By Louis René Beres
Special to Jewish Business News
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“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
On September 24, 2009, following a speech by then U.S. President Barack Obama to the U.N. General Assembly, the Security Council unanimously approved a resolution calling expressly for “a world without nuclear weapons.” In direct response to this seemingly reasonable call, Mr. Obama then declared: “This resolution enshrines our shared commitment to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons.” Ironically, this evidently unattainable goal, however high-minded, was (even in principle) not meaningfully “pro-peace.” Initially, at least, the current US President, Donald Trump, echoed the same misguided hope.
Although Trump’s wish was more explicitly offered as a hypothetical or “best of all possible worlds” posture (Mr. Trump, championing “America First,” is not normally a supporter of broad based global cooperation policies), these two very different presidents had expressed essentially identical preferences. Were both somehow mistaken? Could there possibly be any more sensible posture to take on such inherently indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction? How, under absolutely any circumstances, could such incomparably destructive implements of warfare ever be represented as anything but starkly uncivilized and grievously destabilizing?
Although these serious questions might be raised generically, and without any specific country in mind, this essay is directed with particular reference to the State of Israel. Of course, in order to respond purposefully, it is first necessary to be wholly dispassionate and consistently analytic. As a start, it must be very clearly understood that absolutely no weapon system is by its very nature harmful or provocative.
In essence, by simple deduction, nuclear weapons are not per se negative for global peace and security. Rather, as thoughtful observers should already have been able to glean from observing U.S. – Soviet relations back during Cold War I (it seems evident that we are now already embroiled in “Cold War II”), nuclear weapons could sometime prove decisive to the indispensable avoidance of catastrophic war. This is not by any means a blanket or across-the-board observation. In prospectively subtle strategic matters, differentiation and nuance are typically all-important. Accordingly, it is plausible that any further “horizontal” nuclear proliferation would in fact be unambiguously corrosive, and that any nuclear spread to presently non-nuclear states should be conscientiously prevented and energetically “contained.”
Still, there are certain recognizable states/countries in our decentralized or “Westphalian” world system that could never survive in the global “state of nature” without first maintaining crediblenuclear deterrence. Here, the State of Israel is the most plainly obvious and critically urgent case in point. Conceivably, it is also the only reasonable example, but that controversial judgment would ultimately be contingent upon the reciprocally subjective expectations of other (presumptively beleaguered) states.
Should Israel ever have to face one or several enemies without nuclear deterrence, without a metaphoric “handful of dust,” the prospect of existential defeat could sometime become altogether real and intolerable. This is the case, moreover, even in the absence of any specifically nuclear adversaries, and regardless of whether Israeli nuclear deterrence would continue to be based upon policies of “deliberate ambiguity” or the so-called “bomb in the basement.” Plausibly, Israel would already have begun to move toward certain limited and selectively defined forms of “nuclear disclosure.”
In the main, it’s not all that complicated. If ever it should be left without nuclear weapons, Israel could not long endure. More than any other state on earth, and perhaps even more than any other state in world history, Israel requires nuclear weapons merely to remain “alive.” Indeed, for anyone who has watched Middle Eastern security affairs evolve over the past seventy years (Israel became a modern state in May 1948), this sobering conclusion is largely incontestable.
Periodically, within the United Nations, Israel’s assorted enemies introduce tactical resolutions calling, inter alia, for a Middle East “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.” Sometimes, these states have called instead or additionally for Israel to join the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and/or they have submitted a resolution of condemnation directed solely and exclusively at Israel. On September 20, 2013, such a non-binding resolution specifically targeting Israel was defeated by a vote of 51 to 43, with 32 abstentions. More precisely, this Iranian-backed resolution was defeated at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) annual general conference; significantly, it had expressed “concern about Israeli nuclear capabilities,” and had also called upon Israel “to accede to the NPT, and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.”
Israel is a member of the IAEA, but it is not subject to IAEA inspections, except for a single and minor research facility.
