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Can Israeli Nuclear Threats Protect Against Non-Nuclear Attacks?

Israel’s shift to selective nuclear disclosure would be intended to ensure the country’s indispensable success in “escalation dominance.”

Nuclear Iran could encourage rapid nuclearization among such Sunni Arab states as Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

by Prof. Louis Rene Beres

Abstract: It is widely assumed that a state’s nuclear weapons and strategy are irrelevant to non-nuclear threats. A contrary argument is advanced by Louis René Beres with particular reference to the State of Israel. Urging greater “seamlessness” in Israeli nuclear deterrence, special attention is directed by Professor Beres toward a prospective policy shift from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” to “nuclear disclosure.” Any such shift, whether sudden or incremental, would still depend upon enemy rationality. A related problem would concern various associated risks of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. All things considered, the best time for Israel to upgrade its formal decision theory processes regarding nuclear deterrence and non-nuclear threats is the present. Unavoidably, on these critical processes, even the most nuanced and refined outcomes would represent some form of “glorified belief.”

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“Formal decision-theory does not depend on data…. The task of theory is confined to the construction of a deductive apparatus, to be used in deriving logically necessary conclusions from given assumptions.”

Anatol Rapoport, Strategy and Conscience (1964)

 Nature of the Problem

Though counter-intuitive and still unverifiable, Israel’s nuclear weapons and strategy remain at least potentially relevant to non-nuclear threats. Determining precise levels of relevance, however, would be inescapably difficult and depend upon such “fuzzy” factors as enemy rationality and the plausibility/destructiveness of non-nuclear harms. This anticipated dependence would apply both to first strike attacks and to retaliatory or counter-retaliatory strikes.

There are several associated details. To begin, it would be unreasonable to argue that Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture should always parallel (or roughly parallel) prospective enemy destructiveness, and/or that non-nuclear enemy threats – whether issued from individual states, alliances of states, terror-group adversaries or state-terror group “hybrids” – should be symmetrically countered.

               At first look, a “symmetry hypothesis” could appear to make perfect sense. Nonetheless, strategic truth is inherently complex and can prove stubbornly recalcitrant. Also, because virtually all Israel-related nuclear scenarios are sui generis (without any determinable precedent), nothing of authentic scientific value could be extrapolated. Concerning Israeli nuclear decision-makers’ usable “probabilities,” all that they would really be asked to accept would be variously convincing iterations of  “glorified belief.”

               These are all very “dense” analytic matters. In addition to applicable history and law, Israel’s core strategists will need to be informed by appropriate philosophies of science. In this very significant connection, any meaningful assessments of hypotheses concerning “asymmetrical deterrence” and Israeli national security should be founded upon formal deductive examinations. This fixed imperative indicates, among other things, that intelligence assessments devoid of tangible empirical content can still be suitably predictive. In essence, these assessments should be supportable by stringent logical standards of internal consistencythematic interconnectedness and dialectical reasoning.

Enemy Threats of Biological War, Biological Terrorism and/or Large Conventional Attack

               Now, how best to proceed? A good place for working strategists would be within the “grey area” of enemy non-nuclear threats that is nonetheless unconventional. Most obvious here would be ascertainably credible enemy threats of biological warfare and/or biological terrorism. While non-nuclear by definition, biological warfare attacks could still produce grievously injurious or near-existential event outcomes for Israel.

               In principle, Israeli policies of calibrated nuclear reprisal for biological warfare (BW) attacks could exhibit compelling deterrent effectiveness against very limited types of adversary. Such policies would be inapplicable, prima facie, against any threats issuing from terror groups that function alone, without recognizable state alignments. In such residual cases, Israel – lacking operational targets more suitable for nuclear targeting – would need to “fall back” upon more usual arsenals of counter-terrorist methods. Such a tactical retrogression would be required even if the particular terror group involved (e.g., Sunni ISIS-K; Shiite Hezbollah; Shiite Houthi) had revealed plausible nuclear threat capabilities.

There is more. Because such terrorists could identify personal death as an expression of religious martyrdom, Israeli planners would have to draw upon continuously challenging psychological factors.

               What about enemy conventional threats that would involve neither nuclear nor biological hazards, but were still prospectively massive enough to produce existential or near-existential harms to Israel? On its face, in such all-too-credible cases, a prospective conventional aggressor could still reasonably calculate that Jerusalem would make good on some of its decipherable nuclear threats. Here, however, Israel’s nuclear deterrent threat credibility could prove dependent upon certain antecedent doctrinal shifts from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the so-called “bomb in the basement”) to “nuclear disclosure.”

