Those were dark, ominous days in the United States, perhaps the darkest in the months since the war began on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese delivered a devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Americans did not know what had hit them. Their mighty fleet, which boasted some of the best warships made by man, went up in a plume of smoke. Japanese forces had invaded the Philippines and Southeast Asia, consolidating their control of the sea and air routes. After a string of victories, they proudly planted their national flag, with its famous red sun, into the soil that had become part of their empire, one which was expanding by the day, like an unstoppable tsunami.
In Washington, officials barely had time to process what had just happened. In the American capital, the leaders set in motion the process of recovery: military draft prcodures; manufacturing and production geared for a wartime economy; building and training of forces; expansion of the military; dispatching reinforcements, and planning for combat in two theaters, one against the Japanese, who had dragged the Americans into the war, and the other against the Nazis, who were allied with Japan in the Axis of Evil.
The challenge facing the Americans was complex. What should they do in the meantime? How to take the initiative and boost morale? How would they go about proving that while anyone could take America by surprise, nobody could defeat it?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered his armed forces to deliver a vicious counter-blow by launching a military operation unprecedented in the annals of human history. The military was instructed to strike the Japanese by hitting at the heart of their arrogant empire, Tokyo.
From an operational and a logistical standpoint, it was mission impossible. At the time, the U.S. did not possess long-range bombers, nor did it have military bases close enough to hit Tokyo. It only had a few aircraft carriers, but even these were only able to transport short-range bombers, thus making them suitable for naval combat.
Was there no military solution? There always is, as long as one summons the necessary talent, skill and initiative, and employs the element of surprise.
This was how American planners came up with the “Doolittle Raid.” Led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle of the U.S. Air Force, it was a plan that required volunteers to undertake a dangerous mission, so dangerous that it was doubtful whether they would return home. The idea was to outfit U.S. aircraft carriers with medium-range B-25B Mitchell bombers. Although they were originally designed to operate from a terrestrial base, the plan was to place them on aircraft carriers. Once the carriers moved into position close enough to Tokyo, the planes would be ordered to take off for bombing runs of the Japanese capital.
How would these pilots get back to safety? There was no turning back. The B-25Bs were not designed to operate from aircraft carriers. B-25B pilots had never previously flown them from aircraft carriers. Because this plane lacked the necessary arrestor hook with which all planes that took off from aircraft carriers were outfited, the bombers would not be able to land back on the carriers.
This was a one-way mission. The pilots had to take off, drop their deadly payload, and continue onward in the direction of China in the hope that they would land there and hook up with friendly Chinese forces, while avoiding hostile Japanese troops.
Was this impossible? The military had no trouble in finding the necessary number of volunteers. There were 80 air crew members, five for each of the 16 planes that were to be deployed.
“I just came here to do my duty,” one of the participating pilots was quoted as saying recently, as the U.S. celebrated the 70th anniversary of the operation. “We had total faith in and complete respect for Lt. Col. Doolittle. Our country was at war. We were pilots, air crews. Of course we volunteered. Why wouldn’t we?”
On April 18, 1942, the mission received the go-ahead. Doolittle’s bombers, including Doolittle himself leading the run, shocked the Japanese when they descended from the skies over Tokyo at low altitude and began bombarding the city. One of the bombs exploded near the palace of the Japanese emperor.
Most of the air crews landed safely in China, subsequently returning to their units for active duty. Three airmen who could not eject in time were killed, and eight were taken prisoner. Three were executed and one died as a result of inadequate treatment of his wounds.
The Doolittle Raid was symbolic in nature, but it yielded tremendous psychological benefits. It convinced the American public that the Japanese were not immune, and that their capital was vulnerable to attack by the long arm of the U.S. military. The operation proved to be a humiliation for the Japanese, who had to wrestle with the realization that they were no longer impregnable or immortal. The raid also made clear to Japan that this war would be no walk in the park, and that they needed to contend with an America that was determined to summon all of its capabilities.
For the U.S. military, the raid showed that there was no such thing as “mission impossible.” There are only challenges that can be overcome with a spirit for combat.
Obviously, no two historical periods are identical in nature. It also goes without saying that any military operation designed to remove the Iranian nuclear threat would be different, unique and more complex than many other military operation undertaken in history, either by us or by others. The Israel Air Force has proved itself repeatedly over the course of the last 64 years, successfully executing missions that were far more intricate than the surprise attack on Tokyo. There was the pre-dawn raid of June 5, 1967; the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and (according to foreign media reports) the strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.