Should Israel ever feel compelled to heed such intentionally one-sided resolutions, possibly in response to unexpected political pressures from Washington, nothing of any decisive military consequence might then stand in the way of certain singular or coordinated Arab or Iranian attacks. Ultimately, in all war, as Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once prominently commented, “mass counts.” Israel lacks mass. Without its nuclear weapons, appropriately configured and conspicuously recognizable, the indispensable core of Israel’s capacity to deter major enemy assaults could inevitably disappear.
In late September, 2013, the then new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani was sounding more conciliatory and reasonable to Israel and the United States than his predecessor. At a minimum, his diplomatic discourse was no longer expressly genocidal. Nonetheless, real power in Tehran remained with the senior clerical leadership, especially the Grand Ayatollah. In those key quarters, very little if anything has changed.
Quite the contrary.
On September 22, 2013, Iran’s military forces first publicly paraded their arsenal of ballistic missiles expressly deemed capable of hitting Israel. According to western intelligence at the time, Iran displayed 30 missiles, 12 Sejil and 18 Ghadr, with a nominal range of 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles). This was the first time that Iran had featured so many missiles, both two-stage weapons using solid fuel, with a capacity to strike Israeli targets, and also U.S. bases in the Gulf.
The new Iranian president had been focused on Israel’s chemical weapons, thus urging, in the name of “fairness,” that the Jewish State be simultaneously deprived of both its nuclear and its chemical arsenal. Pointing to ongoing chemical disarmament efforts then being directed at Syria, the Iranian Foreign Ministry had urged disingenuously that Israel also pledge to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Geopolitically, of course, it was the Tehran regime’s plan to displace pressure from its core ally in Damascus, and to undermine Israel’s non-nuclear deterrence posture. Israel did sign the CWC in 1982, but Jerusalem never ratified the agreement. In strict jurisprudential terms, non-ratification is not automatically exculpatory, because all states, whether or not they are formal parties to this particular agreement, are still fully bound by all pertinent and antecedent customary international law.
Also clear is that no Israeli government would ever use chemical weapons against noncombatants, and that its implicit deterrent threat of using such weapons against enemy military forces could concern only an existentially last-resort retaliation for another’s state’s prior and plausibly unconventional aggression. In the final analysis, however, Israel’s only true existential protection lies with its presumptive nuclear forces. What is needed now, apropos of this basic requirement, is a comprehensive and systematic re-examination of the tiny country’s underlying nuclear doctrine.
Without proper doctrine, Israel’s nuclear forces could become little more than a disjointed assemblage of military hardware, one without any correspondingly recognizable and usable Order of Battle.
The next time that Israel is forced to defend its multi-system deterrence posture from manifestly contrived calls to enter a regional “nuclear weapons free-zone,” or to join the NPT, the leadership in Jerusalem should already have at hand substantially more than the polite syntax of appropriate diplomatic rejection. It should also already maintain, for its own benefit, a coherent conceptual and strategic template for overall national security. Most important, in this regard, will be a persuasive understanding of why, exactly, Israel should remain a nuclear power, whether still ambiguous (the “bomb in the basement”) or disclosed.
Any usefully correct answer will include at least the following core arguments, some of which may also be intersecting, interpenetrating or even synergistic.
- Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter large conventional attacks by enemy states. The effectiveness of any such Israeli nuclear deterrence will depend, among other things, upon: (a) perceived vulnerability of Israeli nuclear forces; (b) perceived destructiveness of Israeli nuclear forces; (c) perceived willingness of Israeli leadership to follow through on nuclear threats; (d) perceived capacities of prospective attacker’s active defenses; (e) perceptions of Israeli targeting doctrine; (f) perceptions of Israel’s probable retaliatory response when there is an expectation of non-nuclear but chemical and/or biological counter-retaliations; (g) disclosure or continued nondisclosure of Israel’s nuclear arsenal; and (h) creation or non-creation of a Palestinian state.
- Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter all levels of unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) attacks. The effectiveness of these forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence will also depend, on (a) to (h) above. In this connection, Israel’s nuclear weapons are needed to deter enemy escalation of conventional warfare to unconventional warfare, and of one form of unconventional warfare to another (i.e., escalation of chemical warfare to biological warfare, biological warfare to chemical warfare, or biological/chemical warfare to nuclear warfare). This means, in military parlance, a capacity for “escalation dominance.”
