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Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: Nuclear Ambiguity and Iran-Backed Terror

Prof. Beres explores Israel’s nuclear ambiguity and its impacts on national security and strategic posture in the Middle East.

Air Force war plane IDF Spokesman
Air Force warplane/ IDF Spokesman

by Prof. Louis Rene Beres

“For by Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War.”

Proverbs 24,6

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Israel’s nuclear posture remains closely held. On its face, this “ambiguous” stance appears perfectly reasonable. But a critically core question should now be raised: Is unmodified deliberate nuclear ambiguity (the “bomb in the basement”) still in the long-term survival interests of the beleaguered state.

A proper answer ought not to be constructed ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” Rather, it should be based on carefully calculated assessments of plausible strategic options. At a minimum, any cost-effective loosening of Israeli nuclear ambiguity would need to be subtle, nuanced and incremental. It would also need to remain tacit or uncodified in formal military doctrine.

There are, of course, variously relevant particulars. Doctrine represents the basic framework from which any specific Israeli nuclear policy of ambiguity or disclosure would be extracted or extrapolated. The overriding importance of such Israeli guidance lies not only in the several ways it could animate, unify, and optimize the nation’s armed forces but also in the more-or-less efficient manner it could transmit “messages” to enemy state Iran or enemy sub-state Hamas.

Understood in terms of Israel’s overall strategic posture, any continuously indiscriminate, across-the-board nuclear ambiguity could undermine the country’s national security. This is because effective deterrence and defense would sometimes call for nuclear military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by adversary states and/or surrogate insurgent militias. Today, as Israel enlarges Operation Swords of Iron against Hamas, support for diminished nuclear ambiguity should become a conspicuous example of “wise counsel.”

For Israel, ultimate and comprehensive military success against war and terror (both conventional and unconventional must lie in credible layers of deterrence, not in perpetual war-fighting. Recalling ancient Chinese military thought offered by Sun-Tzu in The Art of War, “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s creative resistance without fighting.” Paradoxically, perhaps Israeli decision-makers should finally acknowledge that there are foreseeable occasions when too much secrecy could degrade the country’s national security. As we all ought finally to understand from world history, truth can sometimes emerge from paradox.

For Israel, there are several related understandings. Often, sound strategic thinking should be counter-intuitive. To proceed with both prudence and “daring” (a force-multiplying combination favored by Sun-Tzu in The Art of War), Israel’s nuclear weapons should be oriented not to war fighting or revenge ex post, but to deterrence ex ante. Above all, nuclear weapons – modern ordnance obviously unforeseeable by Sun Tzu – can succeed only by creative non-use. By definition, once they have been used for actual battle, deterrence will have failed. And once used in any form, traditional meanings of “victory” and “success” would immediately become moot.

With regard to Israel’s current counter-terror operations against Hamas (and potentially, Hezbollah), close attention should be paid not only to Iran’s support of pertinent terrorists but also to its accelerating potential to “go nuclear.” Regarding Israel’s own nuclear weapons capacity, the prospective counter-terrorism deterrence benefits of this still-ambiguous capacity would likely apply only to state adversaries, i.e., to a still non-nuclear Iran and (though only in principle ) to Syria

There is more. The original Cold War is over, but “Cold War II” is already underway between the United States, Russia, China and assorted proxies. Significantly, Israel’s deterrence relationship to a potentially nuclear Iran is not comparable to what earlier existed between the US and the USSR. Still, there are Cold War I deterrence lessons to be taken seriously in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv. Any unmodified continuance of total nuclear ambiguity could sometime cause a nuclearizing enemy state like Iran to underestimate or overestimate Israel’s retaliatory capacity. Similarly destabilizing doubts could cause Iranian leaders to misunderstand Israel’s actual willingness to retaliate, that is, its retaliatory resolve.

Similar uncertainties surrounding Israel’s nuclear arsenal could lead enemy states to reach the same erroneous conclusion. In part, this is because Israel’s willingness to make good on threatened nuclear retaliation could be seen by adversaries as inversely

related to weapon system destructiveness. Ironically, if Israel’s nuclear weapons were believed to be too destructive, they might not be suitably deterred.

A continuing policy of ambiguity could also cause a terrorist-mentoring Iran to overestimate the first-strike vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear forces. This could be the result of a too-complete silence concerning measures of protection deployed to safeguard Israeli nuclear weapons and infrastructures. Or it could be the product of Israeli doctrinal opacity concerning the country’s defense potential, an absence of transparency that could be wrongly understood as an indication of inadequate Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD).

