WASHINGTON -- Planning for an air war against Iran continues inside the Pentagon, and the U.S. Air Force could mount such intense strikes against Iranian targets that "you wouldn't want to be in the area,'' said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, on Wednesday.
Indeed, some senior military officers and air power specialists caution that putting a decisive end to Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions would require a massive, all-out war -- not only to demolish Iran's nuclear facilities but to destroy its governing regime.
President Barack Obama has said the United States is "determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.'' The United States and others are now tightening financial and trade sanctions to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But the Obama administration has not spelled out precisely what "prevent'' means, and administration officials have been careful not to set clear military objectives.
In a meeting with defense reporters Wednesday, Schwartz deflected a question by The Huffington Post about whether air power alone could "end'' Iran's nuclear weapons program.
"It really depends,'' he said. "What is the objective? Is it to eliminate? Is it to delay? Is it to complicate? The larger question here is more one of policy'' than of military capability, he said.
The Air Force, along with the other military services, has given the White House a series of options for attacking Iran, Schwartz said. Other government agencies have provided political, financial and additional options.
As far as the military options are concerned, Schwartz said that Marine Gen. James Mattis, the Mideast combat commander who would oversee a war with Iran, "is satisfied that we have been as forthcoming and imaginative as possible'' in the planning.
"We and each of the other services each contribute, and we are prepared to do so,'' Schwartz added. He declined to provide specific details about the war planning.
Among the weapons that could be used against Iran is the 20-foot-long, 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), designed to be used against deep-buried targets such as the nuclear reprocessing plant shielded by 250 feet of granite in a mountain outside the holy city of Qom, according to a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Although the MOP has encountered technical problems in its development, Schwartz said it is "operational.''
But making effective use of such a weapon requires a broad, coordinated effort among hundreds of aircraft, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, an F-15 combat pilot who planned the complex 1991 air war against Iraq and other operations, told The Huffington Post. "Executing an air campaign is not just flying from A to B and dropping a bunch of bombs and coming home,'' he said.
In the event of an attack, missiles, bombers and strike fighters would be sent against Iran's air defenses, which Schwartz said have recently been strengthened. Other aircraft would be targeted on Iran's nuclear sites, accompanied by command-and-control aircraft, airborne electronic countermeasures and electronic warfare systems, all choreographed with aerial tankers "and put together in such a way that the timing is impeccable and each part of the overall mission reinforces other parts,'' Deptula explained.
"It would be a formidable air campaign, but it could be accomplished,'' Deptula said. And it would take the United States to do it. "The Israelis have one of the most excellent, innovative air forces in the world -- that's not at issue,'' he said. But with the distances to be covered to reach Iran and the limited number of refueling tankers that Israel can provide, "there is a capacity issue."
How effective could such a broad air campaign be? "You can set them back months to years,'' Deptula said. "But ultimately you are going to have to deal with the same problem again. One of the biggest challenges is you are dealing with a theocracy, a bunch of zealots, and that's the quandary."
"No one wants to talk about regime change. But if you want to put an end to this problem, I am afraid to say it will require a change of regime in Iran," he said.
Nonetheless, like other senior commanders, Deptula urged caution when talking about attacking Iran. "Everybody is talking about the kinetic [military] option,'' he said. "But first, a highly orchestrated symphony of diplomatic, economic and information pieces have to be assembled into a coherent whole to accomplish our end game, and that has to be done before we talk about military options.''
That view parallels the thinking of retired Marine Gen. James "Hoss'' Cartwright, who left last summer as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is a former fighter pilot and from 2004 to 2007 led the U.S. Strategic Command, which has responsibility for global nuclear and conventional strategic attack missions.
Iran's nuclear facilities are "not a pinpoint target,'' Cartwright warned during a panel discussion last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He said Iran has been "very clever'' about siting its nuclear facilities, some in remote locations and some deep underground where "there are not weapons that can penetrate.''
Asked about that assertion Wednesday, Schwartz acknowledged that deep underground targets are difficult to destroy. "Strike is about physics, and the deeper you go, the harder it gets,'' he said. But he said the MOP "is not an inconsequential capability."
Cartwright insisted last week that any air strike would fall short of the goal of ending Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"Really,'' he said, "to take care of this problem kinetically is going to require quite a few [U.S. military] people on the ground, which is not likely to happen. So you can do air strikes to cause havoc, and then what?''
If Iran has the will to push forward with development of a nuclear weapon, it has the intellectual capacity to accomplish that, Cartwright said, and it can continue to spread out nuclear weapons sites beyond the ability of the United States to find them all.
In short, he said, "a kinetic attack is a delaying tactic. A strategy that would deny Iran nuclear weapons probably requires an invasion and change of regime.''
And no matter whether military action is effective or not, said Cartwright, the instability it will cause will be "significant, and not just in the oil markets.''