What about the Iranian nuclear program? For those who would prefer to avoid acknowledging reality, Israel is already at war with Iran. It is a war of intelligence, a war of computers, a war on scientists, a war against terrorism abroad, a war against Iran’s terrorist satellites in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Most importantly, it is a war to ensure the continued existence of the State of Israel, and to remove the fear that it will one day be attacked by weapons of mass destruction. The working assumptions of this war were originally minted by the founding fathers of the state, and they are no less accurate and relevant today than they were in those days.
Israel cannot allow any Islamic state in the Middle East to develop nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them from great distances, capabilities which could be used against us at a future date.
All of the fancy theories of nuclear strategy which speak of “first strike” and “second strike” may be suited to global superpowers or countries with large territories and populations. But Israel cannot afford to absorb a “first strike,” even with the knowledge that it would be able to deliver a “second strike.” Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s spiritual leaders, has already described Israel as a “one-bomb country.” In other words, dropping just one atomic weapon on the “Zionist enemy” would be enough to break Israel’s spine.
Israel’s leaders must decide
Israel cannot afford to put these assumptions to the test. It cannot afford to allow a situation in which the Iranians could, for their own reasons, decide to press the red button. The Iranians cannot be permitted to possess even one bomb. They must be stopped before it is too late. That’s the story in a nutshell.
The debate over whether Israel should strike Iran has long veered beyond the bounds of good taste and logic, so much so that it has damaged national security. Roosevelt did not ask his fellow Americans for permission or agreement to dispatch 80 volunteers for a one-way mission to Tokyo. More than four years later, his successor, Harry Truman, did not consult public opinion polls to see if he had the green light to order the nuclear bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These presidents acted according to their responsibilities as leaders, and they took executive decisions. They stated their goals and mapped out plans of action which they felt served the best interests of the country.
What is going on in our neck of the woods? After “the first strike” leveled by the erstwhile former heads of Israel’s top defense agencies, we were treated this week to a “second strike”: the alleged positions of current defense chiefs, through media leaks which essentially amounted to a gift for the chaps in Tehran who were certainly gleeful while reading quotes attributed to this or that senior official. They most certainly saw reason to pat themselves on the back while crowing, “The Zionists have become confused.”
Senior security officials not only have a right, but an obligation, to express their views to the civilian leadership, particularly if they do not agree with official policy.
There is always a need for a resident contrarian. Nonetheless, all of these exchanges must remain behind closed doors. They are not for public consumption.
In his groundbreaking book “Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace,” published in the mid-1960s, former Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence chief Yehoshafat Harkabi wrote that nuclear strategy was so complex that it was naturally an issue not fit for public debate. The author, who was regarded as one of the brightest minds to ever serve in the IDF, determined that it was a matter to be dealt with solely by the country’s leadership and experts.
It is the leadership which must make the final determination, just as it did in the one instance in which the walls of secrecy have almost entirely been cracked — the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. An absolute majority of experts opposed the strike at the time, as did most politicians, one of whom today occupies the president’s chair (and doing so with the honor and respect that befits the position).
At the time, Shimon Peres was opposed to then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s plan to bomb Saddam's Osirak reactor. Peres was convinced the move would push the international community to abandon Israel as if it were “a juniper tree in the Arava Desert.” To this day, Peres believes he was correct in his assessments. History, however, proves he erred. It was a good thing for the State of Israel that Saddam Hussein’s atomic weapon was neutralized before it reared its ugly head.
Big time, big bang
What will happen if Israel doesn’t make sure it denies Iran a nuclear bomb?
1. Serious erosion in Israel’s deterrent capability. The first-ever Shiite nuclear bomb would imbue Iran with a sense of confidence and hubris that would naturally spread to all its proxies and clients. Hezbollah and Hamas would surely think to themselves, “If ‘Big Brother’ in Tehran has the bomb, our room to maneuver against Israel would surely expand. Israel’s ability to harm us would shrink, for it would fear that if they went too far, the Iranians would come to our aid big time, and with a big bang.”
2. A nuclear arms race in the Middle East. With a nuclear-armed Shiite Iran, all the dream and aspirations for a restoration of the old order would come to life. Saudi Arabia, the Sunni kingdom and the bastion of “the protectors of Islam,” would be left with no choice but to arm itself with a nuclear bomb. Long before Iran’s drive for a nuclear bomb, Tehran was locked into a years-long struggle with the Saudis for regional influence in the Persian Gulf. The same goes for Turkey, whose leaders want to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and its rule over the region. Egypt may have fallen into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it, too, is a Sunni nation. It will almost certainly want to relive the (albeit brief) days when it was the largest, most important Islamic state. Is this not the last thing we need? To be surrounded by a number of nuclear states? Just observe the trepidation caused by Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
3. Nuclear terrorism. This is Western countries’ worst nightmare, one that has haunted them for years — the prospect that nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of organizations like al-Qaida, the global jihadist movement, and others of its ilk. From the minute that nuclear arms are manufactured, they could take on a number of forms, sizes and weights. Iran, the most notorious state sponsor of terrorism, could provide a nuclear device to a terrorist organization. This would be most unfortunate, particularly when these groups are supposedly operating on their own behalf. This would allow Iran to achieve its goals while effectively hiding behind the “legitimacy” accorded a state that on the surface does not appear implicated in the act. This is “war by proxy,” a war waged by a third party who at times knows who is behind a plot, while at other times has no idea.
