Buzzing Iran

He was at the Pentagon when it was hit on 9/11, and later headed the USAF. A conversation with Michael Moseley, who helped run America's aerial war over Iraq and Afghanistan, about what might be involved in taking on the Islamic Republic

A fine September morning welcomed U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Wald when he arrived at the Pentagon, where he had come from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina to continue his transition talks with a colleague, Maj. Gen Michael Moseley. Wald's nickname was Chuck. Moseley was known to his friends as Buzz, in the flyboy tradition of the comic strip hero Buz Sawyer, astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Buzz Lightyear in the Disney-Pixar film "Toy Story."

In two months, Wald was to advance to four-star rank as the deputy commander (and de-facto chief ) of the U.S. European Command, which has jurisdiction over Israel, too. Moseley, the air force's congressional liaison, would get his third star in the job Wald held, leading Central Command's air forces (CENTAF ) and the 9th Air Force, headquartered at Shaw. In that capacity, he would in contingencies come under U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks of CENTCOM. But no such contingency was foreseen, though it was generally known that President George W. Bush was spoiling for a re-run of 1991 with Saddam Hussein.

But it was September 11, 2001, and at 9:37 that morning the world turned upside down. The Pentagon's sturdy premises shook, and smoke rose from the section of the giant structure that had been struck by a Boeing 757 - American Airlines Flight 77, en route from Washington Dulles airport to Los Angeles. The jet had been commandeered by five hijackers who killed themselves, the 64 passengers and crew aboard, together with 125 military personnel and civilians within the Pentagon.

At that very moment, the job of CENTAF chief became all-important, and in short order Moseley was to successfully supervise two air wars, for which he was rewarded with an appointment as USAF chief of staff, a position he held from 2005 to 2008.

Wald and Moseley were in Israel last week for a seminar held by the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, an Israeli organization that advocates the strategic benefits of air and missile power. Both are retired now, but they have not set aside their insights, lessons learned and prescriptions.

Wald has gone public with his reasoned conviction that "there is a military option on Iran," contrary to the fears voiced by commentators who warn that bombing Iranian nuclear facilities could only be partially effective, with the ultimate costs outweighing the benefits. In a conversation with Haaretz at the Fisher Institute's Herzliya office, Moseley was more cryptic, not wishing to appear as being either for or against an American or Israeli operation, but his message did come through. Or so it seems.

Gen. Moseley is an expert on the promises and limitations of airpower, from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond, perhaps including Iran, though he would rather speak "generically," as if Serbia and Kosovo, Mogadishu and the Asian wars have a common denominator. Some of the work could be done from the air, some must be done from the ground, and in any event, it is better done by a superpower leading a coalition. Based on the two Iraq wars, plus Afghanistan, one also infers from him that for political and diplomatic reasons, a major provocation - even an outrageous event - must precede a major allied aerial offensive or invasion.

"When we began [planning after 9/11] we sat in a room, looked at a map of Afghanistan, and essentially said, Wow! How do we overthrow the Taliban regime, which helped Al-Qaida kill 3,000? It's a very long way to get there. How do we do this, and sustain the operations, and in a way that leaves people there, children, better off for their future?"

In a term used aboard the U.S. Navy's aircraft carriers, whose air wings also came under Moseley for the fight, he was the "Air Boss." He also had some Marine and army aviation, along with help from NATO - British, French, Dutch, Spanish, several Gulf countries, "and various players who still don't want to be named."

Landlocked Afghanistan "is a big place, remote, 600 miles from targets inside it to the [carriers in] the North Arabian Sea or [a base in] Kyrgyzstan. From the island of Diego Garcia, it's the same distance as from Tampa, Florida, to Alaska - and back, of course." If Afghanistan is "huge," military-wise, Iran is even larger - two and a half times larger. This can work to the benefit of the attacker or the defender, depending on their preparations, some of which start years, even decades, before.

"Organize, Equip, Train": These are the tenets that to Moseley's mind enable the U.S. Air Force, as well as Israel's, to excel. He should know, having served at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, where Red Flag exercises take place, which include "going over all combinations and permutations" in advance of the real deal.

Then there was Iraq, which can also serve as "a model template" for Iran, should one wish to simulate an operation. In the '90s, Moseley took part in enforcing the no-fly zones imposed by the U.S. and its allies on Saddam Hussein - "to protect innocents and villages" fearing his retribution following the 1991 war. The northern part of that operation, an air patrol umbrella over the Kurds, was mostly flown out of Turkey, which from 2003 on, under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was to turn a cold shoulder toward the West. In southern Iraq, too, Shi'ites were protected by coalition airpower.

Can one apply this technique to a post-war Iran? Only with caveats. In Iraq, there were UN resolutions, after a war supported by the likes of Syria and Egypt. The airstrikes were aimed at certain overt activities. And they were not risk-free. The aircraft and their crews came under fire, although none - Moseley retroactively knocks on wood - were lost.

In the run-up to 2003, Moseley secretly ran Operation Southern Focus, aimed at degrading Iraq's command-and-control and air-defense infrastructures. If anyone is now conducting a similar exercise vis-a-vis Iran in a clandestine way, by cyber-methods or by sabotage, it may be known only after a war.

Moseley teamed with CENTCOM's Franks and land forces chief David McKiernan to plan Operation Iraqi Freedom. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld and felt no loyalty to the victorious generals, would later ease out both McKiernan (as Afghanistan commander ) and Moseley (as USAF chief ).

