May 31, 2013:
What does modern Iran and Nazi Germany have in common, aside from the strident anti-Semitism and police state mentality? Both nations are extremely vulnerable to air attack, more so than most people realize (or realized in the case of Germany). This has come to light recently as Iran’s economic problems have gotten more attention and certain vulnerabilities were noticed. The world is applying a record number of economic sanctions on Iran in an effort to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program. That has led to the realization of some unique air attack opportunities. There are two of these that are particularly crucial. Iran has limited oil refining capability (less than a hundred targets for air attack) and electricity generating capacity (again, fewer than a hundred targets). Add to that air defense system targets and naval bases (where mine laying ships are) and you have a situation where fewer than a thousand smart bombs or missiles would plunge Iran into darkness, create a fuel shortage, and cripple their military capabilities (interfering with ship traffic in the Persian Gulf).
And then there’s the Nazi Germany connection, demonstrating how history can repeat itself. The similar German vulnerabilities were, in one crucial case, not discovered until after World War II (1939-45) was over. It all began when the Allies (mainly the U.S. and Britain) realized that they could build a lot of heavy bombers for attacking Germany, before they would have enough ground forces ready for invading Europe. This led to the “strategic bombing campaign” against Germany. The major problem the Allies had with their strategic bombing campaign against Germany was figuring out what to bomb. While there were thousands of heavy bombers available, Germany was still a big place and there were far more targets than bombs.
It was realized at the beginning that some targets would have a larger impact on German war making power than others. One target was dismissed early on, power plants. It was no secret that Germany had 8,200 electrical power plants, and an extensive system of high capacity power transmission lines. Some Allied experts concluded that the German "Power Grid" was extensive enough that the Germans could repair damage more quickly than allied bombers could cause it. Examination of the power grid after the war made it clear that such was not the case. More to the point, the elimination of a few large power plants would have done disproportionate damage to Nazi war industry. The German power system was, in hindsight, the most vulnerable aspect of the German economy. If half of Germany's electricity supply was eliminated, they would not be able to produce enough weapons to keep the war going. This vulnerability was very real. For one thing, a few large plants provided crucial amounts of energy. Most of the power (82 percent) was provided by a few (400) plants. Worse yet (for the Germans) their power grid was not capable of quickly and efficiently shifting power from one part of the country to another. Some of the British and American experts consulted did catch this key aspect of the situation. The experts were expert enough but were overruled by military and political members of the committee that selected targets.
After the war was over it was discovered that the destruction of two plants just outside Berlin would have shut that city down. Most of German generating capacity (79 percent) was coal fired, the remainder was hydroelectric. The plants were difficult to build and repair, relatively fragile, and easy to damage. Most plants could be put out of action for up to three months with as little as twenty tons of bombs (a single B 17 carried two tons). Forty tons could knock the plant out for up to a year. The larger plants would require more tonnage, but a hundred tons would do it. This kind of effort might require several hundred B 17 sorties (making allowances for bad weather, stiff opposition, and poor aim). Throughout the war less than 900 tons were dropped on power plants. This was not enough to have a noticeable effect. In any event, the Germans were always short of electric power during the war and local brownouts were common. Nor could they expand electrical power output. There wasn't enough fuel for more plants, and most of the industry needed to build new ones was tied up in arms production.
If a hundred plants were hit hard, and this would have required about one percent of all the bombs dropped on Europe, German industry would have collapsed from the loss of over half its electricity supply. If this had been done in 1943, the war would have probably ended up to a year before it actually did. Several million lives would have been saved and the history of post war Europe might have been quite different. But then, maybe not; yet the opportunity was there, if only it had been seized when it could have been in 1943. Unfortunately for Iran, all this was captured by military historians and most was declassified by the 1970s.
Germany also was vulnerable to attacks on transportation chokepoints, something that was discovered by trial and error throughout the war. Too this day the attacks on the transportation network are still not fully appreciated. For example, the massive firebomb attack on the city of Dresden late in the war, now dismissed as “unnecessary,” was back then carried out because Dresden was a key railroad center and destroying that disrupted the flow of supplies and troops east. The Russians wanted attacks like this very much and the allies obliged.
Iran has a lot of bridges and tunnels in its road and railroad network. These targets are easy for smart bombs to destroy and difficult to rebuild. Today’s sensors allow for the detection of stealthy rebuilding efforts (which the Germans used extensively during World War II) and scheduling more smart bomb attacks.
Germany also was vulnerable to fuel shortages, and these targets were attacked early on. But the allies missed the importance of the new plants that turned coal into liquid vehicle fuel. Before the war ended this vulnerability was attacked and that proved crucial in many major battles (like the Battle of the Bulge and German attempts to halt the Russian advance into Germany).
Iran, like Nazi Germany, was cut off from most foreign trade and forced to improvise. Iran has improvised, but key vulnerabilities have developed. Smart bombs, even with their GPS jammed (all have backup internal navigation systems) would be able to quickly hit all these targets and keep hitting them to keep them inoperable. Most of this is known by Iranian planners, which is expected to influence Iranian decisions on what they can do and how they can do it.