Guide: Israel's options for Iran strike

Any Israeli attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear programme poses huge technical challenges for Israeli military planners. BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus looks at some of the options open to Israel and asks whether it has the capacity to carry out such a mission.

Possible attack routes

Map showing possible routes Israeli bombers could take to target Iran's nuclear facilities
  • Route 1: Northern route where Israeli jets would fly north and then east along the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq
  • Route 2: Central, more likely route, would take Israeli warplanes over Jordan and Iraq
  • Route 3: Southern route would take Israeli jets over Saudi air space. Possible route for return leg of their journey

Getting there

Aircraft Details Task

Fighter bombers

F-15I

F-15I

F-15I Ra'am or Thunder

Israel's variant of the US-made F-15

Twin-seat attack aircraft

Armed with cannon for self-defence and air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles

Could be used to carry the guided bunker busters

F-16I Sufa or Storm

Multi-role fighter

Armaments include air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, targeting and navigation systems

The Israeli Air Force has 125 advanced F15I and F16I warplanes that could be used in any long-range strike against Iran

Experts say the F-15I would be the only option for carrying the GBU-28 laser-guided missiles, with "bunker busting" warheads - but each plane could only carry one bomb

Air support would also be available from the modern F-16I fighters, which cannot carry the GBU-28s

Mid-flight refuelling

Refuelling

Boeing 707 Re'em or Oryx

Israel is believed to have between eight and 10 large tanker aircraft based on the Boeing 707

Refuelling would be critical to the Israeli operation

Many of the potential targets in Iran are between 1,500km (930 miles) and 1,800km (1,120 miles) from Israeli bases, putting them out of range of the fighters, whose combat radius is about 1200-1600km

The strike aircraft would need to refuel to make it there and back - possibly after take-off over the Mediterranean

Unmanned drones

The Eitan - unmanned drone

Eitan or Heron

Israel's unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones

High altitude, long endurance aircraft used for surveillance and scouting

Operations include gathering intelligence information, marking specific points for other aircraft to attack

The unmanned drones could be used to assess the damage done by strikes or help in other ways during the operation

Experts say they could have a cyber role to trick air defences by targeting radars or generating a "false picture of what is happening" for the enemy on the ground

Israel's 'Bunker Buster'
US Air Force pilots check GBU-28 bomb

GBU-28

US-supplied 5,000lb laser-guided weapon with penetrating warhead

Carried by strike aircraft

Used to target deeply-buried facilities

Tests have shown it can penetrate 6m (20ft) of concrete

A number of the potential targets are underground.

The GBU-28, or "Bunker Buster", has been used in Serbia, in Afghanistan and Iraq

How Israel's GBU-28 missile works

How it works:

  1. The bombs are carried by Israeli F-15I aircraft - but only one per aircraft, which would mean a large attack force for multiple attempts on numerous targets
  2. Bomb is released almost vertically over the target, and guided by lasers
  3. The bombs can penetrate up to 6m of concrete or about 30.5m (100ft) of earth before detonating the 4,400lb warhead

Potential targets

Location Type of facility Background

Natanz

NATANZ, IRAN - APRIL 9: A general view of the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, is seen on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran

Uranium enrichment plant

In February 2012, Iran unveiled the "new generation" of faster, more efficient centrifuges at the facility and that it had used domestically-made nuclear fuel in a reactor for the first time

This is the facility at the heart of Iran's dispute with the United Nations Security Council

The council is concerned because the technology used for producing fuel for nuclear power can be used to enrich the uranium to a much higher level to produce a nuclear explosion

The facility is underground, making bunker-busting munitions essential

Fordo, near Qom

This satellite image made available to AFP on September 26, 2009 by Digitalglobe shows the suspected Iranian nuclear facility of Fordo near the holy Shiite city of Qom (DIGITALGLOBE)

Uranium enrichment plant

Iran says the Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is for use as a fuel in research reactors. Uranium - with a concentration of 20% or more - is needed to build nuclear weapons

In January 2012, Iran said it had begun uranium enrichment at the heavily fortified site of Fordo near the holy city of Qom

Like Natanz, it may pose a problem for Israeli bombers as the facility is buried deeply into the side of a mountain

Arak

A general view of the water facility at Arak on January 15, 2011

Heavy water plant

Heavy water is used to moderate the nuclear fission chain reaction either in a certain type of reactor or to produce plutonium for use in a nuclear bomb

Satellite images released in 2011 showed how Iran's heavy water reactor and heavy water plant at Arak had changed in a year

The UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, said that "construction of the facility was ongoing and the coolant heat exchangers had been installed"

Isfahan

Iranian students are seen forming a human chain around a uranium conversion facility, demonstrating their support of Iran's decision to reopen the plant and urging the state to resume enrichment, east of Isfahan 16 August 2005.

Uranium conversion plant

Plant at a nuclear research facility to convert uranium ore concentrate, or yellowcake, into:

  • Hexafluoride gas - used in gas centrifuges
  • Uranium oxide - used to fuel reactors, albeit not the type Iran is constructing
  • Metal - often used in the cores of nuclear bombs

The IAEA is concerned about the metal's use, as Iran's reactors do not require it as fuel

Parchin

Facilities in Parchin (image DigitalGlobe)

Military site

One of Iran's leading munitions centres - for the research, development and production of ammunition, rockets and high explosives

IAEA inspectors were prevented from visiting the site in February 2012 as they sought to clarify the "possible military dimensions" of Iran's nuclear programme

Iran is thought to have built a large containment chamber to conduct tests involving high explosives in conjunction with nuclear material or nuclear material surrogates

Iran's defences

Type System Efficacy

Surface to air missiles

Hawk surface-to-air missiles (bottom-C) are seen in Khandab near Arak, 290 kms (180 miles) southwest of the Iranian capital Tehran, during military manoeuvres on November 26, 2009.

Hawk system

US-built system dates back to the days of the Shah

Said to be located with other systems around Tehran and key bases and facilities

For high altitude targets

S-200 surface to air missile

SA-5 or S-200

Russian-built systems are older but capable of posing a threat to any strike force

They are used to target high-altitude targets

Reports vary on the number of batteries Iran has available

Some say it has enough for six sites

For low level targets

NATANZ, IRAN - APRIL 9: An Anti-Aircraft unit is seen near the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, on April 9, 2007, 180 miles south of Tehran, Iran.

Tor-M1/SA-15 Gauntlet

Mobile surface-to-air defence system used against low-level targets such as aircraft and guided missiles

Each unit consists of a vehicle armed with eight missiles and a radar that can track 48 targets and engage two simultaneously

The Russian systems and missiles were delivered between 2006 and 2007

Reports suggest these systems were specifically acquired for defence around Iran's nuclear facilities, according to Global Security analysts

Long-range systems

Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system in Belarus

S-300

Highly capable, long-range system that can be used against targets at low, medium or high altitudes

In 2008, Russia refused to supply Iran with the long-range system

But Iran claims it bought some of the systems from elsewhere - including Croatia

Iranian Air Force

Iranian Mig-29s Iranian Mig-29s

Russian-built Mig-29s

US-built F-14 Tomcats

Iran has a number of US-built F-14 Tomcat fighters and a significant number of relatively more modern Russian-supplied MiG-29s

Iran's air force is not seen as a match for the Israelis, but the Israeli pilots will be wary of extending their mission time with air-to-air combat given their limited fuel supplies

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