Tensions are going into overdrive between Israel, Iran and the US, and Tehran has been creeping closer to a nuclear weapon since it started violating the 2015 nuclear deal in May 2019.
If “judgment day” comes in late 2020, and Israel believes it must preemptively strike the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities to prevent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from having nuclear weapons, will it be able to effectively do so alone?
Or would Israel need either direct US involvement or at least a transfer of key US weaponry that Israel still does not possess?
As of late 2016, and likely at least until Israel’s F-35 aircraft became operational in December 2017, Israel did not have a full answer to striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
A survey of top Israeli officials and some US officials by The Jerusalem Post about how far Israel’s capabilities have advanced by 2020 did not give a definite answer – though at the very least there are question marks about what Israel can do going it alone.
As of late 2016, former prime minister Ehud Barak was still criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to get “bunker buster” bombs from the US, which would enable an Israeli solo attack on Iran’s key underground nuclear facility of Fordow.
In 2020, bunker busters can actually mean a range of options: from the US’s Massive Ordinance Penetrator “MOP,” to its Mother of All Bombs “MOAB,” to variations of those weapons.
But the bottom line is that these weapons can be effective at destroying facilities that are deep underground like Fordow, which if not destroyed puts into question the effectiveness of a strike.
Since its F-35 aircraft became operational in late 2017, Israel has publicly presented new weapons, such as the Rampage (1,200 pounds) and updated Spice bombs (2,000 pounds), both of which can penetrate some underground facilities. Another weapon that can strike underground is known as the Rocks, but its weight class is undisclosed.
The Post has also been told in the past that Israel may have upgraded other kinds of weaponry to be able to destroy underground facilities.
A top Lockheed Martin official told the Post in mid-2019 that the F-35 can carry about 18,000 pounds of ordinance, including multiple 5,000-pound-class weapons.
Israel Aerospace Industries’ Rampage missile, which can penetrate underground compounds, can be carried and unleashed not only by the F-35, but also by the F-16 and F-15.
Is that enough?
The MOP and MOAB weapons weigh between 21,000 to 30,000 pounds.
Based on public pronouncements, the F-35 could not carry these bunker busters. The US can use B-52s or B-2s, which Israel does not possess.
The question then becomes whether a 5,000-pound or similar weapon referred to by Lockheed Martin, or possibly multiple coordinated uses of that bomb, or a rampage missile or spice bomb, would be enough to destroy Fordow.
Neither the US administration nor the IDF were willing to officially comment on these issues.
Top current or former officials who have commented on the issue mostly implied Israel still does not possess the capability to strike Fordow on its own. But some surprisingly said the opposite.
Those who disagreed with conventional wisdom said Israel has so significantly upgraded its capabilities that it could potentially strike Fordow even without US bunker busters.
Alternatively, following the US strike on Iranian-affiliated militias in Syria and Iraq earlier this week, some top officials expressed greater optimism that the US would participate with Israel in such a preemptive strike, including using its bunker busters.
Netanyahu’s most recent former national security council chief, Yaakov Nagel, told the Post this week that Israel must be ready to guarantee on its own Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, but that the US and the EU should assist, as they are equally threatened.
Asked if he believed the US would participate with Israel if a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities was eventually needed, he expressed qualified optimism.
Sources close to Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, who is close to and in regular touch with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have recently told the Post it is likely that if the cards were down, the US might assist Israel with such a preemptive strike.
In contrast, former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has regularly said the US likely would not help Israel with such a preemptive strike.
In a series of tweets this week following US President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Iranian-backed militias, Yadlin said though the attack might represent a shift it just as well might be a one-off and Israel still must be ready to guarantee its own safety.
Likewise, former national security council chief Yaakov Amidror told the Post this week he is not sure whether the US would assist with such a preemptive strike, even following the US strike on Iranian-backed militias.
Prior to this week, Amidror had said US hesitancy to act after several Iranian shows of force proved that Israel was on its own with any potential preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
This week, Amidror said he would welcome if the US strike was a sign of a major shift toward the US being ready to use force against Iran, but Israel must still be ready to act alone and could not necessarily rely on Trump to solve the nuclear issue.
Asked why the US has not provided Israel publicly with bunker busters to deter Tehran and to get itself off the hook from having to strike Fordow, Amidror said he did not know.
Former Mossad director Danny Yatom, who has previously called on the Trump administration to give Israel bunker busters, also said he did not know why this had not occurred.
In late 2017, CIA director Michael Hayden told the Post he would likely support giving Israel bunker busters to deter Iran and to calm Jerusalem, even though he had not supported this in the past.
Although the US defense establishment was skeptical about giving Israel bunker busters prior to the Trump era, since Trump has tried so hard to satisfy many Israeli requests, it is surprising that he has not made a point to give Israel these bombs. Once again, giving Israel these bombs could also give the US an out from having to take action itself.
It is unknown whether Trump has withheld the weapons because he shares the traditional US fear that Israel might act against Iran before the US believed it was necessary, or whether it is because Israel is closer to its own capability.
While there is a presumption that Netanyahu would seek to strike Iranian nuclear facilities before Khamenei has operational nuclear weapons, the Blue and White party, which may be running the country later in 2020, has less of a track record.
A careful review, however, of Benny Gantz’s speeches, at a conference in Munich and before the Jewish Agency, indicate that he also would not accept a nuclear Iran.
His speeches indicate he is highly familiar with the Iranian threat from his time as IDF chief until 2014, and he believes the IDF can deal with every possible threat or scenario.
Like Netanyahu, he would prefer a diplomatic resolution of the issue, but he would say he is ready for Israel to go solo if needed.
Gantz would not comment specifically about whether Israel currently has the capability to destroy Fordow.
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said: “The US, just like Israel, has the absolute right to defend itself against Iran’s aggression in the region and further afield. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our closest strategic ally.”
“Whatever happens in the region, Israel will always maintain the right and ability to protect itself by itself,” he said. “That includes the option of taking military steps against Iran’s nuclear facilities,”
Israel may be closer to a bunker-buster-type capability than in the past and there is cautious optimism that the US might assist in a preemptive strike. But even going into 2020, there are more question marks than answers.
Anna Ahronheim contributed to this report.
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