Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

(Virtually) bombing Iran and limits of (real) military power


Last Friday, I got together with “Mister X” (a government analyst specializing on Iran) and a group of McGill University graduate students to play a modified version of the board game Persian Incursion. The modifications were designed to approximate current real-world conditions, including the possibility of a “Syrian route” to Iran whereby Israel might exploit of the degradation of Syrian air defences caused by the ongoing civil war in that country.

So, how did it go? In order to keep players engaged, I had to cut a few corners. We used simplified target profiles, coupled with some of the quick strike rules that the game designers have released. Mission planning was rather rushed and a bit chaotic, and even then the Iranian side was left with little to do for extended periods of time while the Israelis plotted their attacks. (Fortunately, the Iranians were able to fill the time with a constant stream of political banter and the occasional fiery rhetoric condemning the Zionist entity.) Despite my efforts to speed things up, by the end of four hours of game play we were a little less than half way through the week that the game is designed to cover. Having as many eight players in the room at once certainly contributed to a certain degree of chaos, with the murky complexity of Iranian simulation decision-making often mirroring the dysfunctions of the real thing. If I were to do it again I would do a few things differently.

Nevertheless, I think things went well, and the participants seemed to have fun. I was certainly able to use the simulation process to generate discussion of a number of military and political/diplomatic aspects of a potential military confrontation between the two countries. The account below adds some atmospheric embellishment to the game as it unfolded, but nonetheless accurately reflects the strategic decision-making and calculations of the two sides.

* * *


At the beginning of the game the Israeli side decided to concentrate their attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities, rather than undertaking a broader campaign against its oil and economic infrastructure. To facilitate this, they secretly converted several transport aircraft into additional air-to-air tankers. They also  modified some of their HARM missiles to home in on any GPS jammers that Iran might deploy at sensitive sites. Israel decided to launch its initial attack through Jordanian and Iraqi air space, but held open the possibility of using the Syrian route in future if diplomatic developments foreclosed other possibilities.

For its part, Iran did indeed deploy both GPS jammers and laser countermeasures at its nuclear sites. Aware of reports of Israeli jamming of Syria’s air defences in 2008 during Operation Orchard, as well as ongoing cyberattacks against its defence and nuclear facilities, the Iranians also heavily invested in electronic hardening of their own air defence network.

In Tehran, the Iranian leadership plots their diplomatic moves as an Israeli strike mission prepares to launch.

In Tehran, the Iranian leadership plots their diplomatic moves as an Israeli strike mission prepares to launch.

The game started with an initial Israeli strike against the Fordow underground uranium enrichment facility near Qom, the Natanz nuclear fuel enrichment facility, and Iran’s reactor and heavy water plant at Arak. More than 120 Israeli aircraft—four squadrons of F-16s, one squadron of F-15s, plus tankers and electronic warfare aircraft—took part. Although some aircraft were assigned to fighter sweeps ahead of the attacking force or to close escort of the strike packages, for most part the need to maximize the amount of ordnance that would be delivered meant that the Israeli strike aircraft were expected to self-escort. Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) missions were plotted against key SAM sites.

The attack was generally very successful. Despite efforts to make their system more robust, Israeli EW took its toll on Iran’s air defence system. Two long-range S-200 (SA-5) surface-to-air missile batteries were destroyed, as were several of the medium-ranged systems defending particular targets. The GPS jammers were also eliminated using the modified HARMs. When the smoke cleared, Fordow had been completely destroyed. The deeply-buried and well-protected main centrifuge halls at Natanz were also destroyed, with Israeli F-15s having successfully “double-tapped” pairs of EGBU-28B bombs one after the other in the same locations so as to drill down through the concrete structure. Some secondary installations  at Natanz did survive, however. At Arak, more than two-thirds of the facility was destroyed.

