One of the major concerns raised about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear program is the potential need for follow-up strikes. An air raid might not destroy all targets successfully due to mechanical problems in the strike package, weapons failures, or plain bad luck. Iran might take military actions that demand a response. It’s quite likely that even if the raid is successful, a rebuilt Iranian nuclear program would need to be taken out again in future years (Israeli officials have referred to the process as “mowing the lawn”). However, all of Israel’s options for carrying out the initial strike would have serious political consequences–flying over Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Iraq without permission (or with secret, publicly denied permission) would be a major international incident. The state whose territory was violated would risk serious domestic and international consequences for letting Israeli jets through again.
Israel might, however, have another way of striking Iran again–its ballistic missile forces. Before you refer me to the nearest asylum, consider this: Iran’s new Khalij Fars (“Persian Gulf”) variant of its short-ranged Fateh-110 ballistic missile. The Khalij Fars, developed indigenously by Iran’s military industry, has an optical seeker in its nose in addition to the inertial guidance system normally used on ballistic missiles. While high-end guidance systems that don’t use this method are still rather inaccurate–the American LGM-118 Peacekeeper, with some of the best guidance technology, had a circular error probable of 120 meters. (In other words, half of all Peacekeeper shots land within 120m of their target.) That is far too inaccurate for a conventional warhead being used against a hardened target. However, check out what the Khalij Fars can do:
Yes, it can hit a ship. In other words, it’s possible to use a ballistic missile with a conventional warhead to carry out a long range precision strike, and if Iran’s junk military industry can do it, then there’s little doubt that the Israelis can, too. If the optical seeker doesn’t fit their needs, laser guidance could also be an option–Israel is known to have a skilled special forces team that can illuminate targets from behind enemy lines.
Of course, using ballistic missiles could be almost as inflammatory as a second strike. Ballistic missiles are naturally associated with their original purpose, delivering nuclear weapons–indeed, that’s about all an inaccurate missile is good for, aside from hitting large targets like cities. Iran would (well, might) see the missiles coming in on its radars and think the Israelis are nuking them–and they’ve have no way of knowing for sure until the missiles hit. Iran thus would be certain to fire its own missiles back at Israel, possibly with chemical warheads (if it has that capability). However, Iran is estimated to have few missiles actually capable of reaching Israel. As its antimissile capabilities grow, Israel may find the calculus of a conventional ballistic followup becoming more and more favorable.
The US would be quite unhappy with Israel using ballistic missiles in a conventional role. In the short run, it would of course provide the Iranians with justification for using their own ballistic missiles against American bases and allies (and maybe launching the Khalij Fars against American ships off Iran’s coast). However, Iran would be inclined to do that after Israel’s first strike, regardless of followups. America’s big worry would be China. China has developed an extensive conventional ballistic missile capability for use against Taiwan–and against any American carriers that might try to come to Taiwan’s aid. Israel’s use of conventional ballistic missiles would destroy their mystique–the norm against using them would begin to fade, and this would greatly benefit China’s plans against Taiwan.
What other options does Israel have? The most obvious is to use its Dolphin-class submarines to launch cruise missiles. However, these submarines have limited stores of missiles, and it’s quite likely that Israeli military planners would want to use those missiles in the initial strike to allow Israel to hit more targets and add to the chaos in Iran’s air defenses. Thus, the subs might have few or no missiles remaining when they get the call for a second strike, and they’d be unable to reload until they returned to Israel (or at least had a secret rendezvous with a “cargo ship” somewhere in the Indian Ocean). Conventional ballistic missiles, with all their risks, might be Israel’s best follow-up option.