The Air Force has provided the White House with options for a strike against Iran's nuclear weapons sites, but a former top Pentagon official is warning America and Israel lack the weaponry to halt Tehran's atomic arms program.
Iran's defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons "has the attention of the [Joint] Chiefs and other national security officials," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told reporters Wednesday. "Our obligation is to provide options" to the defense secretary and the president, Schwartz said, "and we have done that."
President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said for months they will continue with a plan based on increasingly severe sanctions aimed at weakening the regime in Tehran. But the U.S. leaders contend a military strike is very much on the table.
The strike options apparently include dropping the Air Force's 30,000-pound "bunker buster" bomb. That weapon is designed to penetrate deep into the ground and take out deeply burried enemy targets.
Schwartz's revelation that strike options have been sent to the military's civilian bosses in the Pentagon's E-Ring and the White House came less than a week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with Obama in Washington. And it came six days after the former second-ranking U.S. general said flatly that the Air Force and Israel lack the firepower to bring Iran's nuclear arms program to a halt.
"No, we don't," retired Marine Corps Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, until last August the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last week during a forum in Washington. "If they have the intent, all the weapons in the world are not going to change that ... because the knowledge is there." Cartwright's role as vice chairman would have given him access to Washington's best intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
Another reason is that U.S. intelligence has concluded Iranian officials have moved many of their nuclear labs over the last few years to hardened locations deeper and deeper underground, Cartwright and retired Adm. William Fallon, a former U.S. Central Command chief, said during the forum.
Schwartz acknowledged that would make such sites difficult to reach. "It goes without saying that strike is about physics. So the deeper you go, the harder it gets," Schwartz said. But the bunker buster bomb, the air chief added with a confident grin, "is not an inconsequential capability—I think "Hoss" Cartwright would agree with that."
Israeli officials have been more brash than have Obama and Panetta about taking out Iran's nuclear program. But Cartwright said America's closest Middle East ally only possesses the combat power to "slow it down" or "delay it" by two to five years.
"I don't see a lot of value in going in," Cartwright said.
His comments raised eyebrows in Washington, partly because prior to becoming vice chairman he was U.S. Strategic Command chief. That Nebraska-based organization oversees America's nuclear weapons and other weaponry like conventionally armed bombers and missiles that would likely be used to strike deeply buried targets like Iran's nuclear arms labs.
What would it take to forcibly stop Iran's program? A large-scale invasion with the goal of toppling the regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"It's not a single target, one strike and it's over" kind of operation, Fallon said. "They've been pretty clever about distributing stuff [across the country]. To really take care of the problem, it will require people—and quite a few of them. You can do air strikes only to delay them."
Not even the most fervent U.S. or Israeli hawks have advocated launching a ground war in Iran.
While Obama and Panetta have used brash rhetoric to say they will not allow Iran to field an atomic weapon, Cartwright said it is unclear whether those vows have real-world muscle.
"Several presidents now have said, 'Not on my watch. No way will we ever allow that to happen," Cartwright said. "What does that mean? We said that about [North] Korea, too."