Israel’s Survival and Regional Nuclear War

May 31, 2015

5 min read

Louis Rene Beres

Israel’s survival problem is basically this: A small state, indeed a micro-state less than half the size of Lake Michigan, is surrounded by several openly genocidal enemy states – some of which still seek biological and/or nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

It also continues to be beset by relentless terrorist groups and insurgent forces, more or less sustained by these adversarial states – some of which are comprised of “holy warriors” seeking “martyrdom” via terror or mega-terror, and by the prospect that an entire enemy country could choose to act as a suicide bomber in macrocosm. This would mean acting without any ordinary or conspicuous regard for rational behavior.

Faced with conditions wherein the traditional threats of international deterrence could effectively be immobilized, Israel must capably prepare for (1) various still-feasible forms of preemption; (2) improved active defenses; and (3) long-term nuclear deterrence.

Israel remains the openly declared national and religious object of Arab/Islamic genocide. No other country on this persistently bleeding planet is in a similar or comparable existential predicament. What is Israel to do? And how might Israel’s possible actions or inactions further affect the likelihood of a regional nuclear war in the Middle East? Looking at the current situation systematically, including the prominent rise of Islamic State and the corollary collapse of Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, what can we now expect to happen in this irremediably bad neighborhood?

A competent “strategic dialectic” is required. What precise ways might a nuclear war actually begin in the Middle East, between the Jewish state and some of its enemies? Israel’s nuclear weapons, unacknowledged and non-threatening, exist only to prevent certain forms of aggression. Plainly, this indispensable deterrent force would never be used except in a defensive reprisal for certain massive enemy first-strikes, especially for Arab and/or Iranian attacks involving nuclear and/or biological weapons. For the time being, at least, Israel’s enemies are not nuclear, but this could change in the foreseeable future.

Even if it should change, Israel’s nuclear weapons could continue to reduce the risks of unconventional war as long as the pertinent enemy states were to: (1) remain rational; and (2) remain convinced that Israel would retaliate massively if attacked with nuclear and/ or biological weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, the expected risk reduction offered by Israeli nuclear forces and doctrine would likely be smaller in the event of any terrorist (sub-national or enemy surrogate) adversaries.

There are many complex problems for Jerusalem to identify if a bellicose enemy state were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, problems that belie the seemingly agreeable academic notions of stable nuclear deterrence. Whether for reasons of miscalculation, accident, unauthorized capacity to fire, outright irrationality or the presumed imperatives of “jihad,” such a state could sometime opt to launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel in spite of that country’s ambiguous nuclear posture.

Here, Jerusalem would certainly respond, to the extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. Although nothing is publicly known about Israel’s precise targeting doctrine, any such reprisal might be launched against the aggressor’s capital city, or against other similarly high-value urban targets.

In essence, there could be no assurances that in response to this egregious sort of Arab or Iranian aggression, Israel would intentionally limit itself to striking back against exclusively military targets – or even to the particular individual enemy state from which the aggression was actually launched.

WHAT IF enemy first-strikes were to involve “only” chemical and/or biological weapons? Here Jerusalem might still launch a reasonably proportionate nuclear reprisal, but this would depend largely upon the Jewish state’s calculated expectations of follow-on aggression, and on its associated determinations of comparative damage limitation.

Should Israel absorb a massive conventional first-strike, a nuclear retaliation could still not be ruled out altogether. This is especially the case if: (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.

Recognizing Israel’s evidently small size, and its tightly concentrated infrastructures, the threshold of existential harm for the Jewish state is reasonably lower than wholesale physical devastation.

In principle, at least, faced with imminent and existential attacks, Israel could decide to preempt pertinent enemy aggression with solely conventional forces. More than anything else, the designated targeted state’s response would then determine Jerusalem’s subsequent moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would assuredly undertake nuclear counter-retaliation. If this enemy retaliation were to involve chemical and/or biological weapons, Israel could also opt to take a quantum escalatory initiative.

This sort of initiative, known in proper military parlance as “escalation dominance,” could prove essential for Israel to ensure favorable intra-war deterrence.

If the enemy state’s response to an Israeli preemption were limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is improbable that Jerusalem would resort to any forms of nuclear counter-retaliation. On the other hand, if the enemy state’s conventional retaliation were an all-out strike directed toward Israel’s civilian populations, as well as to its military targets – an existential strike, for all intents and purposes – an Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation could not automatically be ruled out.

Such a counter-retaliation could be excluded only if the enemy state’s conventional retaliations were: (1) entirely proportionate to Israel’s preemption; (2) confined entirely to Israeli military targets; (3) circumscribed by the legal limits of “military necessity”; and (4) accompanied by explicit and verifiable assurances of no further escalation.

It is unlikely – but not inconceivable – that Israel could decide at some point to preempt enemy state aggression with a nuclear defensive strike. While circumstances could arise where such a defensive strike would be completely rational, and also completely acceptable under international law, it is improbable Jerusalem would ever permit itself to reach such dire circumstances.

More specifically, an Israeli nuclear preemption could be expected only if: (1) Israel’s state enemies had unexpectedly acquired nuclear or other unconventional weapons presumed capable of destroying the tiny Jewish state; (2) these enemy states had made explicit that their intentions paralleled their capabilities; (3) these states were authoritatively believed ready to begin a countdown-to-launch; and (4) Israel believed that non-nuclear pre-emptions could not possibly achieve the minimum needed levels of damage-limitation – that is, levels consistent with its own national survival.

Israeli nuclear and non-nuclear pre-emptions of unconventional enemy aggressions could both 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 controlling enemy leaders to risk Israeli nuclear counter-retaliations. In any event, the likelihood of nuclear exchanges would be greatest where potential Arab and/or Iranian aggressors had been allowed to deploy ever-larger numbers of unconventional weapons without eliciting any appropriate Israeli and/or American pre-emptions.

Should such deployment be allowed to take place, as now already seems to be the case with Iran policy, Jerusalem might effectively forfeit the non-nuclear preemption option. Here, its only alternatives to nuclear preemption could be a no-longer-viable conventional preemption, or simply waiting to be attacked.

It follows that the risks of an Israeli nuclear preemption, of nuclear exchanges with an enemy state, and of enemy nuclear first-strikes could conceivably be reduced by still-timely Israeli and/or American non-nuclear pre-emptions. These pre-emptions would be directed at presumptively critical military-industrial targets, and/or at pertinent regimes. The latter very problematic option could include dedicated elimination of enemy leadership elites, and/or certain enemy scientists.

ALWAYS, THE objective of Israel’s nuclear forces and doctrine must be deterrence ex-ante, not revenge expost. In the final analysis, everyone should understand, nuclear war resembles any other incurable disease. The only true remedies lie in prevention.

Looking at the chaotic Middle East, where several Arab states and Iran (however much they might loathe each other) remain commonly sworn to “root out the Zionist cancer,” the only durable remedy for Jerusalem is to ensure Israel’s nuclear monopoly. Optimally, to survive, Israel should remain the only regional nuclear power.

But should this objective no longer prove viable, Israel’s strategic planners must then do whatever necessary to upgrade the country’s nuclear deterrence posture, including further sea-basing of selected nuclear forces, and taking carefully measured steps away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity.

Once Iran has verifiably crossed the nuclear weapons threshold, it will be high time for Israel, in appropriate stages, to take its bomb out of the “basement.”

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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