Latest update: January 10th, 2013
6. As only a distinctly last resort, Israel needs nuclear weapons for nuclear war fighting. Although in the best of all possible worlds this residual need will never have to arise, and although Israel should always do everything possible to avoid any such use (Project Daniel made this avoidance a major point in its final report, “Israel’s Strategic Future,” presented to former then-Prime Minister Sharon in 2003), it still cannot be ruled out altogether. Rather, Israeli planners and decision-makers who could possibly find themselves in a dire situation of “no alternative” must take it seriously.
Among the possible and more or less probable paths to nuclear war fighting are the following: enemy nuclear first-strikes against Israel; enemy non-nuclear first-strikes against Israel that elicit Israeli nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes; Israeli nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets; Israeli non-nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets that elicit enemy nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes.
Other pertinent paths to nuclear war fighting might include accidental/unintentional/inadvertent nuclear attacks among Israel and regional enemy states, and even the escalatory consequences of nuclear terrorism against the Jewish State.
As long as it can be assumed that Israel is determined to endure, there are conditions where Jerusalem could resort to nuclear war fighting. This holds true if: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter-retaliatory capabilities.
It follows, from the standpoint of Israel’s nuclear requirements, that Jerusalem should prepare to do what is needed to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).
7. Israel needs nuclear weapons for the also residual “Samson Option.” Although any such use of nuclear weapons, by definition, would be profoundly catastrophic, Israel is apt to reason that it would be better to “die with the Philistines” than to die alone. This sort of understanding is much more than a matter of Jewish honor, and also much more than a refutation of the so-called Masada complex (suicide without punishment of the aggressor). It could (depending upon awareness by enemy states) represent an integral and indispensable element of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.
Moreover, the biblical analogy is somewhat misleading. Samson chose suicide by pushing apart the temple pillars, whereas Israel, using nuclear weapons as a last resort, would not be choosing – or even necessarily committing – “suicide.” For states, the criteria of “life” and “death” are hardly as clear-cut as they are for individual persons.
Finally, it is essential that Israel’s leaders, in considering possible uses of nuclear weapons, regard the Samson Option as one to be precluded by correct resort to all other nuclear options. Stated differently, a resort to the Samson Option by Israel would imply the complete failure of all other options, and of the failure of its nuclear weapons to provide essential national security.
We have seen that Israel needs nuclear weapons, among other purposes, to deter large conventional attacks, and all levels of unconventional attack by enemy states. Yet the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in meeting these needs is limited and exceedingly problematic. Even if the country should move toward partial or full disclosure of its nuclear weapons, Israel cannot reasonably rely entirely upon nuclear deterrence for survival. This should be apparent to anyone who has watched the continuing unfolding and expansion of Iran’s expressly genocidal intentions.
Aware of these limitations, Israel must nonetheless seek to strengthen nuclear deterrence such that an enemy state will always calculate that a first-strike upon the Jewish State would be irrational. This means taking steps to convince the enemy state that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this important objective, Israel must convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Where a rational enemy state considering an attack on Israel would be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might still choose to strike first, depending, of course, upon the particular value or utility it places upon the expected outcomes of such an attack.
Regarding willingness, even if Jerusalem were prepared to respond to certain attacks with nuclear reprisals, any enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could still provoke an attack upon Israel. Here, misperception and/or errors in information could immobilize Israeli nuclear deterrence. It is also conceivable that Jerusalem would, in fact, lack willingness to retaliate, and that enemy decision-makers perceived this lack correctly. In this perilous case, Israeli nuclear deterrence would be immobilized not because of any “confused signals” but rather because of certain specific Israeli intelligence and/or policy failures.
Regarding capacity, even if Jerusalem maintains a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that enemy states always believe these weapons to be distinctly usable. This means that if a first-strike attack is believed capable of destroying Israel’s arsenal, the Jewish state’s nuclear deterrent could be immobilized.
Moreover, even if Israel’s nuclear weapons were configured such that they could not be destroyed by an enemy first-strike, enemy misperceptions or misjudgments about Israeli vulnerability could still occasion the failure of nuclear deterrence. A further complication here might concern enemy state deployment of anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which could contribute to an attack decision against Israel by lowering the intended aggressor’s expected costs.
The importance of “usable” nuclear weapons must also be examined from the standpoint of probable harms. Should Israel’s nuclear weapons be perceived by any would-be attacker as “too destructive,” they still might not deter. Here, successful nuclear deterrence, to the extent possible, may vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. At the same time, per earlier recommendations by Project Daniel, it is essential that Israel always base its central deterrence position on appropriate levels of “counter value” targeting, and never on “counterforce.”
No examination of Israeli nuclear deterrence options would be complete without some further consideration of the “Bomb in the Basement.” From the beginning, Israel’s bomb has remained deliberately ambiguous. For the future, however, it is by no means certain that an undeclared nuclear deterrent will be capable of meeting Jerusalem’s security goals, or that it will even be equal in effectiveness to a more or less openly-declared nuclear deterrent.
Disclosure would not be intended to reveal the obvious, i.e., that Israel has the bomb, but instead to heighten enemy perceptions of Jerusalem’s capable nuclear forces, and/or Jerusalem’s willingness to use these forces in reprisal for certain first strike attacks.
What, exactly, are the plausible connections between an openly declared nuclear weapons capacity, and enemy perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence? One such connection concerns the relation between disclosure and perceived vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear forces to preemptive destruction. Another such connection concerns the relation between disclosure and perceived capacity of Jerusalem’s nuclear forces to penetrate the attacking state’s active defenses.
To the extent that removing the bomb from the basement, or disclosure, would encourage enemy views of an Israeli force that is sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks, and/or is capable of piercing enemy active defenses, disclosure could represent a rational and prudent option for Israel. The operational benefits of disclosure would stem from deliberate flows of information about dispersion, multiplication, hardening, speed and evasiveness of nuclear weapons systems, and also about some other pertinent technical features of certain nuclear weapons. Most important, such flows, which could also refer to command/control invulnerability, and possible pre-delegations of launch authority, could serve to remove enemy doubts about Israel’s nuclear force capabilities. Such doubts, left unchallenged, could fatally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.
Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could also heighten enemy perceptions of Jerusalem’s willingness to make good on its retaliatory threats. For example, by releasing information about its nuclear forces that identifies distinctly usable weapons, Israel might successfully remove any doubts about Jerusalem’s nuclear resolve. A prospective attacker, newly aware that Israel could retaliate across the entire spectrum of possible yield scenarios without generating intolerably high levels of civilian harms, could be more likely, because of Israeli disclosure, to believe Jerusalem’s nuclear deterrent threats.
There are also vital connections between disclosure, doctrine, and deterrence. To the extent that Israel’s strategic doctrine actually identifies nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal – forms calibrating Israeli retaliations to particular levels of provocation – any disclosure of such doctrine (at least in its broadest and most unspecific contours) could contribute to Israel’s nuclear deterrence. Without such disclosure, Israel’s enemies could be kept guessing about Jerusalem’s probable responses, a condition of protracted uncertainty that could conceivably serve Israel’s security for a while longer but at some point fail altogether.
(Continued Next Week)
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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