Photo Credit: National Nuclear Security Administration/Nevada Site Office Photo Library
A nuclear Blast in the Nevada desert

[Republished with permission from IsraelDefense]

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Even now, Israel must brace itself against intermittent waves of Palestinian terror. Accordingly, it would now seem most sensible to orient the country’s core national security focus toward these still anticipated crimes of violence.


Nonetheless, as terrorism and war are not mutually exclusive, Jerusalem must be careful not to deflect primary planning attention from more plainly existential conflicts.

Authentic survival dangers stem largely from a prospectively expanding prospect of a regional conflict that involves weapons of mass destruction. Any such many-sided peril could involve both state and sub-state adversaries, sometimes in closely orchestrated concert with one another. At some point, moreover, these different types of enemy, whether individually or functioning together as adversarial “hybrids,” could collaborate in unorthodox fashion, including perhaps an attack on Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor.

This fearful scenario would not be unprecedented. In 1991, and again in 2014, Dimona came under missile and rocket fire, from Iraqi and Hamas aggressions, respectively.

For Jerusalem, a key question should now arise: How shall Israel best respond? While assorted security threats could be intersecting, interpenetrating, or synergistic, there will still remain a more-or-less decipherable hierarchy of plausible dangers. Once this pertinent rank-ordering has been expressly identified in Tel-Aviv, Israel’s policy planners will then need to ensure that the Jewish state remains situated in an optimal position to control escalation.

Israel’s defense officials must ensure that the country’s “layered” systems of deterrence, defense, preemption, and war-fighting protections are: (1) mutually reinforcing; and (2) oriented toward both national and terror-group foes. These officials must also learn to efficiently demarcate and best exploit the complex and cross-cutting alignments being forged between Israel’s diverse enemies. To wit, following US President Donald Trump’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia (overtures enhanced by very substantial advanced weapon sales to Riyadh), Qatar could favor stronger ties with Iran, Hezbollah, and/or Hamas.

In principle, Jerusalem could prefer the proximity of ISIS-related foes in the region to Russian, Syrian and Iranian-supported Hezbollah. But this preference could quickly change, especially if the ISIS-brand fighters should begin to vie more actively with Hamas, Fatah, and/or Islamic Jihad terrorists over Jordan and (eventually) “Palestine.”

In rendering all such preference calculations, Jerusalem will also need to take into account the prospectively hardening bipolarity of “Cold War II.” With this in mind, Israeli strategists should not automatically assume that US President Trump’s increasingly bewildering deference to Moscow will preclude a second cold war. More than likely, whatever the true nature of the American president’s obligations to Moscow, superpower nuclear competition will continue with a problematic momentum of its own.

For the moment, Israel has cast a portion of its security lot with Egypt’s General al-Sisi, acting (singly or cooperatively) against Jihadists in the Sinai. Over time, however, there could be yet another change of power in Cairo, perhaps at a moment when Egypt had actively embarked upon acquiring nuclear weapons. Then, looking back at the evolution of nuclear weapons development in Shiite Iran, from the Shah to the ayatollahs, Egypt could begin to look very much like “déjà vu all over again.”

Even if there were no actual change of presidential power in Egypt, General al-Sisi himself could sometime begin to act in sync with earlier war-making instincts of the Arab country’s traditional military dictators.

Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian Hamas, placing it at odds with both Egypt and Israel, and is close to Iran and Hezbollah (derivatively, therefore, also to Russia and Syria). Still, Qatar, home of US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the US Air-War facility at Al-Udeid Air Base, sends troops to fight against Iran-backed militias in the Yemen civil war, a conflict in which Iran and Saudi Arabia support different sides. Most publicly, perhaps, several Arab states accuse Qatar of sponsoring terrorism, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, and Afghan Taliban. Turkey, however, supports Qatar.

For Israel, confronted with such bewildering complexity, the most overriding security mandate is still not difficult to identify. To begin, security planning officials must prepare to look in several different strategic directions at once, and then to make further judgments about (1) expected axes of regional conflict, and (2) corresponding opportunities of “force multipliers.” These judgments, in turn, would involve mutually supportive applications of technology, both for maximizing Israeli deterrent effectiveness, and for ensuring Israel’s needed superiority in cyber-defense and cyber-war.

IDF and IMOD planners are keenly aware of these responsibilities, and are likely well ahead of Israel’s adversaries on all such competitive dimensions of regional military progress. At the same time, they must insistently query themselves about any foreseeable effects of “Cold War II.” More exactly, they must ask, “How will such projected rivalry between Washington and Moscow impact pertinent Middle Eastern security issues, and how, then, should Jerusalem then respond?”

Israel must remind the world that nuclear weapons states are not all created equal. Israel’s nuclear forces remain deliberately ambiguous and undeclared. This is not for any manipulative reasons of legal deception or operational subterfuge. Rather, these “bombs in the basement” have never been brandished in any threatening fashion by Israel’s civilian or military leaders.

Israel is not Iran. Israel’s presumptive nuclear weapons exist only to protect the Jewish state from certain extraordinary forms of aggression.

None of Israel’s enemies is currently nuclear, but this seemingly benign status of adversaries could change rapidly. The JCPOA will likely have no meaningful long-term effects upon Iranian nuclearization, and its apparent inadequacies could also encourage, perhaps in the similarly longer-term, certain reciprocal Sunni state nuclearizations. Over time, this could mean a nuclear Saudi Arabia, and/or a nuclear Egypt.

