Latest update: January 10th, 2013
It would be unreasonable for Israel to draw any comfort from an argument that Iranian intentions are effectively harmless. Rather, such intentions could impact capabilities decisively over time. Backed by appropriate nuclear weapons, preemption options must somehow remain open and viable to Israel, augmented, of course, by appropriate and complementary plans for cyber-defense and cyber-warfare.
An important factor in this discussion of intentions, capabilities and preemption options is the so-called Middle East peace process, now more generally known as the “Road Map.”
Conventional wisdom has been quick to suggest that this cartographic process, by demonstrating and codifying Israel’s commitment to peaceful settlement of disputes, has diminished the enemy (Iranian) threat. After all, wouldn’t world public opinion uniformly condemn Iran for any act of aggression directed against a peacemaking Israel? And wouldn’t, therefore, any Iranian aggressive intentions be reduced or even removed, a change that could slow down Teheran’s pertinent unconventional militarization, and consequently the overall danger to Israel from that enemy state?
The conventional wisdom may be wrong, or merely partial. Following the earlier Oslo Agreement, Israel’s inclination to preempt enemy aggression had likely been diminished from the start. After all, virtually the entire global community would have frowned disapprovingly upon an Israeli preemption in the midst of an ongoing, incremental search for “peace” in the region.
If the Iranians should recognize these effective inhibitions on Israeli preemption options (and there is every reason to believe that they would recognize these inhibitions), this enemy state could calculate as follows: “As our militarization will be less threatened by Israeli preemptive attack during the peace process, we (Iran) should increase our capabilities, especially our unconventional weapons capabilities, as quickly as practicable.” Such a calculation could enlarge Iranian intentions to attack Israel, and could even render cost-effective hostile actions by Iran that would not otherwise have been considered, or even have been thought possible.
If the “peace process” should produce a Palestinian state, a result that now looks increasingly likely following incremental statehood actions by the United Nations, the effects on enemy capabilities and intentions, and therefore on Israeli preemption options, would be significant. Israel’s substantial loss of strategic depth could be recognized by enemy states as a distinct military liability for Jerusalem. Such recognition, in turn, could then heat up enemy intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for capabilities, and consequently a heightened risk of war.
Israel could foresee such enemy calculations, and seek to compensate for the loss of territories in a number of different ways. It could decide that it was time to take its bomb out of the “basement” (nuclear disclosure) as a deterrence-enhancing measure, but this might not be enough of a productive strategy. It could, therefore, accept a heightened willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy hard targets, strikes backed up by Israeli nuclear weapons. Made aware of any such Israeli intentions –intentions that would derive from Israel’s new territorial vulnerabilities – enemy states could respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly and more quickly for their own nuclearization, and/or for first-strike conventional attacks against the Jewish State.
Taken by itself, a Palestinian state could affect the capabilities and intentions of both Israel and its enemies. But if such a state were created at the same time Israel reduced or abandoned its nuclear weapons capabilities, the impact could be more substantial. This scenario should not be dismissed out of hand.
What would happen if Israel were to actually relinquish its nuclear options? Under such hard to imagine circumstances, Israel would not only be more vulnerable to enemy first strikes, it would also be deprived of its essential preemption options. This is the case because any Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence could be immobilized by reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential, and because Israeli preemptions could not possibly be 100% effective against enemy unconventional forces. A less than 100% level of effectiveness could be tolerable if Israel had a “leak proof” ATBM (anti-tactical ballistic missile) capability in the Arrow and Iron Dome systems, but such a capability is inherently unachievable.
Nuclear War Fighting Options
We have seen that Israel could conceivably need nuclear weapons for, among several other essential purposes, nuclear war fighting. Should nuclear deterrence options and/or preemption options fail altogether, Israel’s “hard target” capabilities could be critical to national survival. These capabilities would depend, in part, upon nuclear weapons.
What, exactly, would be appropriate in such dire circumstances – conditions that Israel must strive to prevent at all costs? Instead of “Armageddon”-type weapons (see the Samson Option below), Israel would need, inter alia, precision, low-yield nuclear warheads that could reduce collateral damage to acceptable levels, and hypervelocity nuclear warheads that could readily overcome enemy active defenses. Israel would also benefit from certain radio-frequency weapons. These are nuclear warheads that are tailored to produce as much electromagnetic pulse as possible, destroying electronics and communications over wide areas.
Regarding the nuclear weapons needed by Israel for nuclear war fighting, Jerusalem could require an intermediate option between capitulations on the one hand, and resort to multi-megaton nuclear weapons, on the other.
Such discussion may be objectionable to all people of feeling and sensitivity. It would, after all, be far more “peaceful” to speak of nuclear arms control or sustainable nuclear deterrence or even preemption, than nuclear war fighting. Yet the Middle East remains a particularly dangerous and possibly even irrational neighborhood, and any strategic failure to confront the most terrible possibilities could correspondingly produce the most terrible harms.
For Israel, a state that yearns for peace and security more than any other in this neighborhood – a state born out of the ashes of humankind’s most terrible crime – genocide looms both as an ineradicable memory, and as a sobering expectation. Resisting the short-term temptations of “Road Maps” and “peace processes,” its leaders must always plan accordingly. But let us be clear, per earlier recommendations by Project Daniel (2003) – nuclear war fighting options should always be rejected wherever possible.
The Samson Option
Proposals for a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone notwithstanding, Israel still needs its nuclear weapons, both for the compelling reasons already discussed, and also for “last resort” purposes. Although this is likely the least important need – since, by definition, any actual resort to the Samson Option would reveal failure and collapse of all essential security functions – it is not unimportant. This is because Israeli preparations for last resort operations could play a major role in enhancing Israeli nuclear deterrence, preemption and war fighting requirements, and because such preparations would also show the world that the post-Holocaust Jewish state had kept its faith with an incontestable Jewish obligation.
Regarding any prospective contributions to Israeli nuclear deterrence, preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince would-be attackers that aggression would not prove beneficial. This is especially the case if Israeli preparation were coupled with some level of disclosure; if Israel’s pertinent Samson weapons appeared to be sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes; and if these weapons were identifiably “counter value” in mission function. By definition, the Samson Option would be executed with counter value-targeted nuclear weapons. Such last-resort operations might come into play only after all Israeli counterforce options had been exhausted.
Considering what strategists sometimes call the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could aid Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a willingness to take existential risks, but this would hold true only if last-resort options were not tied definitionally to certain destruction.
Regarding prospective contributions to preemption options, preparation for a Samson Option could convince Israel that essential defensive first strikes could be undertaken with diminished expectations of unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations. This would depend, of course, on antecedent Israeli decisions on disclosure, on Israeli perceptions of the effects of disclosure on enemy retaliatory prospects, on Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability, and on enemy awareness of Samson’s counter value force posture.
As in the case of Samson and Israeli nuclear deterrence, any last-resort preparations could assist Israeli preemption options by displaying a persuasive willingness to take certain existential risks. But Israeli planners must be mindful here of pretended irrationality as a double-edged sword. Brandished too “irrationally,” Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could actually encourage enemy preemptions.
Regarding prospective contributions to Israel’s nuclear war fighting options, preparation for a Samson Option could convince enemy states that a clear victory would be impossible to achieve. But here it would be important for Israel to communicate to potential aggressors the following understanding: Israel’s counter value-targeted Samson weapons are additional to (not at the expense of) its counterforce-targeted war fighting weapons. In the absence of such a communication, preparations for a Samson Option could effectively impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear war fighting options.
Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of political science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.
About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.
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