A Pentagon strike against Iran would rely heavily on the B-2 bomber and cruise missiles to try to destroy the regime's ability to make nuclear weapons, analysts say, after the top U.S. military officer said a war plan is in place.
The missiles, fired from surface ships, submarines and B-52 bombers, would take out air defenses and nuclear-related facilities.
The B-2s would drop tons of bombs, including ground penetrators, onto fortified and buried sites where Tehran is suspected of enriching uranium to fuel the weapons and working on warheads.
"It will be primarily an air attack with covert work to start a 'velvet' revolution so [the] Iranian people can take back their country," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a former fighter pilot.
Gen. McInerney said B-2s would fly over Iran while cruise missiles would be fired off shore. The operation would last several days, he said.
John Pike, a military analyst who runs Global Security.org, said that although Iran has many potential targets, only about a half-dozen facilities are so critical that, if destroyed, would set back the program significantly.
"Almost all are in isolated areas where civilian casualties would not be much of a problem," Mr. Pike said. "Most of them have co-located staff housing. Bomb the housing, kill the staff, set back the program by a generation."
His website's scenario states: "American air strikes on Iran would vastly exceed the scope of the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osiraq nuclear center in Iraq, and would more resemble the opening days of the 2003 air campaign against Iraq. Using the full force of operational B-2 stealth bombers, staging from Diego Garcia or flying direct from the United States … two-dozen suspect nuclear sites would be targeted."
The Obama administration this summer won the backing of the United Nations for another round of economic sanctions against Tehran, but there are doubts that limits on banking and trade would ever persuade the hard-line Islamic regime to give up plans to become a nuclear power.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, threw public attention back to the military option on Sunday when asked on "Meet the Press" whether the military had a plan for attacking Iran.
"We do," Adm. Mullen said, adding that striking Iran "is an important option, and it's one that's well understood."
Adm. Mullen's answer indicates that Pentagon strategists have updated and finalized a war plan for Iran.
In Tehran on Sunday, Yadollah Javani, deputy head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, said his country would make the Persian Gulf region unsafe for all if the U.S. attacks it over its nuclear program, Agence France-Presse reported.
"If the Americans make the slightest mistake, the security of the region will be endangered. Security in the Persian Gulf should be for all or none," Mr. Javani told the official IRNA news agency.
A former senior defense official has told The Washington Times that the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George W. Bush administration held a series of discussions about Iran. But no chief, including Adm. Mullen, who then led the Navy, recommended launching strikes. The prime reason was that the top brass feared the Iranian population would rally behind the regime and abandon a fledging democracy movement.
That's why it's important, said Gen. McInerney and other advocates of the military option, to have a covert plan in place to try to destabilize Iran's mullah-run government.
If sanctions fail, Washington faces a dilemma: Let Iran build the bomb, with which it can threaten Israel and other U.S. allies, or launch airstrikes.
"I talk to unintended consequences of either outcome," Adm. Mullen said, "and it's those unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is an incredibly unstable part of the world that I worry about the most."
With the retirement of the F-117 Nighthawk, which flew the first bombing run over Iraq in 2003, the Air Force has two stealth strike aircraft: the B-2 and the F-22 Raptor. The F-22 has not been deployed to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Pentagon did dispatch it to Asia last month as a show of force against North Korea.
A strike on Iran would fit the F-22, if the war plan calls for putting piloted aircraft over the country. Its forte is penetrating heavily defended airspaces to put bombs on target.
"It's pretty well known if we were going to go after the sites, we would have to go after underground facilities, and we could probably do that. The B-2s could do that," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles A. Horner, the top air commander in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "It would be the key system."