- Israel needs nuclear weapons to preempt enemy nuclear attacks. This does not mean that Israeli preemptions of such attacks would necessarily be nuclear (almost certainly, they would be non-nuclear), but only that they could conceivably be nuclear. Of course, should Israel ever need to use its nuclear forces for such a purpose, such resort would signify the failure of these forces as a deterrent (per number 2, above). Significantly, such failure is increasingly plausible because of the problematic nature of nuclear deterrence in general, and because of the particular circumstances of the Islamic Middle East regarding possible decisional irrationality.
- Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy nuclear assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. This also relates to the need for “escalation dominance.”
- Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy non-nuclear (conventional/chemical/biological) assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. Again, this illustrates Israel’s basic need to dominate escalatory processes.
- As only a distinctly last resort, Israel needs nuclear weapons for nuclear war fighting. Although, in the best of all possible worlds, this residual need will never have to arise, and although Israel should always do everything possible to avoid any such use (Project Daniel made this avoidance a major point in its final report, Israel’s Strategic Future, presented to former PM Sharon in 2003), it still cannot be ruled out altogether. Rather, Israeli planners and decision-makers who could possibly find themselves in a dire situation of “no alternative” (Ein Breira) must take it seriously. Among the possible and more-or-less probable paths to nuclear war fighting are the following: enemy nuclear first-strikes against Israel; enemy non-nuclear first-strikes against Israel that elicit Israeli nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes; Israeli nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets; Israeli non-nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets that elicit enemy nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes. Other pertinent paths to nuclear war fighting might include accidental/unintentional/inadvertent nuclear attacks among Israel and regional enemy states, and even the escalatory consequences of nuclear terrorism against the Jewish State. As long as it can be assumed that Israel is determined to endure, there are conditions where Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv could resort to nuclear war fighting. This holds true if: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter-retaliatory capabilities. It follows, from the standpoint of Israel’s nuclear requirements, that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv should prepare to do what is needed to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).
- Israel needs nuclear weapons for the also residual “Samson Option.” Although any such use of nuclear weapons, by definition, would be profoundly catastrophic, Israel is apt to reason that it would be better to “die with the Philistines” than to die alone. This sort of understanding is much more than a matter of Jewish honor, and also much more than a refutation of the so-called “Masada complex” (suicide without punishment of the aggressor). It could (depending upon awareness by enemy states) represent an integral and indispensable element of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the biblical analogy is somewhat misleading. Samson chose suicide by pushing apart the temple pillars, whereas Israel, using nuclear weapons as a last resort, would not be choosing “suicide” or even necessarily committing For states, the criteria of “life” and “death” are hardly as clear-cut as they are for individual persons. Finally, it is essential that Israel’s leaders, in considering possible uses of nuclear weapons, regard the Samson Option as one to be precluded by correct resort to all other nuclear options. Stated differently, a resort to the Samson Option, by Israel, would imply the complete failure of all other options, and of the failure of its nuclear weapons to provide essential national security.
We have seen (numbers 1 – 2, above) that Israel needs nuclear weapons, among other purposes, to deter large conventional attacks, and all levels of unconventional attack by enemy states. Yet, the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in meeting these needs may be distinctly limited and problematic. Even if the country should sometime move toward partial or full disclosure of its presumptive nuclear weapons, Israel could not reasonably rely entirely upon nuclear deterrence for its survival.
Aware of these limitations, Israel must nonetheless seek to strengthen nuclear deterrence such that an enemy state will always calculate that a first-strike upon the Jewish State would be irrational. This means taking steps to convince the enemy state that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this singularly important objective, Israel must always convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Where a rational enemy state considering an attack upon Israel would be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might then choose to strike first, depending, of course, upon the particular value or utility it places upon the expected outcomes of such an attack.
