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.