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.