by David Harris
JERUSALEM, Nov. 23 (Xinhua) -- Iran's military is staging five days of exercises this week in an attempt to test its defenses, particularly around its nuclear installations. Amongst other issues, it is trying to establish, in the eyes of analysts, whether it could survive any strike by Israel.
Israel and the United States have consistently refused to rule out the possibility of military strikes against Iran over its refusal to halt its nuclear program. While Iran has said on numerous occasions that if it is attacked by Israel or the United States it will destroy the Israeli city of Tel Aviv.
These bring suppositions being made about how the two sides would act in the event of warfare.
DEFINING THE SCENARIO
The war game will cover about 600,000 square kilometers of central, western and southern parts of Iran, Iran's state television reported, adding that both the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iran's regular armed forces will participate in the exercises dubbed "Asemane Velayat 2."
Brigadier General Ahmad Miqani, head of the air-defense headquarters of Iran's armed forces, said Saturday that the maneuver is aimed at developing the country's aerial defense against any potential attacks -- especially on the country's nuclear plants.
During the practice "we will experience an authentic war situation and we will harness all our defensive facilities and the systems for an electronic war," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted IRGC's air force commander Amir-Ali Hajizadeh as saying, where he mentioned the possible offensive on Iran by Israel.
However, what follows is pure speculation, with the analysts stressing that their guesswork is based on what information is currently available on the Israeli and Iranian militaries.
The analysts who spoke with Xinhua do not suggest the Iranians would launch a pre-emptive strike, but rather assume that if there were to be military action it would be an Israeli attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities.
The war scenario as it unfolds below is the combination of the thoughts of Francis Tusa, the editor of the London-based newsletter Defense Analysis and Barbara Opall-Rome, the Israel bureau chief for Defense News.
An Israeli attack on Iran would be led by the Israel Air Force, with backing from the Israel Navy and potentially with additional fire power supplied by ground-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles, according to analysts.
The target bank is constantly being updated by Israel's military intelligence staff and the military believes it is very much on top of its game, as opposed to its 2006 war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, where there were clear disagreements between the soldiers and the politicians as to the best way to fight against the enemy.
"The Israel Defense Forces is very confident that if called by the political leadership to respond militarily they could do so," said Opall-Rome.
The working assumption is that Israel would have to hit multiple targets, presumably at roughly the same time. The sites, that would have to be taken out, number anywhere from six, according to Tusa, up to two dozen in Opall-Rome's estimate.
In terms of aircraft required, for every one strike fighter jet at least two more, or even three, would be needed to deal with Iranian military defenses, including aircraft, missiles, radar, ground forces and military headquarters.
Even then, Tusa does not believe Israel would have sufficient strike power. In his opinion, Israel could not commit all of its aircraft to Iran, and it would have to retain some at home in the event that Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the south and even Syria to the northeast were to attack Israel in retaliation to its strikes against Iran.
Tusa also wonders whether Israel lacks the refueling aircraft necessary for such a mission. One solution would be for aircraft to take with them larger long-range supplies of fuel, but that would mean a reduction in the size of their attack payload. Another factor to be taken on board is whether Israel would be granted permission to fly over Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states, to dramatically reduce the flight time required to reach Iran and return home.
Given that Israel's airpower may be insufficient, it would therefore also have to rely, for example, on cruise missiles fired from the sea. It has been reported that Israeli submarines have been investigating waters close to Iran. These missiles would most likely not be used to hit underground nuclear facilities but rather to destroy Iranian ground defenses.
Israel could also consider deploying ground forces but they would have to be in situ for several weeks, if not months, beforehand to prepare for any strike, said Opall-Rome.
Another option available to Israel is its own nuclear arsenal, something it will not confirm exists, but whose existence is internationally agreed. Tusa thinks it highly unlikely Israel would use nuclear weapons in an initial strike.
What Israel would have to be certain of is its ability not to damage Iran's nuclear capabilities but to destroy them. Merely taking down power lines, for instance, would achieve little.
IRAN BEFORE AND AFTER S-300s
Iran has been preparing for Israeli or other foreign attacks for some time now and, according to Tusa, has been talking with other states that have been attacked by the West about their experiences.
Iran's most obvious response to any airborne attack, including missiles fired from sea, would be with aircraft and missiles.
It is assumed that Iran's air force pilots are not in the same league as their Israeli counterparts. "I think you'll have the Israel Air Force pilots queuing up to be the guys to do the air-superiority role because they would end up being combat aces in the first three minutes," said Tusa.
If Iran has done its preparation work properly it will also adopt deception techniques, analysts suggest. One example would be by creating dummy nuclear sites with lots of activity that would be picked up by Israeli radar. It would require the installation of large blast doors in a hillside and trucks arriving and departing from the site. Israeli aircraft would then waste their weaponry attacking such non-existent facilities.
Israel remains confident of its capabilities as the military balance stands today. However it is concerned that the potential delivery of Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missiles could make the guarantee of success that bit smaller. The S-300s are used to defend against aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles.
"They make Patriots look pretty old fashioned. The radars are incredibly powerful and agile. They are very difficult to jam and once there's engagement you are talking about simultaneously guided surface-to-air missiles," said Tusa.
However, for the time being Iran has not taken receipt of the S-300s. As it stands, the analysts believe the question of the success of an Israeli attack depends more on Israel's capabilities than Iran's defenses.
There is one additional factor though. Iran could call on its regional allies, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas to attack Israel at home. While their combined prowess would not normally be much of a challenge to Israel, if its focus was entirely on Iran, it could suffer serious damage before coming to terms with the new front, analysts suggest.
While Opall-Rome does not believe Iran could successfully thwart an Israeli attack, she does see psychological warfare coming into play. If the Iranians were to down a single Israeli plane, even an unmanned drone, or capture just one Israeli pilot and display, that would be a "devastating blow" to Israeli moral and public opinion.
All of this guesswork is trying to extrapolate what might happen if Israel decided to attack Iran. However, as war planners are sitting in bunkers in Tel Aviv, Tehran and elsewhere doing precisely the same thing, Opall-Rome believes both Israel and Iran are very wrong to be conducting highly-publicized military exercises.
"This is just more of the psychological operation that both sides are irresponsibly waging to deflect serious attention from the type of negotiations that need to be done, it's getting out of control," she said.
Tusa does not believe it is beyond the realms of possibility that Israel will attack Iran, especially if Israel feels its back is against the wall in the international arena.
Israel fears that when Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks of wiping Israel off the world map he is not joking. When he adds messianic messages in to mix it only increases the concern amongst Israel's decision-makers that Iran has or will very soon have nuclear weapons, said Tusa.
Israel, the United States and some other countries have accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear program. Iran has denied the charges and insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.