               Why? Any correct answer must hinge on Israel’s presumed operational flexibility. In the absence of any prior shift away from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity,” a would-be aggressor state might not understand or accept that the State of Israel had available a sufficiently broad array of graduated nuclear retaliatory responses. In the presumed absence of such an array, Israeli nuclear deterrence could be more-or-less severely diminished.

               Additional nuances arise. As a direct consequence of any presumptively diminished nuclear ambiguity, Jerusalem could signal its then relevant adversary or adversaries that Israel would wittingly cross the nuclear retaliatory threshold to punish all acts of existential or near-existential aggressions. Using more expressly military parlance, Israel’s recommended shift to certain apt forms of nuclear disclosure would be intended to ensure the country’s indispensable success in “escalation dominance.”

               Inter alia, the nuclear deterrence advantages for Israel of moving from traditional nuclear ambiguity to selective nuclear disclosure would lie in the signal it could “telegraph” to non-nuclear foes. This signal would warn such adversaries (e.g., Iran) that Jerusalem was not limited to launching retaliations that employ massive and/or disproportionate levels of nuclear force. A still-timely Israeli move from nuclear ambiguity to nuclear disclosure – as long as such a doctrinal move were suitably nuanced and incremental – could improve Israel’s prospects for deterring large-scale conventional attacks with consciously “tailored” nuclear threats.

               After America’s defeat in Afghanistan, a not-yet-nuclear Iran could sometimes expect a less determined Israel.

               There is more. Stipulated Israeli nuclear deterrence benefits against non-nuclear threats could extend to certain threats of nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should sometime consider initiating a non-nuclear defensive first-strike against a pre-nuclear Iran, a preemptive act that could conceivably represent “anticipatory self-defense” under Westphalian international law, the likelihood of suffering any massive Iranian conventional retaliation might be correspondingly diminished. In essence, by following a properly charted path from deliberate nuclear ambiguity to nuclear disclosure, Jerusalem could expectedly upgrade its overall deterrence posture vis-à-vis both nuclear and non-nuclear threats.

Escalation Dominance and Inadvertent Nuclear War

               In protecting itself from any deliberate nuclear attack, Israeli strategists must accept certain core assumptions of enemy rationality. But even if these assumptions were well-founded, there will still remain variously attendant dangers of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. These fully existential dangers could be produced by enemy hacking operations, computer malfunction (an accidental nuclear war) or by decision-making miscalculation (whether by the enemy, by Israel itself, or by both/all parties.) In the portentous third scenario, damaging synergies could arise that would prove extremely difficult or impossible to halt or reverse.

               To a largely unforeseeable extent, the geo-strategic search for “escalation dominance” by all sides to a potentially nuclear conflict would enlarge the decipherable risks of an inadvertent nuclear war. These risks include prospects of a nuclear war by accident and/or decisional miscalculation. The “solution” here could not be to simply wish-away the common search for “escalation dominance” (ipso facto, any such wish would be contrary to the “logic” of balance-of-power world politics), but instead to manage all prospectively nuclear crises at their lowest possible levels of destructiveness. Plainly, wherever feasible, it would be best to avoid such crises altogether, and to maintain in place reliable “circuit breakers” against strategic hacking and technical malfunction.

               The above discussion has been highly abstract. To a conspicuous extent, however, such abstractness is indispensable. This is because generality is an inherent trait of all serious meaning in military theorizing and strategizing.

There is more. There does exist a co-equal need for relevant facts and usable empirical content. Today, this should bring to mind recently-changed ties between Israel and certain Sunni Arab states, and more-or-less corresponding threats (both explicit and implicit) from Shiite Iran. How, therefore, Israeli nuclear strategists should competently inquire, will Trump-era “Abraham Accords” and America’s recent defeat in Afghanistan affect such major threats? Have these Accords actually given Israel reason for greater security confidence, or did they really enhance “peace” where there were never any actual adversaries? Have former President Trump’s contrived Accords (they were designed for domestic political interests only) effectively hardened the Middle East Sunni-Shia dualism and made Iran a still-greater threat to Israel?

At present, Israel has no regional nuclear adversaries, but the steady approach of a nuclear Iran could encourage rapid nuclearization among such Sunni Arab states as Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Also, following the turnover of Afghanistan to Taliban and (possibly) other Islamist forces, non-Arab Pakistan will likely become a more direct adversary of both the United States and Israel. The Pakistani jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out the large-scale Mumbai, India attack in 2008.