About a dozen Iranian aircraft managed to intercept the Israeli force, but all were shot down well beyond visual range by the IAF, which enjoyed the advantage of much superior modern radar systems as well as the much greater range of the AIM-120C air-to-air missiles. However, one IRIAF F-14 pilot was able to target and destroy an F-16. While the Israeli pilot was killed—thus denying Iran the opportunity to parade him on television as a prisoner of war—the shoot-down was nonetheless a morale-builder for Tehran.

Members of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-14 squadron that engaged the Israeli attack force on the first day of the war. The pilot responsible for downing an Israeli aircraft can be seen in the back row, centre.

Members of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-14 squadron that engaged the Israeli attack force on the first day of the war. The pilot responsible for downing an Israeli aircraft can be seen in the back row, centre.

As the Israeli aircraft landed back at their bases, Iran also launched the first of what would be several retaliatory waves of attacks by Shahab 3 medium range ballistic missiles. The Supreme Leader, anxious to seize the moral high-ground, ordered that these not be targeted against civilians in Israeli cities, but rather in symbolic retribution against Israel’s own nuclear complex at Dimona. Less than half of the missiles made it through Israel’s layered ABM defences of Arrow-2 and Patriot PAC-3 interceptors. Those that did killed several lizards and damaged an ancillary building, but did little more.

Iran also responded to the Israeli attack with a barrage of angry statements and indignant diplomacy, putting particular pressure on Jordan in the hopes that it might deny its airspace to future Israeli attacks. Most countries, including the United States, seemed to be unhappy with Israel’s unilateral action. Unwilling to be drawn into the fighting, Washington refrained from deploying military assets (notably its Aegis-class cruisers) to buttress Israel’s own missile defences.

In order to increase the pressure on Tehran, Israel readied a second attack to finish off the nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak, and to highlight to Iranian leaders the ability of the IAF to strike at will. Anxious to minimize its losses, aware that Iran had increased the alert status of several squadrons and redeployed several batteries of short-range SAMs to Natanz,  and with many fewer targets to strike than before, a much larger proportion of aircraft were assigned to SEAD, fighter suppression, and close escort. Secret Israeli entreaties to King Abdullah II assured that the operation, once more flown via Jordanian and Iraqi air space, was met with little other than verbal opposition from the Kingdom.


A second Israeli strike mission is en route, on the morning of D+2.

As the mission began, tragedy struck when one F-15 suffered mechanical failure and crashed into a residential neighbourhood in northern Israel. The rest of the  operation went flawlessly though, with the remaining facilities at Arak and Natanz completely destroyed. Israel’s jubilant leaders and public waited for Iran to concede to the IDF’s clear superiority, and agree to terminate its nuclear programme.


“So, how many Zionist aggressors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

Except that Iran didn’t. On the contrary, President Ahmadi-Nejad toured the smoking ruins of Natanz only hours after the Israeli warplanes had left, vowing that for every “peaceful civilian nuclear site destroyed by Zionist aggression” Iran would build “two more to replace it.” His opponents in the Iranian Majlis (parliament) immediately condemned his comments as a sign of weakness and insisted instead that at least three new facilities be built for every one destroyed by Israel. With domestic public opinion generally supportive, Iranian leaders seemed to be in no mood for compromise. On the contrary, another barrage of Shahab-3s were fired at Israel, this time lightly damaging the Ramat David air force base. The Supreme Leader seemed more upbeat than usual, joking with his aides during his public appearances.

The perplexed Israeli chief of staff reported to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Iranians—unable to confront Israel effectively in the air—seemed to be “playing for a draw.” The PM, aware that international concern at Israel’s actions was growing, angrily banged his fist on the table in frustration. “A draw is not good enough! We need to strike them where it hurts, and force them to concede to our demands!” Mossad reported that the Iranians had likely been set back in their nuclear development efforts by between one and three years. One junior Foreign Ministry analyst in the room warned, however, that Tehran could respond to further Israeli strikes by escalating its own retaliation, or even deciding to press ahead and build nuclear weapons at all costs. Ironically, therefore, the attacks might actually hasten the emergence of a nuclear-armed foe.

