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Why Israel Should Not Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons: An Informed Response To Obama Adviser, Joseph Cirincione (Part II)


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Deterrence Options

We have seen (in last week’s list of reasons, numbers 1 and 2) 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 (a move, under certain conditions, that I have suggested previously in my Jewish Press columns), Israel cannot reasonably rely entirely upon nuclear deterrence for survival. This should be apparent to anyone who has watched the continuing unfolding 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 upon Israel would be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might choose to strike first, depending upon the particular value or utility it places upon the expected consequence of such an attack.

Regarding willingness, even if Jerusalem were prepared to respond to certain attacks with nuclear reprisals, enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could provoke an attack upon Israel. Here, misperception and/or errors in information could immobilize nuclear deterrence. It is also conceivable that Jerusalem would, in fact, lack willingness to retaliate, and that this lack would be perceived correctly by enemy decision-makers. In this case, Israeli nuclear deterrence would be immobilized not because of “confused signals”, but because of specific Israeli intelligence and policy failures.

Regarding capacity, even if Jerusalem maintains a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that enemy states 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 will 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 concerns enemy state deployment of anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which might contribute to an attack decision against Israel by lowering the 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 a would-be attacker as “too destructive,” they might not deter. To some extent, at least, 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 base its central deterrence position on appropriate levels of “counter value” targeting, and not on “counterforce.”

No examination of Israeli nuclear deterrence options would be complete without consideration of the “Bomb in the Basement” issue, one that I have explored on several occasions right here in The Jewish Press.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 rather 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 would represent a rational and prudent option for Israel. Here, the operational benefits of disclosure would stem from deliberate flows of information about dispersion, multiplication, hardening, speed and evasiveness of nuclear weapons systems, and about some other pertinent technical features of certain nuclear weapons. Most importantly, 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, doubts which, left unchallenged, could 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 remove any doubts about Jerusalem’s nuclear resolve. Here, a prospective attacker, newly aware that Israel could retaliate across the entire spectrum of possible scenarios without generating intolerably high levels of civilian harms, would be more likely (because of disclosure), to believe Israel’s nuclear threats.

I must also mention here the 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 − 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 serve Israel’s security for a while longer, but − at one time or another − might fail altogether.

I have already mentioned the complex problem of enemy rationality − especially in my earlier columns about the growing nuclear menace from Iran. Strategic assessments of nuclear deterrence always assume a rational state enemy, that is, an enemy that values its own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. But this assumption is enormously problematic. There is, in fact, absolutely no reason to assume that all prospective attackers of the Jewish State would always choose physical survival among all possible options, or even that such attackers would hew perfectly to careful and systematic comparisons of all expected costs and all expected benefits. As long as such enemies are capable of missile attacks upon Israel, and as long as Israel is unable to intercept these attacks with near-perfect or possibly even perfect reliability (no system of ballistic missile defense, including Israel’s Arrow, can ever be leak-proof), Israeli dependence upon nuclear deterrence could have existential consequences.

Where should Israel go from here? Recognizing the substantial limitations of the so-called “Peace Process,” the Jewish State must seek security beyond the protections offered by nuclear deterrence. It must, as recommended by Project Daniel, prepare for preemption against pertinent military targets. Although many will find even such preparation “aggressive” or “uncivilized,” the alternative may, in effect, amount to national suicide. Moreover, as I have written widely here in The Jewish Press, the right of preemption is well established under international law as “anticipatory self-defense.” International law is not a suicide pact.

Copyright © The Jewish Press, June 6, 2008. All rights reserved.

(To be continued)

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press. He is author of some of the earliest major books and articles on Israel’s nuclear strategy.

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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