If, one day, it should have to face nuclear enemies, Israel could then choose to rely upon threatening its own nuclear weapons to reduce the risks of unconventional war and destruction, but only insofar as the newly-nuclear enemy state or states, or “hybrid” adversary, would remain (1) rational; and (2) convinced that Israel would retaliate “nuclearly” if attacked with nuclear, and/or other devastating (biological) weapons.

There is something else. A “Cold War II” between Russia and the United States, coinciding with an expanding regional chaos, could (1) effectively “re-test” earlier expressions of superpower nuclear deterrence; and (2) directly impact Israel’s critical power position in the region. The impact on Israeli safety and security of any such resurrected era of “bipolarity” could then stem from more-or-less unexpected directions, including a potentially devastating diminution of US military power from the Middle East.

Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality, or the presumed imperatives of “Jihad,” an enemy state in this fevered neighborhood could sometime opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of the Jewish State’s own secure and recognizable nuclear capability. A Cold War I type of “Mutual Assured Destruction” might not be reproducible in a proliferating Middle East.

After any enemy nuclear aggression, Israel would plausibly respond with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, such a reprisal would probably be launched against the aggressor’s capital city, and/or against similarly high-value urban targets. There could be no ascertainable assurances, in response to this sort of potentially genocidal aggression, that Israel would ever limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets.

What if enemy first strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or “minor” biological weapons? In that case, Israel might still launch a presumptively proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this “limited” choice would depend largely upon Israel’s own antecedent expectations of follow-on aggression, and on its associated determinations of comparative damage-limitation. Should Israel absorb “only” a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could not be ruled out.

This sobering conclusion is convincing, so long as: (1) the aggressor were perceived to hold nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in reserve; and/or (2) Israel’s leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent national annihilation. In this connection, recognizing Israel’s small size, it must not be forgotten, the calculated threshold of existential harms would be determinably lower than Israel’s total physical devastation.

Of course, facing presumptively imminent existential attacks, Israel could decide to preempt enemy aggression with certain conventional forces. The targeted state’s response would then effectively determine Israel’s subsequent moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would assuredly undertake some form or other of nuclear counter-retaliation.

If this enemy retaliation were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons, Israel might also plan a quantum escalatory initiative. After all, this particular sort of escalation dominance could be required for the secure preservation of Israel’s intra-war deterrent.

If an enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is improbable that Israel would resort to nuclear counter-retaliation. But if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were an all-out strike directed toward Israel’s civilian populations, as well as to certain Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not then be excluded. Such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliations were entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption; confined entirely to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity;” and accompanied by explicit and thoroughly verifiable assurances of no further escalation.

Realistically, an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only if: (1) Israel’s enemy or enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the Jewish State; (2) this enemy state had been explicit that its genocidal intentions paralleled its capabilities; (3) this state were reliably believed ready to begin a final countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve levels of damage-limitation consistent with its own national survival.

The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not preemption or reprisal ex post. If, however, nuclear weapons should ever be introduced into a conflict between Israel and one or more of the several states that still wish to destroy it, some form of nuclear warfighting could ensue. This would be the case so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish State’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state 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 state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy state conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

From the standpoint of protecting its security and survival, this means that Israel should take needed steps to ensure the high likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the high unlikelihood of (c) and (d). In any event, it is always in Israel’s cumulative interest to avoid nuclear war fighting.

For Israel, both nuclear and non-nuclear preemptions of enemy unconventional aggressions could lead to nuclear exchanges. This would depend, in part, upon the effectiveness and breadth of Israeli targeting, the surviving number of enemy nuclear weapons, and the willingness of enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. The likelihood of nuclear exchanges could be greatest where potential Arab and/or Iranian aggressors had been allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of certain unconventional weapons with impunity, that is, without eliciting any appropriate and effective Israeli preemptions, or, preferably, any meaningful global treaty impediments.

Should ill-considered enemy nuclear deployments ever be allowed, Israel could conceivably forfeit any once-residual non-nuclear preemption option. Then, its only alternatives to a nuclear preemption would be: (1) a no-longer viable conventional preemption; or (2) a decision to effectively do nothing immediate, thereby basing continued national security on hopefully still-credible long-term threats of nuclear deterrence. In the final analysis, any such deterrence-based decision would need critical “back-up” by reducing Israel’s traditional posture of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the bomb in the basement), and, inter alia, by further augmenting Israel’s sea-based (submarine) nuclear deterrent.

For now, Israel’s most urgent security threats would appear to issue from assorted sources of Arab and Iranian-backed terrorism. Over time, however, these grievous dangers could still pale in comparison to certain threats of enemy WMD attacks, especially regional nuclear aggressions. It follows that Israel must continue to consider every possible means of blunting such overriding threats, including preemption (anticipatory self-defense), deterrence, and ballistic missile defense.

At first glance, such advice may appear banal. What is unclear, however, and by no means easy, is calculating the complex and nuanced manner in which these three intersecting forms of “remedy” should be configured. In other words, how should this focused manner of safety be determined?

For Jerusalem, that is assuredly the vital question. In all perilous security circumstances, Israel must remain focused on starkly existential threats, especially those that could sometime involve nuclear weapons. Paradoxically, accommodating this focus will be both easy and hard.

In war, Carl von Clausewitz had observed wryly, “Everything is very simple…” Still, with a view that strategic truth may at times emerge dialectically, through opposites, he then took care (On War) to caution: “Even the simplest thing is difficult.”


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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue and the author of twelve books and several hundred articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. He was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its special report on Israel’s Strategic Future to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on January 16, 2003.