The Prime Minister, having embarked on this course of action, didn’t want to hear it.

Instead, Israel’s strategy was revised. Plans for a strike against Iran’s fuel enrichment facility at Isfahan were put on hold, until such time as Iranian leaders and Iranian public had been made to feel the pain of Israeli attacks more directly. Emphasis was to be shifted to key economic and infrastructure targets instead.

There was some risk in this. Faced with a more direct challenge to regime stability, Tehran might escalate its response, either attempting to close the Straits of Hormuz or even encouraging Hizbullah to launch rocket attacks against Israel from Lebanon. The latter in particular would likely escalate into a major military confrontation, diverting IAF squadrons into fighting a different war much closer to home for many days or weeks.

The IDF examined, but the PM rejected, the option of launching a series of airstrikes against Iran’s oil refineries and terminals. This would require a large number of continuing air operations, an operational tempo that might begin to stretch IDF resources. Moreover, with every mission came the risk of losing an aircraft—thereby handing Tehran a propaganda victory. Iran might also be expected to politically exploit any overt shift by Israel to bombing civilian targets.

Instead, IDF special forces and Mossad, working in conjunction with the anti-regime Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), were ordered to launch a series of covert sabotage operations against important infrastructure targets within the country. Three nights into the military campaign, the first of these struck an electrical generator complex near Tehran. Subsequently attacks hit oil pipelines and port facilities in the south.

Again, however, the attacks—while very successful in narrow military terms—failed to generate the desired political effects fast enough. Iranian public support for the regime’s positions remained relatively firm. Indeed, one attack rather backfired, causing Iranians to rally around the regime more closely.

* * *

…and that’s where, for lack of time, we had to leave it. The game demonstrated both the power of the Israeli military and its limits. The IAF could mount a mission into Iran and destroy its assigned targets. The IRIAF could do very little to stop this, and indeed had suffered almost two dozen planes shot down for the loss of just one Israeli jet. However, even with additional tanker support the IAF could not destroy Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure in a single mission, necessitating a multi-day operation that increasingly concerned the international community. More to the point, the destruction of nuclear facilities did not necessarily guarantee that Iran would suspend its nuclear programmes—on the contrary, it might even redouble its commitment to this for reasons of both domestic politics and national security. The frustration of the Israeli team was palpable, as they executed near-flawless airstrikes, only to find their opponent bloody but unbowed. Faced with this, Israel decided to broaden the war, with unpredictable consequences.

One participant, briefly summarizing his take-away from the game, expressed it thus:

In terms of my experience, it really drove home the disparity in power [between the two sides] due to technological differences. Also, the complexity of planning a strike and balancing certainty of destruction with hitting more targets. Then, the fact that Israel’s military success barely made a dent against the Iranian regime until we subverted it by other means.

In addition to providing a rare opportunity to discuss the technical aspects of modern air warfare in a political science class, I was particularly pleased at the way in which the politics unfolded. The difficulty that the Israelis encountered in translating military superiority into achievement of desired political goals was rather reminiscent of the failures of political failures of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon or the 2006 war with Hizbullah—or, for that matter, the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for the “Syrian route,” we never had a chance to explore it since Jordan remained a viable option right until the end. However, the mere availability of the Syrian option certainly gave the Israeli side a sense of greater flexibility, since they knew that no matter what happened on the diplomatic front they could still strike against Iran.

Who would have won at the end? It is hard to say. The Iranians were certainly upbeat, even more so because they were slowly winning the diplomatic war as international concern grew at Israel’s actions. On the other hand, Israeli public opinion remained strongly supportive of their government throughout the crisis, while towards the last few turns there had been some slight deterioration of the Iranian position. If we had an opportunity to continue to play, the battle for Iranian public opinion would likely have emerged as a critical factor.

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