Regarding willingness, even if Jerusalem were prepared to respond to certain attacks with nuclear reprisals, any enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could still provoke an attack upon Israel. Here, misperception and/or errors in information could immobilize Israeli nuclear deterrence. It is also conceivable that Jerusalem would, in fact, lack willingness to retaliate, and that enemy decision-makers could perceive this lack correctly. In this notably perilous case, Israeli nuclear deterrence would be immobilized not because of any “confused signals,” but rather because of certain specific Israeli intelligence, and/or policy failures.
Regarding capacity, even if Jerusalem is known to maintain a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that enemy states always believe these weapons to be distinctly usable. This means that if a first-strike attack were believed capable of destroying Israel’s arsenal, the Jewish State’s nuclear deterrent could be immobilized. Moreover, even if Israel’s nuclear weapons were configured such that they could not be destroyed by an enemy first-strike, enemy misperceptions or misjudgments about Israeli vulnerability could still occasion the failure of nuclear deterrence.
A further complication here might concern enemy state deployment of anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which could contribute to an attack decision against Israel by lowering, more-or-less, the intended aggressor’s expected costs.
The importance of “usable” nuclear weapons must also be examined from the standpoint of probable harms. Should Israel’s nuclear weapons be perceived by any would-be attacker as “too destructive,” they still might not deter. Here, to some extent, at least, successful nuclear deterrence, to the extent possible, may actually vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. At the same time, per earlier recommendations by Project Daniel, it is essential that Israel always base its central deterrence position on appropriate levels of “counter value” (counter-city) targeting; never on “counterforce.”
No examination of Israeli nuclear deterrence options would be complete without some further consideration of the “Bomb in the Basement.” From the beginning, Israel’s bomb has remained deliberately ambiguous. For the future, however, it is by no means certain that an undeclared nuclear deterrent will be capable of meeting Jerusalem’s security goals, or that it will even be equal in effectiveness to a more or less openly-declared nuclear deterrent.
Disclosure would not be intended to reveal the obvious, i.e., that Israel has the bomb, but instead to heighten enemy perceptions of Jerusalem’s capable nuclear forces, and/or Jerusalem’s willingnessto use these forces in reprisal for certain first strike attacks.
What, exactly, are the plausible connections between an openly declared nuclear weapons capacity, and enemy perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence? One such connection concerns the relation between disclosure, and perceived vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear forces to preemptive destruction. Another such connection concerns the relation between disclosure, and perceived capacity of Jerusalem’s nuclear forces, to penetrate the attacking state’s active defenses.
To the extent that removing the bomb from the basement, or disclosure, would encourage enemy views of an Israeli force that is sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks, and/or is capable of piercing enemy active defenses, disclosure could represent a rational and prudent option for Israel. The operational benefits of disclosure would stem from deliberate flows of information about dispersion, multiplication, hardening, speed and evasiveness of nuclear weapons systems, and also about some other pertinent technical features of certain nuclear weapons. Most importantly, such flows, which could also refer to command/control invulnerability, and possible pre-delegations of launch authority, could serve to remove any lingering enemy doubts about Israel’s nuclear force capabilities.
Such doubts, if left unchallenged, could undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence. Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could also heighten enemy perceptions of Jerusalem’s willingness to make good on its retaliatory threats. For example, by releasing information about its nuclear forces that identifies distinctly usable weapons, Israel might successfully remove any doubts about Jerusalem’s nuclear resolve. A prospective attacker, newly aware that Israel could retaliate across the entire spectrum of possible yield scenarios without generating intolerably high levels of civilian harms, could then be more likely, because of Israeli disclosure, to believe Jerusalem’s nuclear deterrent threats.
There are also vital connections between disclosure, doctrine, and deterrence. To the extent that Israel’s strategic doctrine actually identifies certain nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal – forms calibrating Israeli retaliations, to particular levels of provocation – any disclosure of such doctrine (at least in its broadest and most unspecific contours) could contribute to Israel’s nuclear deterrence. Without such disclosure, Israel’s enemies could be kept guessing about Jerusalem’s probable responses, a condition of protracted uncertainty that could conceivably serve Israel’s security for a while longer, but, at one time or another, could also fail altogether.
