Latest update: December 12th, 2012
Last week, we considered Project Daniel’s recommendations concerning Israel’s preemption and nuclear warfighting doctrines. The Group strongly endorsed the Prime Minister’s acceptance of a broad concept of defensive first-strikes, but just as strongly advised against using his undisclosed nuclear arsenal for anything but essential deterrence. This means that enemy states must begin to understand that certain forms of aggression against Israel will assuredly elicit massive Israeli nuclear reprisals against city targets. For the moment, we maintain that such an understanding can be communicated by Israel without any forms of explicit nuclear disclosure, but we also recognize that the presumed adequacy of nuclear ambiguity would change immediately if enemy nuclearization anywhere should become a realty.
Nuclear deterrence, ambiguous or partially disclosed, is essential to Israel’s physical survival. If, for whatever reason, Israel should fail to prevent enemy state nuclearization, it will have to refashion its nuclear deterrent to conform to vastly more dangerous regional and world conditions. But even if this should require purposeful disclosure of its nuclear assets and doctrine, such revelation would have to be limited solely to what be needed to convince Israel’s enemies of both its capacity and its resolve. More particularly, this would mean revealing only those aspects needed to identify the survivability and penetration-capability of Israel’s nuclear forces, and the political will to launch these massive forces in retaliation for certain forms of enemy state aggression.
The Group advised the Prime Minister that Israel must always do whatever it can to ensure a secure and recognizable second-strike nuclear capability. Once nuclear ambiguity is brought to an end, nuclear disclosure would play a crucial communications role. The essence of deterrence here lies in the communication of capacity and will to those who would do Israel existential harm. Significantly, the actual retaliatory use of nuclear weapons by Israel would signify the failure of its deterrent. Recalling the ancient Chinese military thinker Sun-Tzu, who was the subject of an earlier column in this special “Daniel” series, the very highest form of military success is achieved when one’s strategic objectives can be met without any actual use of force.
To meet its ultimate deterrence objectives — that is, to deter the most overwhelmingly destructive enemy first‑strikes — Israel must seek and achieve a visible second‑strike capability to target approximately fifteen enemy cities. Ranges would be to cities in Libya and Iran, and nuclear bomb yields would be at a level “sufficient to fully compromise the aggressor’s viability as a functioning state.” Translation: nuclear bomb yields at or approaching megaton levels. By choosing countervalue-targeted warheads in this range of maximum-destructiveness, Israel would achieve optimal deterrent effect, thereby neutralizing the overall asymmetry between the Arab states/Iran and the State of Israel. All enemy targets would be selected with the view that their destruction would promptly force the enemy aggressor to cease all nuclear/biological/chemical exchanges with Israel.
As a professor of international law, I was able to assure the Group that all of our recommendations to the Prime Minister regarding Israeli nuclear deterrence are fully consistent with authoritative international law. On July 8, 1996, the International Court of Justice at The Hague (not known for any specifically pro-Israel sympathies by any means) handed down its Advisory Opinion on The Legality Of The Threat Or Use Of Force Of Nuclear Weapons. The final paragraph concludes, inter alia:
The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law. However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”
If the world now expects Israel to heed the July 2004 Advisory Opinion of the ICJ on the security fence, it must also acknowledge that same Court’s prior 1996 ruling on the residual right of states to use nuclear weapons in war.
The Group advised the Prime Minister that Israel must display flexibility in its nuclear deterrence posture in order to contend with future enemy expansions of nuclear weapon assets. It may even become necessary under certain circumstances that Israel deploy a full “triad” of strategic nuclear forces. For now, however, we recommended that Israel continue to manage without nuclear missile-bearing submarines. This recommendation holds only as long as it remains highly improbable that any enemy or combination of enemies could destroy Israel’s land-based and airborne-launched nuclear missiles on a first-strike attack.
Israel’s nuclear deterrent must be backed up by far-reaching active defenses. With this in mind, the Group emphasized that Israel take immediate steps to operationalize an efficient, multi-layered antiballistic missile system to intercept and destroy a finite number of enemy warheads. Such interception would have to take place with the very highest possible probability of success, and with a fully reliable capacity to distinguish between incoming warheads and decoys.
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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