There is more. Pakistan is an already nuclear Islamic state with substantial ties to China. And Pakistan, like Israel, is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or NPT.

“Everything is very simple in war,” says Carl von Clausewitz in On War, “but the simplest thing is very difficult.”

               On September 1, 2021, Israel officially moved into the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility.  Taking over from European Command (EUCOM), Jerusalem likely sees its new role as defending U.S. and Israeli interests simultaneously, primarily by countering Iran within CENTCOM’s designated sphere of authority. This countervailing power would be directed at Iran-backed anti-Israel insurgents (especially Hezbollah and Houthi) and at a quickly expanding Iranian nuclearization.

 In regard to the second objective, Israel should consider where there could ever be an auspicious place for issuing nuclear threats against its still non-nuclear Shiite adversary in Tehran. In part, at least, the “answers” here would depend upon Jerusalem’s prior transformations of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the “bomb in the basement”) into variously recognizable postures of “deliberate nuclear disclosure.” Though all such considerations would necessarily concern matters that are sui generis or without historical precedent, Israel has no logical alternative to launching appropriately deductive investigations.

Palestine, Preemption and Nuclear Threats to Israel

                Salient issues of Israeli nuclear deterrence against non-nuclear threats could be impacted by Palestinian statehood. To wit, while never ever mentioned “in the same breath,” the creation of Palestine could meaningfully affect Israel’s inclination to preempt against Iran. Because of Israel’s manifestly small size, its inclination to strike first at enemy hard targets could sometime become palpably high.  Deprived of its already minimal “strategic depth,” Israel might not be able to hold out for as long as was possible when Palestine was merely a pre-state “authority.” 

               It is plausible that once Palestine came into de jure formal existence as a state, any shift in Israel’s nuclear strategy from deliberate ambiguity to nuclear disclosure could reduce Israel’s Jerusalem’s incentive to preempt against Iran. But this expectation could make strategic sense only if Israel were first made to believe that its nuclear deterrent threat, in determinable consequence of this shift, was now being taken with abundant seriousness by Iran. On its face, any such unique determination would be problematic at best.

               Several corollary problems would also need to be considered.  First, how would Israel’s leadership ever actually know that taking its bomb out of the “basement” had improved its nuclear deterrence posture?  To a certain unpredictable extent, the credibility of Jerusalem’s nuclear threats would be contingent upon the variable severity of different provocations.  It might prove believable if Israel were to threaten nuclear reprisals for provocations that endanger the very survival of the state, but it would almost certainly be unbelievable to threaten such reprisals for relatively minor territorial infringements or for absolutely any level of terrorist incursions. Whatever analysts might conclude on such questions, because there exists no discoverable frequency of pertinent past events, any judgments of probability by IDF/MOD planners would represent only “glorified belief.”

               There are other problems.  To function successfully, Israel’s nuclear deterrent, even after any conspicuous removal from the “basement,” would have to appear secure from enemy preemptive strikes. Israel would need to be especially wary of “decapitation,” of losing the “head” of its military command and control system by result of enemy first strikes.  Should Israel’s existential enemies (presently all still non-nuclear) remain unpersuaded by Jerusalem’s move away from deliberate ambiguity, they might sometime initiate such strikes as could effectively immobilize Israel’s order of battle.

               By definition, any such scenario would be unacceptable to Israel.

               But there are various contrary arguments. One such argument, about the effects of Palestine on Israel’s inclinations to preempt, suggests that because of Israel’s expanded vulnerability, its nuclear deterrent could actually become more credible.  As a result, goes this contrary argument, Jerusalem could better afford not to strike first than when it still controlled/administered disputed Palestinian territories.  In this particular situation, the principal benefit to Israel of shifting from nuclear ambiguity to nuclear disclosure would seem to lie in an explicitly-identified “escalation ladder,” a metaphoric process revealing a systematically broad array of considered Israeli reprisals. Optimally, these reprisals would range from certain limited conventional responses to measured nuclear strikes.

A Presumed Inevitability of War and Enemy Vulnerabilities

               In weighing different arguments concerning the effect of Palestine upon Israeli nuclear deterrence, specific attention should be directed toward Israel’s own recognizable presumptions about the inevitability of war and its long-term expectations for Arab and Iranian strategic vulnerability.  Should Israel’s leaders conclude that the creation of Palestine would make another major war more-or-less inevitable, and that, over time, enemy vulnerability to Israeli strikes would actually diminish, Jerusalem’s inclination to strike first against Iran could be increased.  To a certain extent, Israel’s tactical/operational judgments on preemption would be affected by various antecedent decisions on nuclear strategy.

