IDF planners working on an improved strategic paradigm will need to understand the following: Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrent to the extent that it would enlarge enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Such a calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. From the standpoint of successful Israeli nuclear deterrence, IDF planners must proceed on the assumption that perceived willingness is always just as important as perceived capability. This, again, may bring to mind the counter intuitively presumed advantages for Israel of sometimes appearing less than fully rational.
There are certain circumstances in which a correlation of forces paradigm will necessarily lead IDF planners to consider certain preemption options. This is because there will surely be circumstances in which the existential risks to Israel of continuing to rely upon some combination of nuclear deterrence and active defenses (that is, primarily the “Arrow” system of ballistic missile defense) will simply be too great. In these circumstances, Israeli decision-makers will need to determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,“ would be cost-effective. Here, their judgments would depend upon a number of very critical factors, including: (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost (disutility) of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployments; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected United States and world community reactions to Israeli preemptions.
IDF planners will no doubt note that Israel’s rational inclinations to strike preemptively in certain circumstances will be affected by the particular steps taken by prospective target states (e.g., Iran) to guard against any Israeli preemption. Should Israel refrain too long (for any reason) from striking first defensively, certain enemy states could begin to implement protective measures that would pose substantial additional obstacles and hazards for Israel. These measures could include the attachment of certain automated launch mechanisms to certain nuclear weapons, and/or the adoption of “launch-on-warning” policies.
IDF planners must presume that such policies might call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles upon receipt of warning that an Israeli attack is underway. By requiring launch before the attacking Israeli warheads actually reached their intended targets, any enemy reliance of launch-on-warning could carry very grave risks of error.
The single most important factor in IDF correlation of forces planning judgments on the preemption option will be the expected rationality of certain enemy decision-makers. If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike at Israel with unconventional forces irrespective of anticipated Israeli counterstrikes, deterrence would cease to work. This means that certain enemy strikes could be expected even if enemy leaders fully understood that Israel had “successfully” deployed its own nuclear weapons in completely survivable modes; that Israel’s nuclear weapons were believed to be entirely capable of penetrating the enemy’s active defenses; and that Israel’s leaders were altogether willing to retaliate.
Now, facing new forms of regional chaotic disintegration, it is time for Israel to go beyond its already-expanded paradigm of numerical military assessments to certain additional and “softer” considerations. Within this wider and more self-consciously qualitative strategic paradigm, IDF planners should focus, among other areas, upon the cumulative and interpenetrating importance of unconventional weapons and low-intensity warfare in the region.
In certain circumstances, critical strategies and tactics will be both indispensable and infeasible. For the Jewish state, this will have the apparent makings of an unbearable and irremediable dilemma. Yet, truth can sometimes emerge through paradox, and a suitably improved “correlation of forces” focus could soon uncover unforeseen, but fully purposeful, strategic options.
In the end, Israel, as the Jewish state, must always bear in mind the overriding difference between collective life and collective death, between the “blessing and the curse.” Here, IDF strategists and planners can learn both from Cicero and Machiavelli. “For what can be done against force, without force,” inquired Cicero, the ancient Roman thinker and statesman. In the best of all possible worlds, perhaps, such a rhetorical question would not need even to be raised. But, recalling Voltaire, this is not yet “the best of all possible worlds.”
Cicero understood. Failure to use force against a murderous evil imprints an indelible stain upon all that is good. Machiavelli, too, offers a meaningful lesson for present-day Israel. Writing during the early sixteenth century in The Discourses, less well-known, of course, than The Prince, the industrious Florentine statesman and scholar examined how the Romans had proceeded, doctrinally, in the waging of war. In the first place, he observed significantly, the Romans were absolutely determined “to make war short and crushing.”
Making war “short and crushing,” long an integral part of successful Roman strategy, has been an IDF imperative also. Indeed, from the very first days of Jewish statehood, in May 1948, IDF doctrine has correctly made the avoidance of any protracted warfare explicit and urgent. Today, particularly when the demographic components of the Middle East region’s correlation of forces still weigh heavily and immutably on the side of its enemies, an asymmetry actually far more unfavorable than what had faced ancient Roman armies, Israel must aim conspicuously at using its military might solely for deterrence and dissuasion whenever possible, and then only for prompt victory and cessation of hostilities whenever war is simply unavoidable.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” The “New” Middle East is characterized by very specific and consequential changes in power and threat-dynamics, but the underlying forces of anarchy and chaos still retain a discernible and instructive form. It follows that Israel’s strategic thinkers and planners should now stay focused on identifying critical recurrent core patterns within this ascertainable “geometry.” Then, they will be able to deduce appropriately precise and promising policy recommendations from this geometry’s always-unchanging axioms and postulates.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and has lectured and published widely on Israeli security issues for forty years. Born in Zürich, Switzerland on August 31, 1945, he is the author of ten books and several hundred journal articles and monographs in the field. Dr. Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.