4. The economic and civic price of living in a country under the shadow of a nuclear threat. In the 1950s, as Americans were in the throes of a national panic over the prospect of a nuclear war against the Russians, a subculture of “living in the shadow of the bomb” began to take shape. Nuclear bomb shelters were constructed, and schoolchildren were drilled to “duck and cover” in the event of an atomic attack. In hindsight, this chapter in history provided material for black-and-white movies, including classics like “Dr. Strangelove.” For Israel, however, the consequences of a Shiite nuclear threat are liable to be much more costly and dangerous.
There are those who say, “What’s the rush? The Iranian bomb is a global problem, and it is up to the international community to solve it. To be more precise, it is an American problem, so the U.S. should deal with it. In any event, the Americans have imposed sanctions, and they will impose more sanctions, and they are preparing plans for action. The Americans are bigger than us, and stronger than us, and more capable. In short, let Uncle Sam solve the problem for us, and we can just sit on the sideline and rub our hands in glee.”
It would certainly be much more convenient, and tidy, if the Americans handled this issue for us. It is highly doubtful, however, that the Americans will do this. President Barack Obama is less than 100 days away from election day. During this time, he will have no motivation to order his military to launch another war in the Middle East. There is also the issue of Obama’s record as commander in chief. Save for the brilliant assassination of Osama bin Laden, the president’s term has been mostly a series of military and diplomatic failures in the wider Middle East region.
Let us assume for a moment that Obama is re-elected. Would he really want to kick off his second term in office by dispatching troops to fight a war thousands of miles away from home?
Perhaps it would be preferable to wait for the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. If he is elected, he will certainly solve the problem for us, right? There is certainly no doubt that Romney is much more sympathetic and supportive of the Israeli cause, as evidenced by his strong statements against Iran’s nuclear program. But if he defeats Obama, he will only enter office in January 2013. What would the Iranians do until then? Would they idle on stand-by? Or would the “supreme leader” give the order for his underlings to construct five atomic weapons within a short time (as the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran could)?
The natural inclination is to avoid a decision altogether. The issue is not an urgent one when the fissionable material is piling up. Unlike the actual bomb, there is nothing urgent about “nuclear installations.” Nor would it be urgent if the Iranians actually built a bomb, since they don’t have the means to deliver it. Let’s wait until they construct a compact device, a nuclear warhead, and affix it to a missile. Wait, even then it would be wise to show restraint. After all, the missile is not fueled up, right? Only after there is a nuclear-tipped missile ready to be deployed, and the doors to the silo slide open, and the missile is launched, only then would we all agree that “the sword is against our necks.” Even then, however, there is a chance that the missile could veer off target and miss us altogether, right?
It's no wonder that so many people prefer not to decide at all. It's no wonder that so many media outlets in Israel are in favor of a non-decision. What’s the rush? Why the urgency? Who wants to decide? Who wants to accept responsibility? Don’t you remember the Yom Kippur War? Didn’t we wait until the last minute?
For those who need to have their memories jogged, the Yom Kippur War is the perfect example of a chain of events which led to an erroneous decision. In the days leading up to that war, the government was in active session. It heard the assessments delivered by the heads of the intelligence agencies, and it adopted their recommendations against a pre-emptive strike despite the increasingly evident signs of war on the ground.
When the realization sank in that the intelligence experts had erred, the government also erred in deciding against a pre-emptive strike on the concentration of enemy forces in Syria and Egypt in the early morning hours of Yom Kippur. The government’s rationale was that the international community, particularly the Americans, would oppose an Israeli first strike.
The problem posed by the Iranian nuclear threat needs to be solved, quickly. The decision needs to be made, quickly. The centrifuges continue to spin, and the enriched material continues to pile up.
As long as the Iranians are given the message that they have nothing to worry about, that there is no military solution, that no one is capable of making a decision, it becomes more likely that we will wake up one morning and watch Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s smiling face as the Iranians conduct their first successful nuclear test, with passages of the Koran read in the background.
And that would not even be the worst-case scenario.
• Lessons of 1981
• Difficult. Daring. Doable.
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