The CSIS’ Edward Luttwak argues that the Joint Chiefs – weary of two regional wars, and disinclined to engage in a third – presented President Obama and his predecessor with an overly inflated force estimate for attacking Iran’s nuclear weapons program:
While the plan was never publicly disclosed, its magnitude was widely known, and I have learned some of the details. Instead of identifying the few critical nodes of a nuclear-weapon program, the target list included every nuclear-related installation in Iran. And to ensure thorough destruction, each target was accorded multiple aiming points, each one then requiring a weapon of commensurate power, with one or more to follow until bomb-damage assessment photos would show the target obliterated.
That plan elevated the attack to a major operation, with several hundred primary strike sorties and many more support sorties for electronic suppression, refueling, air-sea rescue readiness, and overhead air defense. Given all those aiming points and the longest possible target list, casualties on the ground could run to the thousands.
And this was only the lesser part of the suggested air war, with many more targets, sorties and weapons justified by preliminary “Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses” attacks. In the name of not risking the loss of even one aircraft, planners put every combat airplane in the Iranian air force on the target list.
Somewhere around the early 90′s, air power mavens realized that reducing a country’s infrastructure to ruins was not merely overkill in every sense of the word, but that it resulted in unconscionably high reconstruction and humanitarian costs. With the capabilities inherent to precision weapons, we could knock out the switching station for a power grid, rather than the generators themselves, and accomplish much the same effect.
There are probably useful analogues in the Iranian case. A prolonged air campaign that killed thousands of non-combatants would no doubt unite the troubled Iranian people under their mullahs. Stealthy pinpricks, perhaps not so much.