fictional scenarios

I know this is tiresome, but I find it interesting to play "what if..."
I'll get back to all science soon. No point in dynamic web logs if they don't respond dynamically to changing issues... eh?

So, what if the US wanted to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, ASAP, either 'cause someone thinks they should, or because of some provocation they choose to accept as casus belli?

The US could do a cold start conventional attack with less than 24 hour notice, but ideally they'd want about 3 days to get ready.
More, if the Navy is in on it, subs and maybe carriers, need to be moved into place.

Published scenarios for such a global strike suggest plans for 3 days of bombardment.

Since Air Combat Command is to stand down then, clearly Sept 14th (2-3 days after new moon) is our ideal fictional time to attack.

Let us pretend that the subs are in place - maybe 12-15 attack subs with conventionally armed cruise missiles. Several missile destroyers and cruisers also.
There is at least one carrier in or near the gulf, and we can pretend, if we want, that the Kitty Hawk and Nimitz, when the leave the Bay of Bengal Sept 9/10 scoot west instead of east and sneak into the Arabian Sea just in time to join in. That gives 3 carriers. No backups though, unless someone is exercising in the Pacific and could head on out to get there a few days late.
The only way to surprise someone with 3 carriers is to have carriers very publicly not be there, and be officially headed somewhere else, but then turn then back and scoot over at very short notice as fast as they can. Surprise.
[You can not surprise them, by having three carriers be there as a threat, or by overlapping rotations - which is why the blogosphere twitters when carrier groups rotate every few months, they present opportunity windows.]

The attack should start ~ 2-3 am local time.
You want a couple of flights, or a full squadron, or more if available, of B-2 bombers from Whitehead AFB to almost simultaneously drop their bombs, taking care of the top priority and hardest to hit targets. These could launch straight from the US, or some could stage out of Guam.
Let us assume neither the UK or Turkey are on board.

Simultaneous to the B-2 arrival, you want cruise missiles to hit, taking out static air defence, major armed force installations (air bases and missile launch sites, naval sites), and command/control/communication, and maybe some infrastructure.

That is a lot. Iran is quite big.

There are 4 B-52 squadrons, which could launch maybe 32 B-52Hs, each B-52 carrying up to 20 cruise missiles. They can launch from over the horizon. But the ALCM-86B conventionally armed air launced missile, of which a couple of hundred are left, shows up on radar. There probably also aren't enough the fill the B-52s for single full sortie like that (there are more of the nuclear version, mostly in storage).
The replacement, the JASSM AGM-158 is short range - would put the B-52s within Iranian air defences, and you don't want that until the defences are neutralized. The JASSM also allegedly has only a 60% hit rate, so you'd need 2 per target, 3 for high priority targets.

But, there are 400 ACM-129 missiles in storage, most or all with nukes. They are stealthy and long range, and due to be retired, since they count against treaty limits on nukes.
There was a program to convert them to conventional capability, including possibly "special" warheads (like maybe the anti-electrical sub-station stuff used in Iraq), but Congress stopped it in the early 90s, none may have been converted.
Most of the ACMs have nukes. But research to convert them to conventional tasks was done, maybe development also?

So, if you plan and hustle, you could, hypothetically convert some stealthy ACM-129s to conventional warheads and launch maybe 2-300 in the first salvo. Use them up.
But... most of the ACM-129s are at Minot, and the ALCM facility and 3 of the B-52 squadrons are at Barksdale. So first you need to move ~ 1-200 ACMs quietly to Barksdale for conversion - there is an Air Launched Cruise Missile Assembly Plant at Barksdale, or so they say - some of the converted missiles then stay at Barksdale and some go back to Minto? Details...

Hard to get that sort of conversion done quickly, even if the R&D was all done in advance. The conversion needs to be done in advance, with forethought, and takes time, even if the replacement conventional warhead has been manufactured and is in storage ready to snap into place in the missiles with minimal modifications and software upgrades.

Then you have Barksdale B-52s fly out straight and the Minot B-52s stage out of Guam and launch stealthy, conventional ACMs, on target on time for as close to simultaneous arrival as possible.
(I don't think there are enough tankers to fly everyone straight out of the US, even if the crews had the training to do so, some must forward stage).
The B-52s then go home, or stage out of advance bases to pick up short off stand-off missiles for the next round, assuming the air defences are destroyed and it becomes relatively safe to loiter over Iran.

As the B-2s and B-52s exit, and the cruise missiles impact, you roll in B-1s, in waves to do the next round of targets, maybe 32-48 of B-1s, if available.
Some F-117 and F-22s would be amusing also if they can be moved into range.
At least that many F-15s also join in, not all at once, don't want to give the Iranian commanders any break in the first hours to compose themselves and organise.
F-15 numbers are limited by what forward bases are available, how many they can handle and how many you think you can move out from home bases.
You also have yer AWACS and JSTARS and weasels coming along, all of which need bases and munitions and refueling. Preferably in air.
Having forward staged tankers will be a major limitation.

If the carriers are playing, you then also get to bring in some F-18s, intermittent flights if just one carrier is there; lots, more or less continuously, if there are three aircraft carriers in place.
For a while.

If the USAF goes all out, they can throw several thousand precision bombs on target in the first day, and sustain intense bombing for maybe two more days.
Then they are done.

Then what?

Totally crazy of course. I'm sure Brown or Coonts could come up with much cooler and fancier scenarios...


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Surely carriers which "scoot west" would be caught doing so by Russian and Chinese satellites. There is an obvious risk that Iranian diplomats would be discretely warned about it. Maintain good relations and all that. So if I were planning for something like this, I would not try to sneak in more carriers ahead of the attack. Instead, I might plan to have them head west as fast as possible once the attack is launched, to be in place and ready to launch tactical sorties once the long range bombers have decimated air defences.

I thought that ALCM-86B/C (think C's are the conventionals) missiles were low-flying so that they were good at avoiding radar. You would need an airborne early warning (AEW) system to detect them. Does Iran have AEWs?

My vague memory is that Iran does not have any AEW aircraft as such, but that they have been using F14s in that role. Whether or not those radar would pick up a cruise missle moving against ground clutter is outside my scant knowledge as well.

In other news, there was an announcement of a new head of the supreme council, or whatever the correct translation is, today. He is viewed as less confrontational than the Iranian president. There is also a new head of the Revolutionary Guard.

By Brad Holden (not verified) on 07 Sep 2007 #permalink

There are only about 200 ALCM-Cs left, according to official stockpile counts.
That is one squadron salvo. And I don't think they will be stealthy if they have to come in over ocean.

I don't want to push the ACM-129B scenario too hard, but it is an interesting option,
and it would explain somethings.
Plus it would give them a full long range first strike load for the whole B-52 fleet.
Use and ALCM-Bs that they converted recently for second strike for some planes, the rest can move in and use JASSMs or other short range standoff weapons.

And then ?

The trouble with the attack on Iran scenarios is what happens next. An invasion is out of the question - not enough troops. Its wishful thinking that Iran would fall to 'a regime change': can anyone point to a credible alternative?

Talk of an attack has two purposes - (a) domestic, within the US, to shore up the Administration. (b) As a chip in negotiations over Iraq and what happens next.

(b) only works if Iran takes the threat seriously. Looks increasingly like it doesn't: they can ask "what then? too.

And for (a), would Washington really be _that_ short sighted?

I'd like to see realistic claims for the outcome of an attack on Iran. It looks as though Iran is still years from a nuke bomb, and an attack might not change much: what would a wholescale attack on the Iranian military (as opposed to an attack on Natanz, etc.) buy?