Moseley is an articulate and nuanced proponent of airpower. It is best used, he says, "to deter and dissuade" an enemy, and should that enemy threaten or actually mobilize forces and a political decision has been made, the air force (joined, if desired, by naval aviation ) is the weapon of choice for instilling "strategic and operational paralysis." In Iraq, this meant hitting the regime, separating it from its main formations in the field and weakening the eight presumably elite divisions of the Republican and Special Republican Guard. The army and Marines, meanwhile, "are excellent for tactical effects."

One important lesson of Iraq, which brings Iran to mind, is that the decision to go to war was Saddam's (for the future one may read Khamenei ). Had he acted otherwise, the political decision-makers in Washington would have reacted in another, non-warlike fashion. As for the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction - in this case, chemical and biological - it was no idle speculation. Planning and execution alike took the possibility extremely seriously. Moseley's air and ground crews prepared "for a couple of weeks in chemical suits." They were cumbersome and hot, especially as temperatures rose in the Gulf - but better hot and alive than cool and dead.

On Iran, "any decision will have to be political, by the president or your prime minister or whomever." Moseley was privy to discussions at the highest level as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listening and contributing to exchanges involving Bush, vice president Dick Cheney and other officials. He is now "one and a half years removed," and doesn't have access to the all-important current secret intelligence. However, the profession of using arms, and aircraft, has not changed that much in the interim.

Thus, the points to ponder as one plans an operation, presumably to take nuclear targets out of commission for some three to five years, and stay around for a sanctions or a sort of a no-fly zone regime, are: "Ranges, distances both to the targets and between them, what confidence do you have in the location of the targets, the ability to sustain and regenerate sorties? Are they dispersed, buried, and if so how deep, protected? What is the proximity to population centers, schools? How do you mitigate collateral damage, how many times do you have to go back? Can it be done quickly? How many weapons do you need? What happens after the first day, the second day, the first week, second week, third week, what is the international picture, what is the overall balance? What is the likely scenario?"

The former USAF chief has "the highest regard" for his brothers-in-arms in the Israeli military, most especially in the air force, whom he first got to know as a young pilot. The relationship "is very open and warm, an assumed partnership, [there is] a very strong bond established between our militaries." He values his friendship with current IAF chief Ido Nehoshtan, with his predecessors Dan Halutz and especially Eliezer Shkedy, with whom he met in the past - and now again - several times.

Moseley: "I gave [Shkedy] my handshake, that as long as I'm chief I'll make the relationship good, will exchange pilots, maintenance officers and senior NCOs, have school slots for the IAF. We have a special relationship with several countries around the world. Israel is certainly one of them."

Moseley clashed with his second boss, Gates, over several issues. One had to do with Gates' fondness for unmanned combat air vehicles, with Moseley playing the role of the out-of-date fighter jock. Isn't he nicknamed Buzz, after all?

Gates dumped Moseley and brought in Norton A. Schwartz, the first Jewish air force chief (the Navy had one in the '90s ), a transport pilot. Did that decision have anything to do with envy by a non-flying junior intelligence officer (something Gates was in the air force in the mid-'60s ) vis-a-vis an old pilot? "You've done your homework," is all Moseley would say.

He believes the manned versus unmanned argument was oversimplified. "The emotions are not clinical. This is not technology-driven." Curiously, no one suggests fielding unmanned ships, submarines, tanks, artillery or trucks. The manpower savings in unmanned aviation are illusory, in Moseley's view, as except for the pilot all others around the system remain, and the pilot now flies the UCAV from afar.

"I am a big fan of unmanned. As 57th Wing commander, I was the first to operate them. I hung bombs on them, missiles on them. I've got the T-shirt. Okay, here's the bottom line from the man who used them: There are only two reasons to prefer unmanned over manned; One is a threat so severe you're afraid to lose much of your force. There has never been a threat we could not penetrate. The more important factor is persistence. We are indeed limited by the pilots' endurance, for instance in the U-2 plane, where they wear space suits and must land after 11 to 12 hours, while the unmanned Global Hawk can fly for 24. Down the road, we may marry manned and unmanned. We're not there yet."

Which brings Moseley to the crucial decision facing Israel regarding a fifth-generation fighter, namely the up-and-coming F-35, to replace the current F-15 and F-16. The F-35 it must be, since the only other "fifth gen," the F-22, is too expensive and has no export version. Air forces, over and above the other services, need a technological edge to fulfill their missions - "to deter and dissuade" opponents, so as to avoid the costly climb up the "escalation ladder" and, should they be unfazed by this swift and terrible sword, to operate within their airspace, achieve that strategic paralysis by rendering their capability inoperative and break their will to go on fighting.

For that, a fourth-generation fighter, such as an F-15 or F-16, will no longer do, because the adversary is "a check away" from buying anti-air missiles and radars off-the-shelf. And for certain countries and organizations, money's no object.

At 60, with a solid career behind him - though one that ended on a sour note - Buzz Moseley does not sound vindictive. His beloved F-15, which the Israel Air Force by coincidence nicknamed "Buzz", is flown by his son-in-law, while his son flies the F-22. The air force is really his family. It is not for him to indicate in a foreign country that he wishes for certain personnel changes at the top of the Pentagon. "Sure, a change in person or in perspective could have an effect" on policy, he says, for instance on Iran.

One presumes that after the November mid-term elections, when Gates gets to the four-year mark, the Obama administration could be in for some interesting times.