Stories from the New China (and beyond)

Iranian nuclear warheads–a technical note

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As you probably picked up from my carping in the previous post, there are a couple of things on my mind. Such as this: The Iranians will have enough materials for two nuclear warheads (unclear what yield–25 kilotons, perhaps–the Jerusalem Post is referring to here) by the end of 2009.

Without minimizing the implications of that, let’s point out  that no state, including America in the middle of an out-and-out war, has ever used a nuclear weapon, or even threatened to use one, without testing first. For the Iranians to fire a dud–or what’s usually called a fizzle, i.e. the trigger does not “ignite” the bomb material properly or the modifier does not allow for a chain reaction–at Israel…well, that would invite full-on, uninhibited, nuclear retaliation on the Iranian bunkers, command and control, and nuclear facilities. Never mind hitting Tehran, the Israelis will use a high exoatmospheric airburst producing a pulse that will knock out every electrical system, every computer, every vehicle, every toaster in Iran. (This can’t be done to Israel’s electrical grid without knocking out Amman, Damascus and Beirut as well–Israel is just too small). All this, and the Iranians haven’t even killed any Jews. That’s pretty suicidal right? So they have to test, right?

The twist: There is no way to test in secret. Even the Israeli test in the South Atlantic/Indian Ocean, the so-called Vela Incident, was picked up by observatories and sensor stations around the world, even back in 1979. So in 2009, the world will know. Israel will know. And there will be time, maybe very little time, but time, for the Israelis to attack the Iranian nuclear assets preemptively , using conventional and nuclear assets. World opinion will still condemn the Jews, yadda, yadda, but coming in the wake of an Iranian test, the Israelis will have a legitimate case.

So let’s say that the Iranian leadership really is crazy and they go for an out of the blue strike without testing. IF the Iranian warheads work and IF the missles are reasonably accurate they could take out Tel-Aviv and Haifa (Jerusalem would bring too much collateral damage to the old city). But what the Iranians can’t do with two warheads of dubious reliability and accuracy is assume that they can decapitate Israel’s leadership, or even make the smallest dent on Israel’s nuclear assets.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume there are at least twenty Israeli warheads, all of which can be delivered on any Iranian target they choose, with high accuracy, CEPs of say, 50 yards, “cratering” and all that good stuff. The Iranians will have no ability to retaliate whatsoever (even if their centrifuge facilities were undamaged, it would take them six months to get another weapon together). So that’s pretty freaking suicidal too.

The Iranian war options here are basically non-options. This a prestige thing, and a deterrence thing (from a paranoid viewpoint) for the Iranians at this point. And of course, down the road, it could be something else entirely, particularly if they are confident enough in Hamas to deliver a low-yield nuclear weapon by short-range missile, that kind of thing. It’s the unconventional options that are the most worrying–and unfortunately, I bring no special insight into that discussion.

Written by eastofethan

April 23, 2009 at 8:31 pm

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