Sending MOPs and Bombers to Israel: Big Mistake

INDIAN SPRINGS AIR FORCE AUXILIARY FIELD, Nev. - A B-1 Lancer performs a fly-by during a firepower demonstration here recently. The bomber is from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Robert W. Valenca)

by Robert Farley 

Over the past week, the failure of the opponents of the Iran nuclear deal to kill it in Congress has become a foregone conclusion. With that in mind, advocates of war with Iran have adopted a new idea: giving Israel the means to attack Iran on its own, without US assistance. The thinking goes that the Israelis, unhindered by Obama’s fecklessness, will have the wherewithal to do what needs to be done. One of the first sightings of the idea came in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year, when retired Air Force General David Deptula (along with Michael Makovsky) suggested improving Israel’s deterrent capability by transferring B-52s to the air force of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

In recent days, the idea has proliferated. A Washington Post op-ed by Dennis Ross and David Petraeus on August 25 reiterated Deptula’s proposal. Walter Reich, former director of the US Holocaust Museum, recommended that President Obama guarantee Israeli access to Massive Ordnance Penetrators (MOPs) and the means of delivering them. In an open letter to undecided legislators, Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy listed transfer of the MOP as part of a series of conditions for supporting Israel in the wake of a deal. Thus far, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) are the only Senate Democrats who have come out in favor of transferring the weapons.

But make no mistake: transferring strategic bombers to Israel is not a good idea. The idea is so terrible that, coming from Deptula, it verged on professional misconduct. Politicians have different requirements, and the fact that the idea is bad for relatively complex reasons means that they have the opportunity to display their pro-Israel credentials, whether as a means of deflecting criticism over support of the Iran deal (most Democrats), or bashing Democrats (most Republicans). But here’s a rundown of what it would mean to send bombers to Israel, and why it would be a bad idea.

MOPs and the Planes that Carry Them

Theoretically, the availability of heavy bombers carrying MOPs gives Israel the ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own, without US assistance. Most analysts agree that the IDF has the capacity to defeat Iran’s air defense network and hit its nuclear sites hard. Some of these sites, however, are buried so deeply that only a MOP could guarantee destruction.

MOPs are very large bombs and require very large aircraft to carry them. The IDF has specialized in multi-role fighter-bombers, such as the F-15 and F-16. These aircraft can (with inflight refueling) reach Iran, but they can’t carry MOPs.

Thus, we would have to give Israel big planes to carry the big bombs. Deptula recommended transferring older B-52 Stratofortresses (or “BUFF,” of which we have a huge surplus at the Boneyard). But some of the more recent commentators have suggested B-1B Lancers (more commonly known as the “Bone”). Both the B-52 and B-1B were designed, during the Cold War, to deliver nuclear payloads to the Soviet Union, but the Bone is a more modern design with much higher speed.

Neither the B-1B nor the B-52 is certified to carry an MOP. Only the B-2 Spirit can do that. However, with sufficient modification (reconfiguring the main weapons bay so that an MOP could be carried), a B-1B could probably make do. However, doing this might run afoul of some of the agreements that the United States has with Russia, which include prohibitions on the export of nuclear-capable strategic bombers and limitations on the reconfiguration and modification of the B-1B specifically. The United States could possibly circumvent this restriction by having the modifications made after transfer.

The B-1B has a couple of advantages over the B-52. As noted, export of B-1Bs modified for conventional missions is not technically illegal under the terms of the START treaty. Second, the Lancer is probably more survivable in contested airspace than the B-52. Assuming a concerted suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) campaign, the B-1B can get in and out of the target area more quickly than the B-52, reducing its vulnerability to Iranian defenses. That said, the B-1B is not a stealth aircraft and would not survive on its own against an active and alert air defense network.

Thus the Israelis would need to send several aircraft in order to ensure a successful strike, especially given that many analysts believe that the deepest Iranian targets will require multiple MOPs, in succession, to destroy. A 2009 study estimated that an Iranian air defense network equipped with the S-300 surface-to-air missile system (which the Iranians will have before the Israelis ever get any B-1Bs) could cause up to 30% attrition of an Israeli strike package. To hedge against misses, breakdowns, and shootdowns, the Israelis would require a significant B-1B force (some off-the-cuff calculations suggest 8-10 aircraft) in order to generate a high level of confidence in a successful attack. And to carry out the strike, the Israelis would need to accept a level of risk to their bombers that the US hasn’t been willing to accept since December 1972.

