After suffering anyenemy nuclear aggression, Israel wouldcertainly respond with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal would most likely be launched against the aggressor’s capital city, and/or against similarly high-value urban targets. Understandably, there would be no assurances, in response to this sort of plainly genocidal aggression, that Israel would in any way limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets.
What if enemy first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? In this case, Israel might still launch a presumptively proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this would depend largely upon Israel’s precisely-calculated expectations of follow-on aggression, and also on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation.
Should Israel absorb a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could not be ruled out. This reasoning is plausible if: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. Recognizing Israel’s small size, the calculated threshold of existential harms would be determinably lower than Israel’s total physical devastation.
Facing imminent existential attacks, Israel might still decide to preempt enemy aggression with conventional forces. The targeted state’s response would then largely determine Israel’s subsequent escalatory moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would assuredly undertake apt forms of nuclear counter-retaliation. If this enemy retaliation were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons, Israel might also plan to take a quantum escalatory initiative. This sort of initiative is known in military parlance as “escalation dominance.” This stance could become absolutely necessary to preserving Israel’s indispensable intra-war deterrent.
If an enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is improbable that Israel would then resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. But if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were an all-out strike directed toward Israel’s civilian populations, as well as to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not be excluded. Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliations were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption; confined entirely to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity”; and accompanied by explicit and verifiable assurances of no further escalation.
It is almost inconceivable that Israel would ever decide to preempt any enemy state aggression with a nuclear defensive strike. While particular circumstances could possibly arise where such a defensive strike would be completely rational, and perhaps also entirely lawful according to the authoritative 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, it is still implausible that Israel would ever permit itself to “strike first” with nuclear forces. Notwithstanding predictable and rote enemy criticisms, Israel has, in fact, long conformed to the “purity of arms,” and, hence, to admirably strict compliance with humanitarian international law.
In principle, however, if not in fact, an Israeli nuclear preemption could conceivably be expected if: (1) Israel’s enemy or enemies had acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of fully destroying the Jewish state; (2) this enemy state had been forthright that its genocidal intentions fully paralleled its capabilities; (3) this state was reliably believed ready to begin a final countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels of damage-limitation consistent with its own basic national survival.
The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence exante, not preemption or reprisal ex post. If nuclear weapons should ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and one or more of the several states that still wish to destroy it, some form of nuclear war fighting could still ensue. This would be the case so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish state’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state 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 state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy state conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.
From the standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this means that Israel should now take proper steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d). As was clarified by Project Daniel’s final 2003 report it is in Israel’s overall interest to avoid nuclear war fighting wherever possible.
But, for Israel, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of certain enemy unconventional aggressions could lead to nuclear exchanges. This would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons, and the willingness of enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. Significantly, the likelihood of nuclear exchanges would be greatest where potential aggressors were allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of certain unconventional weapons without eliciting appropriate and effective Israeli preemptions.
Should such an ill-considered deployment be allowed, as now seems likely, Israel could forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Its only alternatives to nuclear preemption would then be: (1) a no-longer viable conventional preemption; or (2) a decision to do nothing, thereby relying for security on the increasingly doubtful logic of nuclear deterrence, and the always inherently limited protections of ballistic missile defense. All BMD systems, including Israel’s Arrow, are subject to leakage, and in a nuclear age, even a single unintercepted enemy missile could produce wholly unacceptable outcomes.
Although risks to the United States posed by an Iranian bomb are substantially less existential than the risks to Israel, these hazards could still include substantial acts of nuclear terrorism against the American homeland. It follows that the president of the United States, optimally, in very close cooperation with Israel, should prepare immediately, meaningfully and expeditiously for dealing with a fully-nuclear Iran. As even law-enforcing preemptions (anticipatory self-defense) are now almost certainly out of the question for plainly operational reasons, this will mean a singularly original and cooperative deterrence plan for “living with a nuclear Iran.” Augmented by suitably enhanced (if not prohibitively expensive) systems of ballistic missile defense, and possibly also by assorted collective defense alignments with certain Sunni Arab states in the Middle East, this plan must now become the immediate core focus of both Israeli and American security concerns.
Looking back, we certainly ought to have listened to Moshe Ya’alon’s (and Project Daniel’s) advice from the start. Today, however, it would seem that Meir Dagan’s contrary and dire warnings against preemption, regrettable as they may appear, are now indisputably spot on. As for promoting any particular “regime change” in Tehran, it is always possible, if not distinctly plausible, that the successor regime will prove even more theocratic, dangerous and refractory than the present government.
For now, in the Middle East generally, there is still no authentic “Arab Spring.” In non-Arab Iran, any premature hopes for a fundamental change in governance could quickly birth a similarly false dawn. For Israel and the United States, this means relying on only those strategic factors which can still be more or less controlled.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including recent contributions to International Security (Harvard); NATIV (Israel/Hebrew only); Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Israel/English); Parameters (The Journal of the US Army War College); and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His earlier writings on these matters appeared in such journals as World Politics (Princeton); Strategic Review; Special Warfare (DoD); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Affairs; Counterterrorism & Security International; and Armed Forces and Society. Professor Beres was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its private report on ISRAEL’S STRATEGIC FUTURE to former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon on January 16, 2003. Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.