As we asked last week, why then must Israel remain a nuclear power? We continue with the detailed and complete answer that Prime Minister Netanyahu should prepare to transmit to President Obama.
6. Residually – as only a distinctly last resort – Israel needs nuclear weapons for nuclear war fighting. Although, in the best of all possible worlds, this particular need will never arise, and although Israel should always do everything possible to avoid any such use, it cannot be ruled out altogether. Rather, Israeli planners and decision-makers who could possibly find themselves in a dire situation of “no alternative” 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 include accidental, unintentional or 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).
7. Israel needs nuclear weapons for the residual Samson Option. Although any such use of nuclear weapons, by definition, would be profoundly catastrophic, Israel is apt to understand 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 suicide. 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 shown 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 is limited and exceedingly problematic. Even if the country should move toward partial or full disclosure of its nuclear weapons, Israel cannot reasonably rely entirely upon nuclear deterrence for survival. This should be apparent to anyone who has watched the continuing unfolding of Iran’s expressly genocidal intentions.
Aware of these limitations, Israel must nonetheless seek to strengthen nuclear deterrence so 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 enemies state that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this important objective, Israel must 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 choose to strike first, depending upon the particular value or utility it places upon the expected consequence of such an attack.
Regarding willingness, even if Jerusalem were prepared to respond to certain attacks with nuclear reprisals, enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could provoke an attack upon Israel. Here, misperception and/or errors in information could immobilize nuclear deterrence. It is also conceivable that Jerusalem would, in fact, lack willingness to retaliate, and that enemy decision-makers perceived this lack correctly. In this case, Israeli nuclear deterrence would be immobilized not because of “confused signals,” but because of specific Israeli intelligence and policy failures.
Regarding capacity, even if Jerusalem maintains a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that enemy states believe these weapons to be distinctly usable. This means that if a first-strike attack is believed capable of destroying Israel’s arsenal, the Jewish State’s nuclear deterrent will be immobilized. Moreover, even if Israel’s nuclear weapons were configured so 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 concerns enemy state deployment of anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which might contribute to an attack decision against Israel by lowering the 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 a would-be attacker as “too destructive,” they might not deter. To some extent, at least, successful nuclear deterrence, to the extent possible, may vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. At the same time, it is essential that Israel always base its central deterrence position on appropriate levels of “counter value” targeting, and never on “counterforce.”
No examination of Israeli nuclear deterrence options would be complete without 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 rather to heighten enemy perceptions of Jerusalem’s capable nuclear forces and/or Jerusalem’s willingness to 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 would represent a rational and prudent option for Israel. Here, the operational benefits of disclosure would stem from deliberate flows of information about dispersion, multiplication, hardening, speed and evasiveness of nuclear weapons systems, and 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 enemy doubts about Israel’s nuclear force capabilities, doubts which, 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 remove any doubts about Jerusalem’s nuclear resolve. Here, a prospective attacker, newly aware that Israel could retaliate across the entire spectrum of possible scenarios without generating intolerably high levels of civilian harms, would be more likely (because of disclosure), to believe Israel’s nuclear threats.
I must also mention here the vital connections between disclosure, doctrine and deterrence. To the extent that Israel’s strategic doctrine actually identifies nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal – forms calibrating Israeli retaliations to particular levels of provocation – 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 serve Israel’s security for a while longer, but – at one time or another – might fail altogether.
I have already mentioned the complex problem of enemy rationality – especially in my earlier published writings about the growing nuclear menace from Iran. 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 this assumption is enormously problematic. There is, in fact, absolutely no reason to assume that all prospective attackers of the Jewish State would always choose physical survival among all possible options, or even that such attackers would hew perfectly to careful and systematic comparisons of all expected costs and all expected 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), Israeli dependence upon nuclear deterrence could have existential consequences.
Where should Israel go from here? Recognizing the substantial limitations of the so-called “Peace Process,” the Jewish State must seek security beyond the protections offered by nuclear deterrence. It must prepare for preemption against pertinent military targets. Although many will find even such preparation “aggressive” or “uncivilized,” and although it may already be very late operationally in certain relevant scenarios, the alternative may amount to national suicide. Significantly, the right of preemption is well established under international law as “anticipatory self-defense.” International law is not a suicide pact.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971), Chair of Project Daniel, is the author of some of the earliest major books and articles on Israel’s nuclear strategy, including APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (The University of Chicago Press, 1980), and SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington Books, 1986). Chair of Project Daniel, a private nuclear advisory to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his pertinent scholarly writings have appeared in such publications as International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (DoD); International Journal of Intelligence & Counterintelligence; Strategic Review; Studies in Conflict and Terrorism; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Journal of Counter Terrorism and Security International; Contemporary Security Policy; Armed Forces and Society; Israel Affairs; Comparative Strategy; NATIV (Israel); The Hudson Review; Policy Sciences; and Cambridge Review of International Affairs. Professor Beres’ monographs on nuclear strategy and nuclear war have been published by the Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel); The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies (University of Notre Dame); The Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva); and the Monograph Series on World Affairs (University of Denver). Dr. Louis René Beres was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.