US Domestic Politics

Fortunately, the Israelis are much smarter than their friends in the United States. The Israeli air force has no history of flying or maintaining large strategic bombers (the last dedicated bomber operated by the IDF was the B-17, retired in the late 1950s). The learning curve to get a fleet of B-1B crews operational and effective would be steep. The larger the Bone force that the IDF would need to take on, the larger the problems it would cause for the rest of the force.

It’s not impossible that the Israelis could find some other use for the Lancers, but keeping them ready for an Iran strike would prove onerous. The Bone is a complex, moody aircraft, and the US Air Force has struggled to maintain a high readiness rate, despite the availability of tremendous resources and a large fleet of aircraft.

Consequently, the key constituency for this idea lies not in Israel, but in the United States. Republican advocates get to insist that they’re doing their best to defend Israel, and get a tool with which to attack recalcitrant Democrats. Democrats, such as Booker and Cardin, get to throw a sop to constituents nervous about the Iran deal.

Given the unlikelihood that Israel would accept the bombers, the entire proposal seems harmless. Some might argue that the United States would suffer no real loss even if Israel took the aircraft and the MOPs. But this is where the situation gets very dangerous. Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal depends on its belief in US (and Israeli) restraint. If Iran believes that it will be attacked whether or not it complies, then it will not comply. And given the heated Israeli criticism of the deal thus far, it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that Iran could conclude that an Israeli strike is inevitable. Consequently, instead of deterring Iran, the transfer of bombers and MOPs to Israel could convince Iran to make a break for it.

Sending strategic bombers to Israel is a bad idea. It’s bad enough that the Israelis probably won’t take them. But it could get even worse if they decided to make a go of it.

Photo: B1b bomber

Robert Farley specializes in security affairs, writing regularly for the Diplomat, the National Interest, and Lawyers, Guns and Money. He teaches at the University of Kentucky and can be found on twitter at @drfarls.

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  1. The American MOPs and Russian S-300 are turning Iran into another chessboard and who would checkmate who is beyond the point given criminality of decades of American foreign policy towards Iran: the outcome of the hateful message the sickening American policy is signalling to millions of Iranians will be the reigniting and ever reverberating ‘Death to America’ backed by unprecedented violence for decades to come.

    The Yanks and Zionists should know the colonial era is dead so is the neo-colonialism and imperialism in proud revolutionary countries like Iran; we buried them with the blood of our loved ones whose sacrifices we proudly cherish and commemorate and mourn every day. The Yanks’ and Zionists’ psychological wars have never earned the American and Israeli public any respect but resentment and hatred. As the Vietnam War and legacy of the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown no military power is capable of overwhelming a nation that is forced to fight with unshakeable ‘hatred’ and ‘integrity’.

    Given the decades of the US war crimes and destabilising policies in the Third World one is bound to conclude the American public has willingly proven to be content to be ruled by psychopaths, no wonder they are again failing or refusing to question the deteriorating mental health of their merchants of blood and ruthless mapmakers who despite their decades of mass murder and war crimes are still popular enjoying immunity before the international criminal court! Once again the well fed/well-dressed American villains are bent on to bring about carnage and ecological disaster. And once again it will not just be a war to expose the fallacy of American clichés such as ‘democracy’ and ‘the free/civilised world’, but a war of total ‘hatred’. 9-11 was a war of hatred, of frustration, born of decades of protest against decades of American intervention in the Muslim world. Yes, it was madness, a crime in defiance of all humanity; it was total hatred. But did the American People wake up to take responsibility for their country? Will ever responsibility, war crimes and crimes against humanity and guilty conscience be essential questions to reflect on as integral parts of American values and civilization?! Will ever the rule of law overcome the power of money and corrupt lobbying? Will sanity ever rule in America to bring peace and dignity to the oppressed people in the Middle East? How many more wars, how many more dead women and children, how many more victims and how many more years, Mr Obama, how many?!

  2. Hi Rob,

    I would like to follow up on a specific point you make that I have a hard time agreeing with but perhaps I just don’t know enough.

    You said

    I think this is a really simplistic claim. Sure, Israel could defeat the Iranian air defense network with a massive all in attack that would almost certainly incur major losses for the Israelis.

