Israel is ramping up preparations for a military option that would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon in case the nuclear talks between Tehran and world powers lead to the signing of a “bad deal.” These preparations include an expanded target bank, increased training and the purchase of advanced equipment. However, the security establishment understands that it will be years until such an option is realistic.
Furthermore, professionals engaged in preparation for military action against Iran believe that even in a scenario where Israel attacks all sites relevant to the nuclear program, the Iranians will eventually be able to reconstruct their knowledge capabilities. Therefore, the military brass has explained to the country's political echelon that any military action should be carried out so that Iran cannot reconstitute its nuclear program. Or as a security source recently put it: “It has to be like an arrow through the heart of the program.”
According to estimates by Israeli intelligence agencies, Iran has made a major leap in its ability to reach 90 percent uranium enrichment, the level required for nuclear weapons production. (Tehran has thus far announced reaching enrichment levels of 60 percent.) In a scenario where it reaches such a level, security officials have estimated that Iran would be able to produce enough uranium for one bomb within a month and a half. But even in such a scenario, it would likely be two more years before a ready-to-use nuclear weapon is developed.
Preparations for an Israel military strike are not new. The security establishment has been gearing up for the possibility, in one way or another, the past 20 years. However, the Israel Defense Forces and various intelligence agencies have expanded their target bank regarding the Iranian nuclear program in the last two years. “It’s a strategic tool passed on to decision makers that is sitting on the Joint Chief of Staff desk for time of need,” said a security source who addressed the issue recently. Another senior security source added: “The IDF has the military ability to hit Iran’s nuclear sites, but we have to strengthen it and develop it to further circles.”
At a ceremony this week marking the completion of the barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said, “We are improving our defenses in all forms, but we remember that decision in war is achieved through offense. We are fortifying it continuously and significantly, and in the past year toward Iran in particular.” The security establishment maintains that these are not empty statements.
Accordingly, the IDF prepared a training and force-building plan for next year, with an emphasis on “the third circle” – Iran and its nuclear program. The multiple facilities, the distance needed to be traversed for military action, the depth at which the uranium enrichment sites are located and the defenses surrounding them – all of these issues have been known to the security establishment for years, yet recently the pace of preparations has picked up. In recent years Israel has invested vast fortunes in the intelligence and cyber arrays and in developing the air force, expected to be at the forefront of any military strike. Other arms of the IDF have been strengthened as well, as the security establishment understands that any military action will include all facets of Israel's security apparatus, necessitating naval, ground and air preparations. Israel also realizes that military action might be taken in response to several organizations associated with Iran and operating in the Middle East. Thus, the IDF believes that the intensity of combat against Hezbollah and Hamas may be different from what it has encountered in the recent rounds of fighting.
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As part of the preparations, the air force has consolidated a training array which includes remote theaters of action such as Italy, the U.K., and Greece. This, in order to develop launch capabilities from different regions, not necessarily from Israel.
The fact that the air force holds large joint drills and maneuvers with many countries does not necessarily indicate operational cooperation, but it is believed to increase Israel’s legitimacy if it were to act. In recent years, in preparation for a strike, the air force has also purchased advanced weaponry and unique warheads that are supposed to help overcome the difficulties in attacking the nuclear facilities.
The IDF understands that the navy will also have to be deployed in a military strike scenario. Last month, against the backdrop of Iran’s demonstration of force via a widespread naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman, Israel’s navy held exercises in the Red Sea lasting several days. The drills were joined by the American Fifth Fleet, and for the first time by the Bahraini and UAE navies as well. The IDF realizes the importance of this cooperation as well, and to that end the navy has made significant purchases of advanced weapons systems, some of which were developed in Israel, and which allow the IDF to employ new capabilities at long range.
Due to estimates that any action taken against Iran may also lead to confrontation with Hezbollah to Israel's north, Kochavi announced an expansion in ground corps training in the coming year, with the reserve corps in particular. Accordingly, over a billion shekels have been allocated for preparations for fighting in the north, and hundreds of millions have been transferred for purchasing weaponry for the ground forces. Additionally, the IDF is expected to hold some 15 brigade drills and more than double reserve training next year.
After the attack
Kochavi visited Yavniel in the Lower Galilee last month to personally observe a concluding drill by the multidimensional unit (“Refaim”) established during his term and intended to play a major role in case of a conflict in the north. The drill examined innovative methods and tools of war, intended for future widespread integration throughout the IDF, with participation by the air force, intelligence corps, computer services directorate, and all ground forces. The drill included hundreds of reserve forces called up to test the army’s fitness for a conflict with Hezbollah. Kochavi wished to witness each stage of the drill, and at its end the commanders concluded that there was still a long way to go. “We’re here to study the capabilities, to see how to correctly deploy them,” said a senior commander. “Every battalion and platoon commander seeing these capabilities needs to know that if called upon to fight in the near future, they have enough means and capabilities even without those developed by the Refaim unit.”
Some in the security establishment believe that despite all the IDF’s plans and training sessions, there is still some uncertainty about how. “We have good abilities today to attack the Iranian nuclear program,” says a former senior security figure familiar with the training details. “The problem is how do you go to war, if one is forced on us following the attack. We’re in an open, low-grade conflict with Iran. This means we need to understand and define the transition to a state of war, and it’s not certain that this is clear to all relevant actors.”