To deter (1) an enemy first-strike attack; or (2) a post-preemption retaliation against Israel, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv must prevent a rational aggressor, by threat of unacceptably damaging retaliation or counter-retaliation, from deciding to strike Israel. Here, national security would be sought by convincing the rational attacker (irrational state enemies could pose an altogether different problem) that the costs of any considered attack would exceed the expected benefits. Assuming that Iran values its national self-preservation most highly and would always choose rationally between alternative options, that adversary state would refrain from any attack on an Israel believed willing and able to deliver an adequately destructive response.

Two factors must communicate such vital belief. First, in terms of capability, there are two essential components: payload and delivery system. It must always be successfully communicated to Iran that Israel’s firepower and its means of delivering that firepower are capable of inflicting unacceptable levels of destruction. This means that Israel’s retaliatory or counter-retaliatory forces must continuously appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes and sufficiently elusive to penetrate the prospective attacker’s active and civil defenses.

With Israel’s strategic nuclear forces and doctrine locked in its “basement,” Iran could rightly or wrongly conclude that an Iranian first-strike attack or post-preemption reprisal against Israel would be cost-effective. But, were relevant Israeli doctrine made more obvious to Tehran – that Israel’s nuclear assets meet both payload and delivery system objectives – Israel’s nuclear forces could better serve their existential security functions.

The second factor of nuclear doctrine for Israel concerns willingness. How may Israel convince Iranian decision-makers that it possesses the resolve to deliver an appropriately destructive retaliation and/or counter-retaliation? The answer to this question lies largely in antecedent doctrine, in Israel’s demonstrated strength of commitment to carry out such an attack, and in the tangible nuclear ordnance that would be available.

Here, too, continued ambiguity over nuclear doctrine could wrongfully create the impression of an Israel unwilling to retaliate. Conversely, any doctrinal movement toward some as-yet-undetermined level of disclosure could heighten the impression that Israel is, in fact, willing to follow-through on its now explicit nuclear threats.

There are determinedly persuasive connections between an incrementally more “open” or disclosed strategic nuclear doctrine and pertinent Iranian perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence. One such connection centers on the expected relation between greater openness and the perceived vulnerability of Israeli strategic nuclear forces from preemptive destruction. Another such connection concerns the relation between greater openness and the perceived capacity of Israel’s nuclear forces to reliably penetrate Iran’s active defenses.

To be deterred by Israel, a newly-nuclear Iran would need to believe that a critical number of Israel’s retaliatory forces would survive any Iranian first strike and that these forces could not subsequently be stopped from hitting pre-designated targets in Iran. Concerning the “presumed survivability” component of Iranian belief, further sea-basing (submarines) by Israel could become a relevant case in point.

Carefully articulated, expanding doctrinal openness or partial nuclear disclosure could represent a distinctly rational option for Israel. The operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from now deliberate flows of information about more-or-less discernible policies of weapons dispersion, multiplication and/or hardening of nuclear weapon systems, and other technical features of these systems. Most importantly, doctrinally controlled and orderly information flows could remove any lingering Iranian doubts about Israel’s nuclear force capabilities and intentions. Left unchallenged, such doubts could sometimes fully undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence with unprecedented lethality.

A final thought dawns. As Israel continues with its obligatory counter-terrorist war against Hamas in Gaza, Iran could sometimes calculate that its direct involvement in the conflict would be cost-effective or gainful. If such thinking prevailed, Israel could find itself driven to expand Operation Swords of Iron to include the Hamas-mentoring Iranian state as a primary enemy belligerent. Ironically, as long as such an Iranian calculation was made before Tehran crossed the nuclear weapons threshold, it could offer Israel a prospectively unique security opportunity: to launch non-nuclear preemptive strikes at a pre-nuclear Iran.

Under international law, such purely protective military strikes by Israel could express acts of permissible “anticipatory self-defense” and prevent future nuclear war with Iran. In Tehran, this clarifying information should be taken as fair warning to stay out of any direct military engagements with Israel. In Jerusalem, though any direct war with Iran would likely involve heavy losses even if Israel were the only nuclear-capable belligerent, a decision to engage the Islamic Republic before it becomes nuclear could demonstrate commendably “wise counsel.”

Louis Rene Beres
 was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and world order reform. Dr. Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, publishes in The New York Times; The Atlantic; Jewish Business News; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); JURIST; Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsYale Global Online (Yale University); World Politics (Princeton); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); The War Room (Pentagon), and much more.

This article was first published in Jurist.



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