If Israel bombs Iran: Forecasting the next 24 hours

Absent total war, the day after an Israeli attack on Iran would see a flurry of conventional spycraft, cyber-snooping, and frantic diplomacy

D.B. Grady

No sane person would wish for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities — but nor would a sane person wish for a nuclear Iran. Because of the number of potential targets in Iran, and the distance between them, a successful bombing operation would be transcendently difficult, if not impossible. But if intelligence suggested an impending, existential threat to Israel, it's easy to imagine F-15I fighter jets planting GBU-28 bunker-busters in Iranian nuclear sites from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. And if that happens, the real question becomes, what next?

The most precious asset for defusing World War III would be time. Diplomats would have the unenviable task of mollifying a reeling Tehran, cooling external actors, and censuring Israel — though not too much. It was, after all, no less than Saudi King Abdullah who beseeched the United States to strike first and strike hard against Iran, lest a nuclear weapon disrupt regional metastability. According to classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, his now famous request was to "cut off the head of the snake." Likewise, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain made the same request, to be executed "by any means necessary." The United Arab Emirates also condoned actions against Iran, provided Abu Dhabi would be involved only as a "very last resort."

Spy games and computer viruses are the best-case scenario for the day after Israeli air force squadrons depart Iranian airspace.

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Though regional outrage against Israel would surely be boiling over the day after a strike on Iran, many of Iran's neighbors would likely be privately pleased. They're not going to be in a rush to retaliate. They may very well make a lot of noise, but they won't immediately endorse an Iranian attack on Israel. That buys time.

Of course, Iran might not wait for its neighbors' green light before launching a retaliatory strike against Israel. In that case, Israel would lean hard on its missile defense technologies. Earlier this month, the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system proved battle effective against rockets launched by militants in Gaza, with an astonishing 90 percent success rate. The type of missiles launched from Iran, however, fall under the aegis of Israel's Arrow II ballistic missile shield, which has seen action only in simulations and test-fires. We simply don't know how well Israel's Arrow II would hold up against Iranian missiles. Because a sustained, retaliatory onslaught would tax any missile defense system to the brink, it is hard to say if 90 percent is the new normal, or a best case.

An additional Iron Dome battery will be deployed near Tel Aviv next month. A third layer of missile defense, David's Sling, begins interception tests later this year. And Arrow III, which targets nuclear warheads, is still a year away from intercept testing. Depending on the speed with which these missile defense systems are deployed — and their success in the field — Israel might be able to buy extra weeks, or even months, to prevent its conflict with Iran from blowing up into a full-blown regional war.

But the day after a strike on Iran, Israel won't just be playing defense and looking to soothe regional actors. Remember, Israel is believed to have one of the world's most highly advanced cyber-warfare capabilities. As demonstrated in 2009 with Stuxnet — called "the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed" — not even 30 feet of reinforced concrete and earth could protect the subterranean Natanz Nuclear Facility in central Iran. In a two-stage attack, the computer virus overloaded and destroyed at least 1,000 enrichment centrifuges, all the while reporting the situation as normal to workers. Though nobody is taking credit for this setback to Iran's nuclear ambitions, observers believe it to have been a joint operation between the United States and Israel.

Cyber warfare will almost certainly play some role in both a strike on Iran and the days that follow. When Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, for example, its planes passed through radar apparently undetected. How? Perhaps the raid involved an electronic attack on the Syrian air defense infrastructure. Following an attack on Iran, Israel would likewise use any means necessary to slow the gears grinding toward war. This would mean deploying disruptive cyber technologies. Electric grids are the most obvious target, as they often contain the most porous defenses. But interfering with aircraft guidance systems and targeting surveillance systems would offer the most gain, without further disruption of Iranian civilian life. The problem with predicting cyber warfare is its "fairy dust"-like nature. Planners and observers can scarcely foresee what capabilities exist and whether or not they will work in any case. Simply put, like missile defense it is not a magic solution. Even in the case of the devastatingly effective Stuxnet attack, 4,000 centrifuges at Natanz remained operational. Cyber is but one item in the toolbox; it's not the box itself.

The West's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), meanwhile, have seen much of Iran, both in the sky and on the ground. Last year, a Central Intelligence Agency RQ-170 Sentinel drone was downed over Iranian airspace near the border with Afghanistan. Iran captured the aircraft (designed to monitor nuclear facilities) before U.S. commandos could mount a rescue. Iranian scientists have since worked to unlock the secrets within, and U.S. intelligence and defense officials must now work under the assumption that the drone's cryptographic and stealth capabilities are compromised. There is some question as to whether the drone simply malfunctioned and landed, or whether Iran seized control by electronic means. If the latter is the case, it would suggest an interesting juncture in the brief history of drone warfare and espionage, and paint a remarkable portrait of Iran's cyber warfare capabilities. For its part, Iran has an ambitious drone research and development program.

Early last year, Iranian officials announced production of its own stealth UAV called the Eagle Ray, designed for surveillance and bombing runs. (It is unknown what, if any, design cues it may have later taken from the Sentinel.) This is in addition to a fleet of drones that includes a long-range bomber known as Karrar, and a partnership with Venezuela to build drones in South America. After an Israeli bombing, unmanned aerial vehicles would offer the most reliable imagery intelligence (IMINT) without jeopardizing lives, and more importantly, without complicating matters with captured pilots. Such IMINT would track military movements, monitor launch sites, and generally gather intelligence for further military action, should it come to that.

When technology fails, or proves to be too much sword and not enough scalpel, both countries can lean on their well-honed tradecraft. Iranian operatives have long aided Hezbollah in both its rocket and ground assault campaigns, and have targeted Israeli diplomats across Asia. Meanwhile, the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, is thought responsible for the aggressive assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, including the spectacular hit earlier this year involving motorcyclists attaching a magnetic bomb to a Natanz director's car. You can bet that the day after an Israeli strike on Iran, both countries would set their extensive spy networks into furious sleuthing and subterfuge campaigns.

Each of these techniques and technologies has been used, is being used, and will be used, with or without a strike by Israel against Iran. President Obama has taken a cautious line on the subject, warning of "consequences for Israel if action is taken prematurely," two days after saying, "I have Israel's back." Meanwhile, he has imposed on Iran some of the most restrictive sanctions ever placed on any country. For his part, Meir Dagan, former director of the Mossad, called an attack by Israel "the stupidest idea I've ever heard." And not without reason. Spy games and computer viruses are the best-case scenario for the day after Israeli air force squadrons, their ordnance spent, depart Iranian airspace. The worst case, absent total victory, is total war.

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David W. Brown

David W. Brown is coauthor of Deep State (John Wiley & Sons, 2013) and The Command (Wiley, 2012). He is a regular contributor to TheWeek.com, Vox, The Atlantic, and mental_floss. He can be found online here.