The views expressed in this eight-column article on Project Daniel are solely those of Professor Louis René Beres, and may not reflect the opinions of any other members of Project Daniel, or of any government.
Although The Group drew explicitly upon contemporary strategic thinking, we were also mindful of certain much-earlier investigations of war, power and survival. One such still-relevant investigation was identified in Sun-Tzu’s classic, The Art of War.
Written sometime in the fifth century BCE, this work synthesized a coherent set of principles designed to produce military victory and minimize the chances of military defeat. Examined together with Israel’s Strategic Future, The Final Report of Project Daniel, the full corpus should now be studied closely by all who wish to strengthen Israel’s military posture, and its associated order of battle. At a time when the leaders of particular Islamic states might soon combine irrationality with weapons of mass destruction, the members of Project Daniel were markedly determined to augment current facts and figures with dialectical reasoning, imagination and creativity.
Israel, we reported, must continue its “imperative to seek peace through negotiation and diplomatic processes wherever possible.” Indeed, we continued: “This imperative, codified at the United Nations Charter, and in multiple authoritative sources of international law, shall always remain the guiding orientation of Israel’s foreign policy.”
What are Sun-Tzu’s favored principles concerning negotiation and diplomacy? Political initiatives and agreements may be useful, he instructs, but purposeful military preparations should never be neglected. The primary objective of every state should be to weaken enemies without actually engaging in armed combat. This objective links the ideal of “complete victory” to a “strategy for planning offensives.” In Chapter Four, “Military Disposition,” Sun-Tzu tells his readers: “One who cannot be victorious assumes a defensive posture; one who can be victorious attacks…. Those who excel at defense bury themselves away below the lowest depths of Earth. Those who excel at offense move from above the greatest heights of Heaven.”
Project Daniel took note. Today, with steadily more menacing Iranian nuclearization, the whole world should finally awaken. Recognizing the dangers of relying too heavily upon active defenses such as anti-ballistic missile systems, a reliance whereby Israel would likely bury itself away “below the lowest depths of Earth,” Project Danieladvised that Israel take certain prompt initiatives in removing existential threats. These initiatives included striking first (preemption) against enemy WMD development, manufacturing, storage, control and deployment centers, a recommendation fully consistent with longstanding international law regarding anticipatory self defense, and also with the then-declared (and never revoked) codified defense policy of the United States.
If, for any reason, the doctrine of preemption should fail to prevent an enemy Arab state or Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the Daniel group had advised that Israel cease immediately its established policy of nuclear ambiguity, and proceed at once to a position of open nuclear deterrence. Additional to this change in policy, we recommended that Israel make it perfectly clear to the enemy nuclear state that it would suffer prompt and maximum-yield nuclear “counter-value” reprisals for any level of nuclear aggression undertaken against Israel.
Under certain circumstances, our team continued, similar forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence should be directed against enemy states that threaten existential harms with biological weapons.
Taken literally, an existential threat implies harms that portend a complete annihilation or disappearance of the state. We felt, however, that certain more limited forms of both conventional and unconventional attack against large Israeli civilian concentrations could also constitute an existential threat. In part, our calculation here was based upon Israel’s small size, its very high population density and its particular concentrations of national infrastructure. In essence, if the present Government of Israel were to follow the expressed advice of Project Daniel, prospective aggressors would understand fully, and in advance, that launching certain kinds of attack against Israel would turn their own cities to vapor and ash.
Following Sun-Tzu, the clear purpose of our recommendation was to achieve a complete Israeli “victory” without engaging in actual hostilities. In the exact words of our Report, Israel’s Strategic Future: “The overriding priority of Israel’s nuclear deterrent force must always be that it preserves the country’s security without ever having to be fired against any target.”
To preserve itself against any existential threats, some of which may stem from terrorist organizations as well as from states, Israel, we reasoned, should learn from Sun-Tzu’s repeated emphasis on the “unorthodox.” Drawn from the conflation of thought that crystallized as Taoism, the ancient strategist observes: “…in battle, one engages with the orthodox and gains victory through the unorthodox.” In a complex passage, Sun-Tzu discusses how the orthodox may be used in unorthodox ways, while an orthodox attack may be unorthodox when it is unexpected.
Taken together with the recommendations of Project Daniel, this passage could still represent a subtle tool for Israeli operational planning, one that might usefully exploit an enemy state’s or terrorist group’s particular matrix of military expectations.
For Israel, said The Group, the “unorthodox” should be fashioned not only on the battlefield, but also before the battle. To prevent the most dangerous forms of battle, which would be expressions of all-out unconventional warfare called “counterforce” engagements, Israel should examine a number of promising strategic postures. These postures could even focus upon a reasoned shift from an image of “orthodox” rationality to one of somewhat “unorthodox” irrationality, although Project Daniel did confine itself to prescriptions for certain defensive first-strikes using conventional weapons and for certain massive counter-value (counter-city) nuclear reprisals.
Even before Project Daniel there was the “Samson Option.” Everyone who seriously studies Israeli nuclear strategy had long heard about this biblical image and idea. The Samson Option is generally thought to be a last resort strategy wherein Israel’s nuclear weapons would be used not for prevention of war or even for war waging, but rather as a last spasm of vengeance against a despised enemy state that had launched massive (probably unconventional) counter-city and/or counterforce attacks against Israel. In this view, Israel’s leaders, faced with national extinction, would decide that although the Jewish State could not survive, it would “die” only together with its destroyers.
How does the Samson Option appear to the Arab/Iranian side? Israel, it would seem, may resort to nuclear weapons, but only in reprisal, and only in response to overwhelmingly destructive first-strike attacks. Correspondingly, anything less than an overwhelmingly destructive first-strike would elicit a measured and proportionate Israeli military response.
Moreover, by striking first, the Arab/Iranian enemy knows that it could have an advantage in “escalation dominance.” These calculations would follow from the more or less informed enemy view that Israel will never embrace the “unorthodox” on the strategic level, that its actions will likely always be reactions, and that these reactions will always be limited.
But what if Israel were to fine-tune its Samson Option? What if it did this in conjunction with certain doctrinal changes in its longstanding policy of nuclear ambiguity? By taking the bomb out of the “basement” and by indicating, simultaneously, that its now declared nuclear weapons were not limited to existential scenarios, Israel might still go a long way to enhancing its national security. It would do this by displaying an apparent departure from perfect rationality; that is, by expressing the rationality of threatened irrationality.
Whether or not such a display would be an example of “pretended irrationality” or of an authentic willingness to act irrationally would be anyone’s guess. Such an example of unorthodox behavior by Israel could actually incite enemy first-strikes in certain circumstances, or at least hasten the onset of such strikes that may already be planned, but there are ways for Israel in which Sun-Tzu’s “unorthodox” could be made to appear “orthodox.” Today, eight years after completion and presentation of Project Daniel, it is time for scholars to explore these ways with care and in operational detail.
Louis René Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.