By Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA, and Dr. Theodore Karasik, Director, R&D, INEGMA
Iceland’s volcano Eyjafjallajokull is creating air travel chaos across Europe. Millions have been affected and financial losses are mounting during a global recession. The GCC states also have suffered through loss of revenue, passengers stranded, cargo delayed, and food and medicines missing from shelves. This is a subtle reminder of the potential bedlam for both commercial and military aircraft flying in and around the Gulf littoral, loss revenue, and civilians attempting to escape a war zone, plus a remote possibility of conflict escalating to a nuclear level regarding the confrontation with Iran.
Although Eyjafiallajokull is nature’s work, a military confrontation with Iran has dramatic implications. Past experiences are important to remember. During the Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, retreating Iraqi forces intentionally caused the release of crude petroleum from field production facilities and ignited the oil to slow advancing coalition forces. Daily mass air raids by coalition forces launched from various bases in the Arabian Gulf interrupted air traffic for commercial airlines operating in the region. The Gulf War provided an example of the confusion and damage that can result from smoke. From January 25 to 27, 1991, Iraqi troops ignited more than 700 Kuwaiti oil fields, sending smoke throughout the area of operations. In response, U.S. F-111Fs launched GBU-15 guided bombs that managed to destroy oil manifolds connecting storage tanks to the terminal. While this action drastically cut the flow of oil, oil fires continued to release large quantities of poisonous gases. In addition, some wells failed to ignite, forming vast pools of raw crude that covered hundreds of acres and created potential firetraps. So great was the smoke from burning oil wells that visibility was severely limited for coalition air forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO). For fliers, the smoke created abrupt and repeated transitions from clear skies to instrument flying conditions. The weather also added to the problem, with black-spattering, oil-laden rain clogging engines in the air and on the ground.
During the Balkan wars, Serbian forces attacked a Croatian Petrochemia facility that stored large quantities of anhydrous ammonia and a variety of other potentially hazardous chemicals. From 1993 to 1995, the facility was attacked six times with rockets, bombs, artillery, and mortars. Serbian forces also intentionally targeted a pesticide production facility at Sisak and a natural gas refinery in Ivanic. During the siege of Muslim forces in Tuzla by the Serbs, the Muslim forces threatened to release large quantities of chlorine gas from railroad tank cars under their control despite the large number of friendly casualties that would have resulted. Other incidents have occurred in Chechnya, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East where toxic industrial chemicals led to causalities.
A Israeli and/or an American/Allies attack would likely concentrate on three locations: Isfahan, where Iran produces uranium hexafluoride gas; Natanz, where the gas is enriched in approximately half of the eight thousand centrifuges located there; and Arak, where a heavy water research reactor, scheduled to come on line in 2012, would be ideal to produce weapons-grade plutonium. It is possible that other sites, such as the Qom site, or centrifuge fabrication sites, the location(s) of which have not yet been identified, will be targeted. The latter would be compelling targets since their destruction would hobble Iran’s ability to reconstitute its program. Plume analysis from an attack on these and other sites suggest that the air and sea corridors around the Gulf will be severely affected. The length of time of the attack sequence and aftermath may also have lingering effects.
A military operation against Iran means that smoke and dust will impact the GCC just as much as it will Iran. Smoke in the field of operations, which can be used to cause confusion, impair vision, can disrupt civilian and military air operations. Water supplies in areas of operations are vulnerable to both intentional and accidental contamination. The threat from chemical-laden smoke is greatest for commercial and military aircraft where prevailing winds are north-north westerly most of the year with the average wind speed of five meters/sec. The primary impact is Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE and the waters of the Gulf and the air above. Since most operations in a war with Iran would be in air and sea, this means commercial traffic in the air and sea in the Arabian Gulf would be severely affected, and most ports and airports in the region would possibly be forced to close.
There is always the small possibility of war escalating to such a level that involved parties could resort to non-conventional weapons. Iran is believed to possess chemical and biological weapons and many Western states accuse it of developing nuclear capabilities. The new U.S. nuclear doctrine, which suggests that countries not adhering to the NPT, meaning Iran, could be targeted with nuclear weapons in case of military conflict. Nuclear blasts would throw huge quantities of smoke and nuclear dust in the air forming nuclear clouds that endanger the environment and affect air traffic.
The implications of a military confrontation with Iran on the GCC means that planning now for how air routes and air space will be affected by warfare, including alternative air routes and the costs associated with them, is necessary. This entails starting negotiations with other countries and airlines. There is also a need to prepare a future public relations campaign that advertises that Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Air, Gulf Air, Oman Air and other airlines will run their operations “as usual” in order to avoid financial ruin. Embassies must be prepared for an onslaught of nationals who may seek to leave the region and ready plans for refugee support. Roads may become congested and traffic might bring land transportation to a standstill. Foods, water, and medicines need to be adequate stockpiled and maintain freshness and/or special refrigeration. Alternative sources for fruits, meats, and fish must be ascertained before an outbreak of potential hostilities as a back-up plan to support the GCC populace (the UAE is now implementing a plan for a three-month food supply in times of crisis which needs to be mimicked elsewhere). It is important to point out too that many critical drugs, including insulin and a number of vaccines, are not made locally and must be flown into the region in special refrigerated containers. Finally, anti-radiation measures need to be thought out from toxic clouds and smoke. Civil defense officials will need to plan extensively for decontamination procedures. Overall, the emerging lessons-learned from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano is a wake-up call for air transport necessities and the likely impact of a regional conflict and the level of crisis management it would entail.