For almost fifty years, I have studied the stunningly complex problem of enemy rationality, including certain earlier published writings concerning the particular nuclear threat from Iran. By definition, strategic assessments of nuclear deterrence always assume a rational state enemy; that is, an enemy that values its own continued survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. But, for actual operational reasons, this assumption could sometimes become problematic.
There is really no reason to assume that all prospective attackers of the Jewish State would always rank physical survival above all other possible options, or even that such attackers would hew perfectly to careful, systematic, and transitive comparisons of all expected costs and benefits. As long as such enemies are capable of missile attacks upon Israel, and as long as Israel is unable to intercept these attacks with near-perfect, or possibly even perfect reliability (no system of ballistic missile defense, including Israel’s Arrow, can ever be leak-proof), any too-great an Israeli dependence upon nuclear deterrence could have literally existential consequences.
Where should Israel go from here? Recognizing the substantial limitations of the so-called “Middle East Peace Process,” Israel must seek its security, at least in part, beyond the protections offered by nuclear deterrence. It must, as earlier recommended by Project Daniel (2003), also stay prepared for possible preemptions against pertinent military targets. Although many will find such preparations to be “aggressive” or “uncivilized,” and while it may already be very late in the game for considering certain relevant attack scenarios, the alternatives could amount to national suicide. Significantly, the right of preemption is well established under customary international law, where it is known formally as “anticipatory self-defense.”
Among other purposes, Israel needs nuclear weapons to undertake, and/or to support, various forms of conventional preemption. In making its preemption decisions, Israel must determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of anticipatory self-defense, would be cost-effective. This would depend upon a number of critical variables, including: (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployment; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected U.S. and world community reactions to Israeli preemptions.
Regarding preemption options, Israel’s overriding question should be this: As Jerusalem must plan for such forms of anticipatory self-defense, against which particular configurations of hard targets should they be directed, and when should they be mounted? If it is assumed that enemy states will only add to their chemical/biological/nuclear arsenals, and that these additions (together with variable air defenses) will make any effective Israeli preemptions more and more difficult, if not altogether impossible, rational Israeli strategy would seem to compel Jerusalem to strike defensively as soon as possible. If, however, it is assumed that there will be no significant enlargement/deployment of enemy unconventional weapons or air defenses over time, this may suggest a diminished strategic rationale for Israel to strike first.
Israel’s inclinations to strike preemptively in certain circumstances could also be affected by the steps taken by prospective target states to guard against any Israeli preemption. Should Israel refrain too long from striking first, enemy states could then implement protective measures that would pose additional hazards to Israel. These measures could include the attachment of certain launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems, and/or the adoption of “launch-on-warning” policies. Such policies would call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles on mere receipt of warning that a missile attack is underway. Requiring launch before the attacking warheads actually reached their intended targets, launch-on-warning could clearly carry very grave risks of error.
Ideally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such enemy measures from being installed in the first place, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its armaments and population centers. Yet, if such measures should become fact, Jerusalem might still reasonably calculate that a preemptive strike would be cost-effective. This is because an expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, might still appear less unacceptable than the expected consequences of enemy first strikes.
Perhaps the single most important factor in Israeli judgments on the preemption option will be the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers. If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike at Israel with unconventional forces, irrespective of anticipated Israeli counterstrikes, deterrence, as we have already seen, might not work. This means that certain enemy strikes could be expected even if enemy leaders understood that Israel had “successfully” deployed its own nuclear weapons in survivable modes, that Israel’s weapons were entirely capable of penetrating enemy active defenses, and that Israel’s leaders were fully willing to retaliate.
Faced with an irrational enemy bent upon unconventional aggression,
Israel could sometime have no effective choice but to abandon all reliance on traditional modes of nuclear deterrence. At the same time, even an irrational enemy – that is, one that does not value national survival more highly than every other preference, or combination of preferences – could still maintain a recognizable and “transitive” hierarchy of wants. For Iran, such a hierarchy would likely place certain Shiite religious values and institutions at the very top. Hence, directing retaliatory threats toward precisely such values and/or institutions could conceivably still “work.”
