The BBC’s “security correspondent,” Frank Gardner, is reporting that U.S. contingency plans for striking Iran “extend beyond nuclear sites and include most of the country’s military infrastructure.” Mr. Gardner also claims that planners at U.S. Central Command “have already selected their target sets in Iran,” a list that reportedly includes key nuclear facilities at Bushehr, Khondab (Arak), Esfahan and Natanz.
My response can be summed up in one word: Duh.
We’ve been down this road before, but I’ll take another shot at “de-mystifying” the world of military planning. While stories like this one sound sensational (and they’re useful in conveying a message to hostile regimes), much of the “planning” described in the BBC article is largely routine, and reflects a process that has been on-going for years.
Let’s start with the targeting process. The days when air planners literally selected bombing targets a day or two before the mission have long since passed. Efforts to locate, identify, and analyze potential targets now begin years in advance. Military intelligence organizations catalogue these sites in voluminous documents called a Basic Encyclopedia (BE). There is at least one encyclopedia for each of our potential adversaries. Potential targets are listed by name and by a specific BE number (or, in the case of larger complexes, multiple BE numbers), allowing planners and analysts to gather (and access) information on those facilities.
Data on potential targets is compiled in individual folders, listed again by facility name and BE number. Target folders include (at a minimum) a description of the facility, imagery of the complex, a summary of defenses in the area, and a list of desired mean points of impact (DMPIs)–points that must be struck successfully to destroy the site, or inflict maximum damage. These folders are constantly updated; CENTCOM (like other combat commands) has a portion of its J-2 (intelligence) staff that does nothing but work the targeting problem. The goal is a targeting database that is accurate, current, and provides the widest array of potential options for campaign planners.
The overall process works something like this: the President and his senior advisers set overall strategy; the combatant command (in this case, CENTCOM), creates a military campaign plan that will meet the commander-in-chief’s objectives. Operational planning for air, ground, naval and special forces elements is the responsibility of various component commanders in those areas. If a strike against Iran is based heavily on air and naval options, the day-to-day planning (and execution) authority will fall on the shoulders of U.S. Central Air Forces (USCENTAF) and the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the air and naval elements of CENTCOM. And, once again, these short-term plans and execution orders (say, the Air Tasking Order which outlines all air operations in the theater for a prescribed period) support the campaign plan and the overall political/military strategy.
At the risk of sounding redundant, let me emphasize again that this planning process is cumulative in nature; operational plans (OPlans) for the Iranian problem have existed for decades. These plans are constantly reviewed and updated to meet changing requirements. Thirty years ago, plans for Iran focused on countering a Russian invasion; today, the OPlans are aimed at more relevant issues, such as deterring Tehran’s regional ambitions and WMD programs. But some of the same units and basing options that would have countered a Soviet invasion in the 1970s would also be used today, in countering new threats related to Iran.
Simply stated, the military simply doesn’t have the time to build a new plan for every situation that arises, so relevant items from existing plans are “borrowed,” shaped and modified to meet changing contingencies. That’s why OPlans and basic encyclopedias are such vital tools; they provide the planning foundation for any military campaign, with the flexibilty to make changes (as required). Any potential attack against Iran will be the product of decades of research, analysis and planning, down to the target sets, number of aircraft and ships involved, and even the types of weapons that may be used.
Likewise, it’s no surprise that a theoretical Iran campaign would include targets outside that country’s nuclear program. There are a number of elements that support a weapons program–electrical grids, research complexes, transportation hubs and mining facilities, to name a few. Strikes against those targets would further impede a covert nuclear program, and slow the recovery of Tehran’s overt efforts. Additionally, attacks against Iran’s military facilities would also be required, to (a) minimize danger to allied military forces in the region, (b) help destabilize the regime in Tehran and (c) pave the way for follow-on strikes inside that country. Such requirements are one reason that Israel has been pressing for a U.S. military option, since they lack the forward basing and combat persistence needed for a sustained campaign against Iran.
As for the “triggers” for a potential attack (outlined in the BBC report), those seem fairly broad, although proving either scenario could be difficult. For example, there is ample, annecdotal evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, but conclusive proof of that effort has not been obtained (or at least, publicly revealed). In the past, ircumstantial evidence might have been sufficient to launch military strikes, but in the aftermath of the Iraq WMD debacle, more concrete information is probably required. A similar level of proof is likely demanded for the “other” potential trigger: a high-casualty attack on U.S. forces in Iraq that could be linked directly to Iran. Recent media accounts suggest that there is considerable debate in Washington about Iranian support for terrorists in Iraq, and the involvement of senior officials in Tehran; given that disagreement, it might be difficult to obtain irrefutable evidence of Iranian complicity in a mass-casualty attack on U.S. troops in Iraq. In both cases, the level of proof required for military action may actually be higher than the media would suggest.
But such distinctions are lost on outlets like the “Beeb,” who’ve been peddling this story (in one form or another) for months. By hinting that the targets have been selected (and even listing some of the high-profile nuclear sites), the MSM is suggesting that it’s just a matter of weeks before the bombs start falling in Iran. And, for all we know, that may be true. But if we launch military strikes against that country, it will be the product of years of analysis and preparation, and not the result of some hastily-conceived planning effort.