With the increasing irrationality of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the potential for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon as soon as this year, air strikes to delay the Iranian nuclear program are getting more and more consideration. How might such an air strike go? It is not an idle question, as such a strike is entirely possible.
Iran has a wide variety of targets that would need to be hit. The United States cannot just hit the six major nuclear research facilities, they also need to hit Iran's chemical and biological weapons facilities as well. This is due to American policy, which is that an attack with chemical or biological weapons will be considered to be the same as an attack with nuclear weapons - because the only WMD that United States has in its arsenal are nukes.
To take these sites out, the Iranian air-defense system needs to be destroyed first. Iran did a lot of shopping in the 1990s, during the post Cold War "yard sale at the end of history", and reportedly came away with a variety of modern air-defense systems, including the Russian SA-10, SA-11, and SA-15 anti-aircraft missile systems. Iran also has at least two dozen SA-6 launchers and over 100 American HAWK launchers on inventory, giving it a weapon that is capable against the F-16s used by the United States Air Force and the UAE.
Backing up the anti-aircraft missiles is an air force that has at least 25 MiG-29s (unconfirmed reports put the Iranian total as high as 62), 24 Mirage F-1s (courtesy of Saddam's regime in 1991), 25 F-14s, and 65 F-4s. All of these can carry radar-guided missiles, primarily older versions of the AIM-7 Sparrow or the Super 530.
Taking down these defenses is step one. One way is to suppress the defense using the AGM-88, or HARM anti-radiation missiles, to kill the radars that guide these missiles. Another option is to use stealth aircraft like the F-117, B-2, and F-22 to deliver JDAMs onto the missile launchers. A third option will be to use Tomahawk and ALCMs against these targets. At the same time, aircraft like the F-15, F-15E, F-16 and F-18 will be carrying out counter-air missions to take out the Iranian Air Force either on the ground or in the air.
Once control of the air is assured, the focus will be on taking out the Iranian WMD facilities and the coastal anti-ship missile batteries (a mix of Silkworms and Sunburns). This will be done with cruise missiles, smart bombs, and standoff weapons like the JASSM, SLAM, SLAM-ER, and JSOW. The goal will be to damage or destroy the facilities and to kill the personnel.
This is not going to be an easy undertaking. Unlike Desert Fox, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, the United States will be facing an opponent with a relatively intact air-defense system, much like Iraq's at the start of Desert Storm in 1991, only with more modern systems. This will likely cost the United States some aircraft and highly-trained aircrews. But when the alternative is letting Ahmadinejad have weapons that can wipe out an entire city - prompting a devastating response. - Harold C. Hutchison ( firstname.lastname@example.org)