Public discussions of Israel’s nuclear policy almost never delve into core questions of targeting doctrine. Yet, the actual extent to which Israel’s security will be affected by its nuclear weapons will depend considerably upon the IDF’s codified targets and on the precise extent to which these targets have previously been identified. For national security, it is not enough that Israel merely have “The Bomb.” The adequacy of its nuclear deterrence and preemption policies will inevitably depend, among other things, upon where Israel’s nuclear weapons are presumed to be directed.
Of course, such an understanding was an absolutely key component of “Project Daniel” deliberations, a uniquely high-level group of military/intelligence/academic experts, which delivered its special report on Israel’s Strategic Future to the Prime Minister on January 16, 2003. In this connection, readers will recall that some of my earlier columns prepared “Special to The Jewish Press” had carefully discussed and explained Project Daniel. I was Chair of this small group, which has been widely denounced in the Arab/Islamic world, and which is the subject of a current article in The Atlantic Monthly. Moreover, when Israel’s Strategic Future was first made public, an editorial in Haaretz heaped criticism upon “Daniel,” not for any substantive or analytic reasons, but because this was the first time in history that an Israeli who had been a member of the IDF General Staff had spoken openly about Israeli nuclear policy. In essence, Project Daniel began (purposefully and productively) to lift the veil of deliberate ambiguity from Israel’s “bomb in the basement.”
A nuclear war in the Middle East is not out of the question. There are a number of different scenarios that could result in an Israeli use of nuclear weapons. In this connection, Israel will need to choose prudently between what are professionally called “assured destruction” strategies and “nuclear warfighting” strategies. What follows, therefore, is an informed exploration of these critical strategic alternatives. As always, this exploration is offered specifically and exclusively for my readers in The Jewish Press – the only Jewish newspaper that consistently displays intellectual and moral authority in such existential matters.
In the “trade,” assured destruction strategies are also sometimes called “countervalue” strategies or “mutual assured destruction” (MAD). These are strategies of deterrence/preemption, in which a country primarily targets its strategic weapons on the other side’s civilian populations and/or its supporting civilian infrastructures. Nuclear warfighting strategies, on the other hand, are called “counterforce” strategies. These are systems of deterrence/preemption wherein a country primarily targets its strategic nuclear weapons on the other side’s major weapon systems and on its supporting military infrastructures.
For nuclear-weapons countries in general, and for Israel in particular, there are very serious survival implications for choosing one strategy over the other. It is also possible that a country would opt for some sort of “mixed” (countervalue/counterforce) strategy, but Project Daniel concluded otherwise in its particular concerns. For Israel, we reasoned, any policy that might conceivably encourage nuclear war fighting – that is, any counterforce nuclear doctrines – should be rejected out-of-hand. Whatever deterrence/preemption strategy Israel might choose, what ultimately really matters is what an enemy country perceives. In strategic matters, as in so much of life in other spheres, the only truly pertinent reality is perceived reality. In making its recommendations for countervalue targeting over counterforce targeting, therefore, Project Daniel kept this overriding psychological/philosophical understanding closely in mind.
In choosing between the two basic strategic alternatives, Israel should opt for nuclear deterrence/preemption based upon assured destruction. This strong recommendation will surely elicit opposition in certain quarters. First and foremost, a countervalue targeting doctrine would appear to risk an enlarged risk of “losing” any nuclear war that might still arise. This is because countervalue-targeted nuclear weapons, by definition, would not destroy military targets. Yet, a counterforce targeting doctrine would be substantially less persuasive as a nuclear deterrent, especially to societies wherein leaders would willingly sacrifice entire armies and military infrastructures as “martyrs.” Further, if Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence/preemption based upon identified and projected counterforce capabilities, its Arab/Islamic enemies could feel especially threatened. For many reasons, this condition could then actually heighten the prospect of WMD aggression against Israel and of a nuclear exchange.
Israel’s decisions on countervalue versus counterforce doctrines should depend, in part, on prior investigations of: (1) enemy country inclinations to strike first; and (2) enemy country inclinations to strike all-at-once or in stages. Should Israeli strategic planners assume that certain enemy countries that are in process of “going nuclear” are apt to strike first and to strike in an unlimited fashion (that is, to fire all of their nuclear weapons right away), Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads – used in retaliation – would likely hit only empty silos/launchers. In such circumstances, Israel’s only rational application of counterforce doctrine would be to strike first itself. If, for whatever reason, Israel were to reject preemption options (options recommended by Project Daniel, although only with non-nuclear weapons), there would be absolutely no reason to opt for a counterforce strategy. Rather, from the standpoint of persuasive intrawar deterrence, a countervalue strategy would prove vastly more appropriate.
Should Israeli planners assume that the enemy countries “going nuclear” are apt to strike first and to strike in a limited fashion – holding some significant measure of nuclear firepower in reserve for follow-up strikes – Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads could have damage-limiting benefits. Here, counterforce operations could appear to serve both an Israeli non-nuclear preemption, or, should Israel decide not to preempt, an Israeli retaliatory strike. However, the underlying assumption itself is implausible.
Should an Israeli first-strike be intentionally limited, perhaps because it would be coupled with an assurance of no further destruction in exchange for an end to hostilities, counterforce operations could seemingly serve an Israeli counterretaliatory strike. This is because Israel’s attempt at intrawar deterrence could fail, occasioning the need for follow-up strikes to produce badly needed damage-limitation. Nonetheless, the overall argument for Israeli counterforce options is founded upon a complex illusion. The prospective benefits to Israel of maintaining any counterforce targeting options are greatly outweighed by the prospective costs.
Looking back over what has been considered, it is plain that regional nuclear war is a distinct possibility for Israel, and that adequate preparations now need to be made to prevent such a war. These preparations will require, immediately, a clear awareness of how a nuclear war might start in the Middle East, and an informed identification of the best strategic doctrine currently available to Israel. As endorsed by Project Daniel, it is essential that Israel reject any hint of counterforce targeting doctrine, and focus instead upon massive, countervalue policy options.
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LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press and Chair of Project Daniel.