Even if it is not faced with an irrational enemy, Israel will still have to plan carefully for certain preemption options, planning that must take into account Jerusalem’s own nuclear weapons. In the course of such planning, it will be important to recognize that enemy capabilities and intentions are not separate and discrete, but rather interpenetrating, interdependent, and interactive. This means: (1) capabilities affect intentions, and vice-versa; and (2) the combined effects of capabilities and intentions may produce certain policy outcomes that are greatly accelerated, and/or are more than the simple sum of these individual effects.
What are the particular dangers issuing from Iran? For the moment, those who would still downplay the Iranian threat to Israel sometimes argue that Teheran’s unconventional capabilities remain problematic, and/or that its willingness to attack Israel – Jihadist ideologies/motivations notwithstanding – is still tolerably low. Yet, over the next year, that country’s further development of nuclear weapons will likely become irreversible – accelerated, perhaps, by US President Donald Trump’s poorly-conceived withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA agreement – creating conditions whereby a first-strike against Israel might sometime be construed as rational.
Whether correct or incorrect in its calculations, any Iranian leadership that believed it could strike Israel with impunity, near-impunity, or at least without incurring what it defined as unacceptable costs, could be strongly motivated to undertake such a strike. Such motivation could be further heightened to the extent that Iran remained uncertain about Israel’s own preemption plans. Here, Iranian capabilities could affect, and possibly even determine, Iranian intentions.
The Iranian threat to Israel might, on the other hand, originate from a different direction. In this scenario, Iran’s intentions toward the Jewish State, irremediably hostile and perhaps even potentially genocidal, could animate Teheran’s accelerated development of nuclear military capabilities. Representing genuinely far-reaching hatreds rather than mere bluster and propagandistic bravado, Iranian diatribes against Israel could thus ensure the continuing production/deployment of increasingly destructive forces, weapons, and postures that could plausibly threaten Israel’s physical survival.
What has been described here are circumstances wherein Iranian intentions could affect, and possibly even determine, Iranian capabilities. Such circumstances now warrant very careful strategic attention in Jerusalem.
What if Iran’s intentions toward Israel were not irremediably hostile or genocidal? What if its public bombast were not an expression of genuinely belligerent motivations, but rather a concocted position designed entirely for intranational, and/or international political consumption? The short and most obvious answer to these questions is that such shallow and contrived intentions would not impact Iranian capabilities vis-à-vis Israel.
Yet, upon reflection, it is altogether likely that even certain inauthentic expressions of intent could, over time, become authentic, that repeated again and again, such expressions could become self-fulfilling.
It would be unreasonable for Israel to draw any substantial comfort from an argument that Iranian intentions are effectively harmless. Over time, such falsely reassuring intentions could impact capabilities, perhaps even decisively. Backed by appropriate nuclear weapons, preemption options must somehow remain open and viable to Israel, augmented, of course, by appropriate and complementary plans for comprehensive cyber-defense and cyber-warfare.
An important factor in this discussion of intentions, capabilities, and preemption options could sometime become the “Middle East Peace Process.” Conventional wisdom has been quick to suggest that this intermittent process, by demonstrating and codifying Israel’s commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes, has somehow diminished the Iranian threat. After all, it could appear, world public opinion would uniformly condemn Iran for any act of aggression directed against a determinably peacemaking Israel? Wouldn’t, therefore, Iranian aggressive intentions be suitably reduced or even removed, a change that could tangibly slow down Teheran’s pertinent unconventional militarization, and consequently the overall danger to Israel from that particular enemy state?
Here, the conventional wisdom may be wrong or merely partial. Following the earlier Oslo Agreements, Israel’s inclination to preempt enemy aggression had likely been diminished from the start. After all, virtually the entire global community would have frowned disapprovingly upon any Israeli preemption in the midst of an ongoing, codified and incremental search for “peace” in the region.
