As the battle of both words and deeds heats up between Iran and the west, some experts have begun to question whether Israel even truly has the capability to effectively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. A recent assessment by American defense officials, for example, outlined the difficulties that Israel’s air force would have in conducting an attack on Iran. Other analysts have claimed that Israel is creating a disinformation campaign about its capabilities in order to deter its adversaries. The truth, however, is that Israeli ingenuity has proven itself time and again, with Israel’s enemies consistently regretting when they have underestimated Israeli military capabilities.
As far back as Israel’s war of independence in 1948, when Arab armies invaded the same day the nascent Jewish state was born, Israelis proved their ingenuity and resolve in the face of overwhelming odds. Ben Gurion himself was told that Israel had about a 50/50 chance of being victorious. Yet with their backs against the wall, the Israeli military proved itself to be a capable and lethal force. In 1948, much like 1967 and 1973, Israel did not have the technological superiority over its neighbors as it enjoys today. During the 1967 Six Day War, as enemy troops were amassed on its borders and international waterways were sealed off to Israeli shipping, nobody would have predicted such an overwhelming victory in six short days. During its initial air strike back in June of 1967, the Israel Air Force took the calculated risk of deploying nearly its entire fleet of aircraft to preemptively attack Egypt and later Syria, leaving less than a dozen planes to protect its airspace.
Conventional wars alone were not the only time Israelis beat the odds. While analysts have gone to great lengths in explaining that Iran’s nuclear facilities today are nothing like Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor that was destroyed in an Israeli raid back in 1981, they fail to appreciate the enormous feat accomplished over 30 years ago. Back then, Israel had to develop what had been unknown or unavailable capabilities to strike at an enemy seemingly too far from its borders. It did so successfully, as it had in the 1976 hostage rescue in Entebbe, as well as the bombing of the seemingly out-of-reach PLO headquarters in Tunis in 1985.
Yet it is not just distance that the Israelis have managed to overcome, but tactics and technologies as well. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel was faced with a very effective surface-to-air-missile (SAM) umbrella developed by the Soviets and employed on the Egyptian border. In a few short weeks the IDF developed new tactics, doctrine and technologies to overcome these defenses. During the 1982 air battle over the Bekaa Valley, Israel used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to pick apart and destroy the vast SAM sites that the Syrians had put into play, pioneering the role and significance of the drone aircraft. In 2007, the Israel Air Force again managed to overcome technological difficulties, as it hacked and shut down the sophisticated and “impenetrable” Tor-M1 missile system that the Syrians had purchased from Russia.
There is no doubt that an attack on Iran would be unprecedented in the level of sophistication, planning, and sheer cunning that it would require. Yet if the order was given to the IDF to attack Iran’s nuclear program, more than a few surprises would emerge. Even a surgical strike would see the use of limited, if covert ground forces that would operate in conjunction with the air force. If history is a good indicator, the traditional flight paths being considered by military analysts would not be the only ones used by Israel, and Israeli technologies in the form of UAVs, extended fuel pods for attack aircraft, jamming devices, satellites, computer viruses, and naval forces, would all operate at once to inflict and assess damage on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Although a level of uncertainty regarding a potential Israeli strike on Iran remains, it would be prudent to remember that when it comes to carrying out its mission: never underestimate Israeli ingenuity.
Dr. Joshua Gleis is an international security consultant and political risk analyst. He is the author of Withdrawing Under Fire: Lessons Learned from Islamist Insurgencies (Potomac Books, March 2011), and co-author of Hezbollah and Hamas: A Comparative Analysis (Johns Hopkins University Press, Fall 2012).