyahu may be more inclined to carry out a daring and risky operation to set back Iran’s nuclear program perhaps by employing a yet newer form of warfare like multiple swarming UCAVs or a combination of UCAVs and manned fighter aircraft not because of local Israeli politicking but because PM Netanyahu may feel – much like PM Menachem Begin felt before ordering the Osirak attack a few weeks before the then elections – that the ‘dirty deed’ needs to be carried out and his successor may not have the stomach or wherewithal to launch such a daring operation.

Thus, while an imminent Israeli ‘Hail Mary’ attack is not certain, the chances of it presently occurring have probably never been higher than they are now.

About the Author
Originally from New Jersey, Isaac has lived for many years in the UK, Australia and Israel. He trained and worked as an Israeli lawyer but currently runs a legal translation business based in Tel Aviv. He holds a master's degree from King's College London and has spent a lifetime trying to better understand how history develops in this corner of the world.
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