    Even the assumption of in air refueling is, I believe, a big assumption unless the Israelis achieve complete strategic surprise with the attack. And without in air refueling SEAD would be almost impossible particularly in the extremely rocket terrain of Iran.

    If you could provide a bit more detail on this point I would greatly appreciate it.

  3. Hi, Brian:

    You posted the following comment:

    ” I think this is a really simplistic claim. Sure, Israel could defeat the Iranian air defense network with a massive all in attack that would almost certainly incur major losses for the Israelis.

    Even the assumption of in air refueling is, I believe, a big assumption unless the Israelis achieve complete strategic surprise with the attack. And without in air refueling SEAD would be almost impossible particularly in the extremely rocket terrain of Iran.

    If you could provide a bit more detail on this point I would greatly appreciate it. ”

    I can’t accept the idea that ” Israel could defeat the Iranian air defense network with a massive all in attack that would almost certainly incur major losses for the Israelis. ”

    In order to put six fighter-bombers over the Iraqi reactor in 1983 (?) Israel had to fly 82 sorties. This target was much closer, and the Iraqi air defenders had switched off their radars and gone to lunch together. In the recent strike on the Syrian reactor (?), the Israelis flew thru Turkish air space and had tricked the Syrian defense system.

    Iran is much further, the main nuclear sites are another 600 miles, 500 miles more over Iran. Turkey, furious over the major Israeli incursion, is spending $4.6 billion on the Chinese version of the S-300 system. Iraq is beginning to get the beginning of an air defense, now getting the first F-16s, many Mi-28 gunships firing Russian A2A missiles, Czech L159 firing Sidewinders, which Iran makes, and reportedly Russian SAM systems and Sukhoi-30 fighters as well. This developing force could not stop an Israeli attack, but could now give early warning and shoot down returning stragglers.

    Syria still has a formidable air defense system, including the 165 mile range Russian S-200, and the amazing MiG-25 fighter; Mach 3.2 flight (Mach 2.83 a safe speed) and a jump altitude of 123,600 feet. Imagine what these could do to the necessary Israeli tankers.

    The only safe route that I can think of is over Saudi Arabia, much longer with multiple refuelings by tanker or landing at Saudi bases; after that the Iranians would be quite reasonable to attack Saudi oil assets and to close the Straits to Saudi oil, conferring about $1-2 billion a day losses on the Saudis and the developed world. There is no way the US could force the Straits open for a month or two. Iran has seven types of anti-ship missiles with longer ranges of 80, 130, and 184 mile ranges, probably numbering over 1000, not including smaller ones with, for example, a 23 mile range. Iran could sink the entire Fifth Fleet in the Gulf in a couple of hours. Iran now has about 35 submarines, all firing an anti-ship missile with an 80 mile range, and a rocket torpedo with an underwater speed of 235 mph.

    And I haven’t even got to the AA defenses, with over 25 different systems, including modern Russian systems, Iranian clones of same, and Iran makes the US-designed Patriot, Standard SM-1, and Hawk SAM systems. The arrival of the S-300. scheduled before the end of the year, would be a game changer. The Iranians even hang the Hawk under the US-supplied F-14 fighter bomber, and fire it as a long range A2A missile, calling it the “Air Hawk”.

    This is just a sampling of the defensive assets.All major nuclear sites are surrounded by over 100 AA sites each; I have studied the marked-up satellite photos of these defenses.

    Israel has bitten off more than it can chew.Iran is 140 times larger (is it 180?), ten times the population, mostly very patriotic and nationalistic, although not all like the regime. Economy twice as large as Israel, and likely to burst open without the sanctions. Enough proven oil reserves to pump oil at the current rate for 130 years, without exploring for new reserves. Largest gas reserves in the world. Only working nuclear power reactor in the Middle East, and now building three more power reactors. Each burns a Russian fuel load costing $100 million, and produces $2.1 billion of electricity.

  4. The B1 in Israelis inventory will be a grate deterrent for Iran to keep its nuclear program
    peaceful .On the contrary, for all those who are against i ask since when has deterrent been a negative?there are many references in history where deterrent has been a force for peace.
    In the event of an iranian run to a bomb , Israelis choices with out a strategic bomber
    Are limited to low yield nuclear strikes, claiming that is all it could do to defend its population form an iranian nuclear bomb. With the B1 Israel has the conventional option.

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