Any U.S. strike might not destroy Iran nuclear sites

Any U.S. attack against Iran could involve thousands of sorties and missile launches lasting weeks, but it still would not eliminate the country’s nuclear program, U.S. military officials and analysts say.

A strike — something the Pentagon insists is not planned — would be hampered by lack of intelligence on the number and location of nuclear facilities dispersed throughout Iran, the analysts said.

And the most sophisticated U.S. “bunker-buster” bombs might be unable to dig deep enough to reach buried, hardened nuclear sites, according to analysts and defense officials.

“It is highly unlikely all the critical sites are known to U.S. and Western intelligence services, so parts of the program would doubtless survive, perhaps even the most critical elements,” said Bruce Riedel, a former National Security Council and Defense Department official, and now a Brookings Institution analyst.

An air strike, raised as the most likely option if any military action were ordered, would at best set Iran’s nuclear program back a few years.

“The people who are most optimistic favor it because they think it will delay, not derail, the Iranian nuclear program,” said Justin Logan, a Cato Institute analyst in Washington.

Many officials and military analysts say a U.S. attack on Iran is unlikely. The U.S. military is stretched thin by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is little international support for it.

U.S. officials consistently stress diplomacy as the best way to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, which the United States and others say Tehran is using to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies the charge, saying it seeks only peaceful nuclear energy.

Despite the Bush administration’s focus on talks, military maneuvers and the rhetoric coming from Washington and Tehran have fostered speculation about an armed confrontation.

WEAK INTELLIGENCE HURTS OPTIONS

Defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in broad terms about military options, mentioned alternatives ranging from limited air strikes to a more sustained air campaign. Analysts offer more detail, but acknowledge their assessments are only an educated guess.

The officials say a U.S. strike would target Iran’s known nuclear facilities and other military installations, including missile sites and anti-aircraft systems.

It would involve bomber aircraft dropping bunker-buster bombs to hit the underground nuclear sites, defense officials and analysts said. Another component would be cruise missiles launched from U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf, they added.

Some military officials have discussed a campaign that could involve hundreds of sorties over a few days. But some scenarios that expand targets to other government and weapons facilities could require thousands of sorties over many weeks, analysts said.

Analysts and military officials in Washington said neither option was considered likely to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program.

The first problem is finding the targets. The Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Anthony Cordesman has said that while international inspectors have identified at least 18 sites, there could be as many as 70.

Beyond intelligence, U.S. munitions might not be able to do the job. Cato’s Logan said the most effective U.S. bunker-buster bomb could not drill deep enough through hardened concrete and rock to hit nuclear facilities believed to be buried at least 15 meters (50 feet) underground.

A series of sorties would be necessary with bombs guided repeatedly to the same site to inflict heavy damage.

“Those limitations would clearly affect us,” said one defense official.

But Pentagon officials say the United States could damage Iran’s nuclear program.

“Clearly the United States has tremendous capability, but it has no intent and is not planning to go to war with Iran,” said spokesman Bryan Whitman
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