If Iran should recognize these effective inhibitions on Israeli preemption options (and there is every reason to believe that they would recognize these inhibitions), that enemy state might rationally calculate as follows: “As our (Iranian) militarization will be less threatened by Israeli preemptive attack during a `Peace Process,’ we (Iran) should increase our capabilities, especially our unconventional weapons capabilities, as quickly as practicable.” Such a plausible calculation could enlarge Iranian intentions to attack Israel, and could even render cost-effective certain hostile actions by Iran that would not otherwise have been considered or perhaps even been thought possible.
If one or another “Peace Process” should eventually produce a Palestinian State, the effects on enemy capabilities and intentions and therefore on Israeli preemption options, could become significant. Inter alia, Israel’s substantial loss of strategic depth might be recognized here by enemy states as a distinct military liability for Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv. Such recognition, in turn, could then heat up enemy intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for capabilities and consequently a heightened risk of war.
Israel could foresee such enemy calculations, and then seek to compensate for the loss of territories in a number of very different ways. It could decide that it was time to take its bomb out of the “basement” (nuclear disclosure) as a deterrence-enhancing measure, but this might not be enough of a productive strategy. It could, therefore, accept a heightened willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy hard targets, strikes backed up by Israeli nuclear weapons. Made aware of any such Israeli intentions, intentions that would derive from Israel’s new territorial vulnerabilities, certain enemy states could respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly and more quickly for their own nuclearization, and/or for first-strike conventional attacks against the Jewish State.
Taken by itself, a Palestinian state, although plainly non-nuclear itself, could still affect the capabilities and intentions of Israel and its enemies. But if such a state were created at the very same time that Israel had reduced or abandoned its nuclear weapons capabilities, the cumulative impact could be much greater. This starkly complex “correlation of forces” scenario should not be dismissed out of hand.
What would happen if Israel were ever to actually relinquish its nuclear options? Under such hard to imagine circumstances, Israel would not only be more vulnerable to enemy first strikes, it would also be deprived of its essential preemption options. This is the case because any Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence could be immobilized by reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential, and because Israeli preemptions could not possibly be 100% effective against enemy unconventional forces.
A less than 100% level of effectiveness could be tolerable if Israel had a “leak proof” ATBM (anti-tactical ballistic missile) capability in the Arrow and related multi-layered systems, but such a welcome capability is inherently unachievable.
Nuclear War fighting Options
In principle, at least, Israel could require nuclear weapons, among other essential purposes, for actual nuclear war fighting. Should nuclear deterrence options and/or preemption options fail altogether, Israel’s “hard target” capabilities could then become critical to national survival. These capabilities would depend, in part, upon nuclear weapons.
What, exactly, would be appropriate” in such utterly dire circumstances, under conditions that Israel must continuously strive to prevent at all costs? Instead of “Armageddon” type weapons (see the “Samson Option,” below), Israel would need, inter alia, precision nuclear warheads that could reduce collateral damage to acceptable levels, and hypervelocity nuclear warheads that could readily overcome enemy active defenses. Israel would also benefit from certain radio-frequency weapons. These are nuclear warheads that are tailored to produce as much electromagnetic pulse as possible, destroying electronics and communications over wide areas.
Regarding the nuclear weapons needed by Israel for nuclear war fighting, Jerusalem could require an intermediate option between capitulation on the one hand, and a resort to multi-megaton nuclear weapons on the other.
Such discussion may seem objectionable to all people of feeling and sensitivity. It would, after all, apparently be more “peaceful” to speak of nuclear arms control, or sustainable nuclear deterrence, or even preemption, than nuclear war fighting. Yet, the Middle East remains a particularly dangerous and potentially irrational neighborhood, and any strategic failure to confront the most terrible possibilities could quickly produce the most correspondingly terrible harms.
For Israel, a state that yearns for peace and security more than any other in this neighborhood – a state born out of the ashes of humankind’s most terrible crime – genocide looms both as an ineradicable memory, and as a sobering expectation. Resisting the short-term temptations of “Road Maps” and “Peace Processes,” its leaders must always plan accordingly. But, per earlier recommendations by Project Daniel (2003), nuclear war fighting options should always be rejected wherever possible.