               Namely, these critical decisions would concern “counter value” vs. “counterforce” objectives. 

               Should Israel opt for nuclear deterrence based on an “assured destruction” (“counter value”) strategy, Jerusalem would likely choose a relatively small number of weapons that might be relatively inaccurate.  A “counterforce” strategy, on the other hand, would require a larger number of more accurate weapons, ordnance that could destroy even the most hardened enemy targets.  To a certain extent, “going for counterforce” could make all Israeli nuclear threats more credible.  This conclusion would be based largely on the assumption that because the effects of war-fighting nuclear weapons would be more precise and controlled, they would also be more amenable to actual use.

               War-fighting postures of Israeli nuclear deterrence would be more apt to encourage an Israeli preemption.  And if counterforce targeted nuclear weapons were ever fired, especially in a proliferated regional setting, the resultant escalation could produce extensive counter value nuclear exchanges.  Even if such escalations were averted, the “collateral” effects of counterforce detonations could still prove devastating.

               In making its nuclear choices, Israel will have to confront a paradox.  Credible nuclear deterrence, essential to Israeli security and survival in a world made more dangerous by the creation of Palestine, would require “usable” nuclear weapons.  If, after all, these weapons were patently inappropriate for any reasonable objective, they would not deter.  At the same time, the more usable such nuclear weapons become in order to enhance nuclear deterrence, the more likely it is, at one time or another, they will actually be fired.  While this paradox would seem to suggest the rationality of Israel deploying only the least-harmful forms of usable nuclear weapons, the fact that there could be no coordinated agreements with enemy states on deployable nuclear weapons points to a starkly different conclusion.

                Unless Israel were to calculate that the more harmful weapons would produce greater hazards for its own population as well as for target populations, there could exist no tactical benefit to opting for the least injurious nuclear weapons. For the moment, at least, it appears that Israel has rejected any nuclear warfighting strategies of deterrence in favor of a still-implicit counter-value engagement posture. But this could change in response to the pace and direction of ongoing Iranian nuclearization. Significant, too, is that non-Arab Islamic Pakistan has adopted a nuclear warfighting strategy of deterrence vis-à-vis India, and has underscored this adoption by its deployment of certain low-yield nuclear missile forces.

The Bottom Line

               All things considered, Israel, if confronted by a new state of Palestine, would then be especially well-advised to do everything possible to prevent the appearance of any Arab and/or Iranian nuclear powers, including calculably pertinent (cost-effective) non-nuclear preemptions.  Under all conditions, Israel would require a believable (and hence usable) nuclear deterrent, one that could be employed against certain non-nuclear threats without igniting “Armageddon” for the regional belligerents. In the worst case scenario, these Israeli nuclear weapons could also serve certain damage-limiting military purposes against Iranian weapons (both nuclear and non-nuclear) should nuclear deterrence fail.

               In sum, the creation of a fully sovereign Palestine could have dramatic effects on Israel’s decisions concerning anticipatory self-defense.  Israel’s own presumptive nuclear weapons status and strategy would strongly influence this decision.  More precisely, should Jerusalem determine that Israel’s nuclear weapons could support preemption by deterring hostile target states from retaliating, this status might encourage Israeli defensive first strikes.  If, on the other hand, Jerusalem were to calculate that these target states would be unimpressed by threats of any Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation, this status would likely not encourage any such Israeli attacks.

               A key question surfaces. Could the precise form of Israel’s nuclear strategy make a difference in these unique circumstances?  Relying upon nuclear weapons not to deter enemy first strikes, but to support its own preemptive attacks, Israel would then have to choose between continued nuclear ambiguity (implicit threats) and nuclear disclosure (explicit threats). That choice should now be perfectly clear. Israel’s only rational posture, going forward, is to selectively remove “The Bomb” from its “basement.”

The Question of Israel’s National “Will”

               In view of what is now generally believed throughout the Middle East, and, indeed, all over the world, there is every good reason to assume that Israel’s nuclear arsenal does exist and that Israel’s assorted enemies share this assumption.  The most critical question about Israel’s nuclear deterrent, however, is not about capability, but will. How likely is it that Israel, after launching non-nuclear preemptive strikes against enemy hard targets, would respond to enemy reprisals with a nuclear counter-retaliation?

