“Ends, Means, and Timelines” by Luke O’Brien is the first submission in The Art of the Future Project’s series with the Military Writers Guild stemming from their workshop prompts at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum’s 2016 DEF[x]DC conference. Participants of the workshop chose either a writing prompt that set up a future State of the Union Address to Congress or examined a participant in a 2026 military raid into Iran after the nuclear deal with the United States fell apart. This story examines the latter through the eyes of a U.S. officer taking part in the operation.
“When they came up with this master plan, did anybody actually bother to figure out how nuclear programs worked?” Major Gill interrupted, raising his voice from his chair at the back of the briefing tent.
Great, Captain Stewart thought, I’m only five minutes into this brief and he’s already started. A small trickle of sweat began to run down his lower back. You’d think with the heat of this goddamn place that people would just shut up and let the briefing finish. Lesson learned. Never underestimate the desire of “that guy” during briefings to make sure everyone knew how smart he was. It was bad enough in a comfortable office building. It was almost intolerable in the excessively hot briefing tent, which despite the desert heat had that faint-yet-omnipresent dank, rubber-like smell that seems to come standard with all military tents. Stewart thought that these unique olfactory qualities would deter random staff officers from asking questions they already knew the answer to, but he’d been dissuaded of that misconception alarmingly early on this deployment. Never underestimate the desire of mid-level staff officers to appear to be the smartest people in the room.
I’m sure that in the middle of Dresden there was a German civil servant who didn’t want anyone to leave the shelter until he’d successfully articulated the theoretical shortcomings of German air defense preparations. “I’ve told all of you about this! Now, if you’d just stop coughing and open to page five…”
“Sir, I understand there are issues with the concept of the operation here, but if I could just finish…”
“What do these people expect from us?” Major Gill continued, as if he had not heard Stewart’s objection. “This isn’t some scrub hut in the middle of Afghanistan with a thumb drive and a pressure cooker. We’re talking about dismantling the entire Iranian nuclear program.”
It’s not that Gill didn’t have a point. He did. The problem was he’d brought up the same point yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that. It was the point they had all been bringing up. And nobody was listening. The “lesson” that had been learned after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was that regime change was simply untenable. In place of regime change, the decision makers in Washington had fixated on the idea of a “substantial punitive raid,” a daring and deep thrust into Iran to dismantle its newly reconstituted nuclear program. Once the Joint Task Force responsible had dismantled Iran’s fissile material production capabilities, they’d pack up and head for home. It was bold. It was innovative. And it was based in total fantasy.
Nobody wanted a long, drawn out war in the Middle East again. The previous generation had seen the Iraq War and the ensuing proxy wars that had redrawn Iraq’s borders. They didn’t want a long, costly war, sure; but they also didn’t want Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. Every blog and social media outlet had article after article outlining how bad (very bad!) it would be for Iran to get a nuclear weapon. And yet, it didn’t seem so bad that people were willing to commit to a strategy that would actually eliminate the problem.
In the long term, that cost in expertise. You had people at higher levels who didn’t actually understand how nuclear weapons were built, how they were used, what it meant to actually remove them. So when it came time for this substantial punitive raid, the actual knowledge of what it would take to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program proved to be, well, insubstantial.
And that’s how Stewart found himself trying to get through a briefing with an increasingly irate field grade officer in a tent that was apparently located somewhere on the surface on the sun, at least judging by the amount of sweat soaking through his uniform’s t-shirt.
“So we’re working our way to Natanz? Great. How long did they give us to exploit the place?”
“The plan has us there for a month.” Stewart said quickly, as if he could somehow manage to avoid Gill’s inevitable response if he just answered fast enough. “The planners seem to think that’ll be the length of time it’ll take to tear apart all the centrifuges, pack off all the uranium and identify any potential follow-on sites.”
“Three weeks? Are you kidding me? Sure. We’re just going to show up at Natanz, dig down to the enrichment floor, stick in the ol’ Staff of Ra, and the sun’s going to point us to the Well of Souls right?” Gill shook his head and sighed. “Look, everyone thinks the challenge of nuclear weapons is the design. That was an important but relatively tiny fraction of the Manhattan Project. You know what was the hard part? The industrial process. Making the material. But the centrifuge technology they’re using largely dates back to the 1950s! They can still rebuild the damn things!”
Stewart nodded, attempting to appear as if his next answer would calm Gill down. It wouldn’t. “Everyone gets that. So they want us to trace the supply chain to identify any follow-on targets. If we do that, we can disrupt their networks and make it impossible for them to rebuild.”
“Impossible? Are you joking?” Gill shot forward to the edge of his chair, leaning forward and staring at Stewart incredulously. “Look, this is just an industrial process. Even if we take away all the centrifuges and uranium feed, they’re still going to be able to rebuild. Iran spent the last couple of decades learning how to beat sanctions. They did it by developing the ability to make items indigenously. We can try to interdict shipments, but in the end there’s only so much you can track. Ban an inverter? They bring in the components for the inverter and make it themselves. And they’ve been doing that. Iran has a highly educated population. They can manufacture precision components. They have to do it for any number of other projects. What are we going to do, shoot their educated middle class?”
“No, sir, I don’t think that’s the…”
“Because nothing screams ‘stability’ like destroying a country’s economy!” Gill interrupted, rolling his eyes theatrically. “We’re going to make sure they can never rebuild their nuclear program again. Which means we’ll have to make sure their industry is incapable of supporting precision engineering. Boy, that’ll ensure people are gainfully employed.
“And further, are we going to keep doing this? Mowing the grass? Everyone thinks the Israeli strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor ended his program. It didn’t, he simply expanded its scope and pushed it underground! The whole reason we’re here sweating like a VW executive at an emissions check is to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Yet we’ve done nothing to fix their security concerns or their cultural outlook, the very things that are driving them to build them!
“Look, states like Iran that are more inward-looking and defensive tend to be predisposed to nuclear weapons. National leaders need the support of elites to stay in power, and in Iran elites don’t value being tied into the international system. The security situation justifies their position and allows them to game the system for cash and influence. It’s really easy to skim money off the top and funnel contracts to your clients as a patron when you’re running a procurement network. Do we plan to address how we’ll change that in a few months of very ultra super substantially punitive raiding?” Gill continued, making quotation marks with his fingers.
“Uh, no, that wasn’t part of my briefing materials. No, sir,” Stewart said, as he shifted his feet from side to side.
“So then to be clear, we’re expected in a very short amount of time to dismantle every centrifuge they have, ship out their uranium, exploit warehouse after warehouse of documents all written in a language we don’t speak. We’re then to follow a network of middlemen and agents that are adept at figuring out how to transship embargoed products they need, and then somehow magically brain erase a huge industrial base in such a way as to make them unlearn how to use basic computer-controlled manufacturing. But in doing so, we can’t permanently annihilate their economy and turn the entire place into a failed state. Is that about the size of it?”
“In a few months, yes, sir,” Stewart acknowledged, nodding his head.
“Good to see we’re repeating history. Would hate to see a plan for the Middle East that isn’t all tip and no iceberg.” Major Gill slid back into his folding chair and stared straight ahead.
Stewart swiped his brow and flipped to his next note card.
“Moving on to our next slide…”
Luke O’Brien is an Army officer assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground and is currently a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University. His views are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or the Army. He can be found on Twitter as @luke_j_obrien.