The Samson Option
Proposals for a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone notwithstanding, Israel needs its nuclear weapons, both for the indisputably compelling reasons already discussed and also for “last resort” purposes. Although this is likely the least important need – since, by definition, any actual resort to the Samson Option would reveal the antecedent failure and collapse of all essential security functions – it is not unimportant. This is because Israeli preparations for last resort operations could still play a major role in enhancing Israeli nuclear deterrence, preemption, and war fighting requirements, and because such preparations could also show the world that the post-Holocaust Jewish State had kept its most primal faith with an unwavering Jewish obligation.
Regarding any prospective contributions to Israeli nuclear deterrence, preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince any would-be attackers that aggression would not prove gainful. This is especially the case if Israeli preparations were coupled with some level of disclosure, if Israel’s pertinent Samson weapons appeared to be sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes, and if these weapons were identifiably “counter value” in mission function. By definition, the Samson Option would need to be executed with counter value-targeted nuclear weapons. Any such last-resort operations could come into play only after all Israeli counterforce options had already been exhausted.
Considering what strategists sometimes call the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could aid Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a willingness to take existential risks, but this would hold true only if last-resort options were not tied definitionally to certain destruction.
Regarding prospective contributions to preemption alternatives, preparation for a Samson Option could convince Israel that essential defensive first strikes would be undertaken with diminished expectations of unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations. This would depend, of course, upon antecedent Israeli decisions on disclosure, on Israeli perceptions of the effects of disclosure on enemy retaliatory prospects, on Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability, and on enemy awareness ofSamson’s counter value force posture.
As in the case of Samson and Israeli nuclear deterrence (above), any last-resort preparations could assist Israeli preemption options by displaying a persuasive willingness to take certain existential risks. But Israeli planners must be mindful here of pretended irrationality as a double-edged sword. Brandished too “irrationally,” Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could actually encourage enemy preemptions.
Regarding prospective contributions to Israel’s nuclear war fighting options, preparation for a Samson Option could convince enemy states that a clear victory would be impossible to achieve. But here, it would be important for Israel to communicate to potential aggressors the following understanding: Israel’s counter value-targeted Samson weapons are additional to (not at the expense of) its counterforce-targeted war fighting weapons. In the absence of such a communication, preparations for a Samson Option could effectively impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear war fighting options
Nuclear weapons states are not all created equal. Some, like Iran, could present an intolerable threat of nuclear aggression. Others, like Israel, need nuclear weapons and an associated doctrine simply to secure themselves from mortal harms, merely to stay “alive.” Without these weapons, and possibly certain others, Clausewitz’s concept of “mass” could sometime quickly overtake and suffocate the Jewish mini-state.
Israel’s nuclear weapons are required to fulfill essential deterrence options, preemption options, war fighting options and even the Samson Option. These weapons should never be negotiated away in formal international agreements, especially in the midst of any so-called “Peace Process,” and its attendant creation of a Palestinian state. This imperative remains valid no matter how appealing the vision of a “world without nuclear weapons,” and no matter how apparently sincere the commendable peace-orientation of Iran’s president.
For Israel, an endlessly beleaguered country, nuclear weapons choices should be made in cumulative conformance with the seven (7) relevant options that have just been discussed, and, more broadly, with the ever-changing strategic environment of regional and world power configurations. In the final analysis, regrettable as it may appear, the ultimate structure of Israeli security must be built largely upon the foundations of its nuclear weapons and corollary strategic doctrine, not on “security regimes,” “peace processes,” “confidence building measures,” or similarly high-sounding “nuclear weapon free-zones.” Significantly, and on this point U.S. President Donald Trump should take very careful note, if these foundations were constructed carefully in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, they could best assure that nuclear weapons would never actually be used anywhere in the Middle East.
Today, in a region marked by steadily advancing chaos, such an assurance could represent a distinctly substantial gain for all.
Sometimes, even in matters regarding peace, it can be purposeful to sow “fear in a handful of dust” via credible nuclear deterrence.
Special to Jewish Business News
Louis René Beres is professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University. Beres is the author of twelve books including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. His lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law.