               To answer this core question, Israel’s decision-makers will first have to put themselves into the shoes of various enemy leaders.  Will these leaders calculate that they can afford to retaliate against Israel, i.e., that such retaliation would not produce a nuclear counter-retaliation?  In asking this question, they will assume, of course, a non-nuclear retaliation against Israel.  A nuclear retaliation, should it become technically possible for Iran, would invite a nuclear counter-retaliatory blow.

                Depending upon the way in which the enemy decision-makers interpret Israel’s authoritative perceptions, they will accept or reject the cost-effectiveness of a non-nuclear retaliation against Israel.  This means that it is likely in Israel’s best interests to communicate the following strategic assumption to all its existential enemies: Israel could be acting rationally by responding to enemy non-nuclear reprisals to Israeli preemptive attacks with a nuclear counter-retaliation.  Naturally, the plausibility of this assumption would be enhanced considerably if enemy reprisals were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons.

               All such “glorified belief” calculations assume enemy rationality.  In the absence of calculations that compare the costs and benefits of all strategic alternatives, what will happen in the Middle East could remain a matter of endlessly visceral conjecture.  The prospect of non-rational judgments in the region is always plausible, especially as the influence of Islamist/Jihadist ideology remains determinative among Iranian decisional elites. Still, various dangers of a nuclear war will obtain even among fully rational adversaries, both deliberate nuclear war and inadvertent unclear war.

               To the extent that Israel might one day believe itself confronted with non-rational enemies, particularly ones with highly destructive weapons in their arsenals, its incentive to preempt could suddenly become overwhelming.  Should such enemies be believed to hold nuclear weapons, Israel might then decide, quite rationally, to launch a nuclear preemption against these enemy weapons.  This would appear to be the only calculable circumstance in which a rational Israeli preemptive strike could ever be nuclear. And though it remains impossible to offer any science-based probability predictions about unique events, ordinary dialectical reasoning would still seem to support such “glorified belief.”

There is more. Israel’s nuclear deterrent must always remain oriented toward dominating escalation at multiple and intersecting levels of conventional and unconventional enemy threats. For this to work, however, Israeli strategic planners must continuously bear in mind that all future operational success will depend upon prior formulations of suitable national doctrine or strategic theory. In the end, the truest forms of Israeli power, whether expressed as anticipatory self-defense or as some other form of deterrence-maximizing effort, will have to reflect “a triumph of mind over mind” rather than any mere triumph of “mind over matter.”

Summing Up

               The most persuasive forms of military power on planet earth are not guns, battleships or missiles. Rather, they are conveniently believable promises of “life everlasting” or personal immortality. When one finally uncovers what is most utterly important to the vast majority of human beings, this factor is a presumptive power over death. Accordingly, and regrettably, individuals all over the world too often see the corrosive dynamics of belligerent nationalism (e.g., former US President Donald Trump’s “America First”) as a preferred path to personal immortality.

               Why else, in essentially all global conflict (international and intranational) would each side seek so desperately and conspicuously to align with God? Always, the loudest nationalistic claim is manipulatively reassuring: “Fear not,” the citizens and subjects are counseled, “God is on our side.” In our present analytic context, what promise could possibly prove more heartening to Israel’s enemies and more worrisome to Israel?

               Ultimately, Israel’s most compelling forms of strategic influence will derive not from high technology weaponry (an always ongoing preoccupation in Tel-Aviv), but from the immutably incomparable advantages of intellectual power. These always-overriding advantages must be explored and compared according to two very specific but overlapping criteria of assessment: law and strategy.  In certain circumstances, these complex expectations would not be helpfully congruent or “in synch” with each other, but contradictory or diametrically opposed. Here, the underlying “mind over mind” challenges to Israel would become excruciatingly difficult; nonetheless, successful decision-making outcomes could still be kept in plain sight and remain credible.

               What would be required, always, will be a suitably theoretical appreciation of decisional complexity and a corresponding willingness to approach overlapping issues from the convergent standpoints of science, intellect and dialectical analysis. In principle, at least, cumulative policy failures could produce broadly existential outcomes. Acknowledging this, Israel’s policy planners and decision –makers, wherever possible, should strive to ensure that the beleaguered country’s nuclear deterrent can protect against large-scale non-nuclear attacks. The first step in accepting such necessary assurance should be the systematic elaboration of formal decision-theory.

               This expressly deductive enterprise would not depend on any historical precedent or data, and could offer firm intellectual support to Israeli decision-makers’ most vital expressions of “glorified belief.”

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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