Avoiding Nuclear War: Israel’s Strategic Options

June 18, 2015

5 min read

Louis Rene Beres

Left to themselves, certain of Israel’s potentially nuclear adversaries could bring the Jewish state into eternal darkness, into fire, into ice. It is essential, therefore, that the country’s leadership take appropriate steps to ensure that any failure of national deterrence would never spark a regional nuclear war. In this connection, it is especially important that the IDF continue to plan conceptually around a distinctly fundamental understanding: Nuclear deterrence and conventional deterrence are not separate or discrete security postures. Always, these core protective strategies are more or less critically interrelated.

It is time to call things by their correct name. A nuclear war in the Middle East is no longer inconceivable. This is the case, moreover, even if Israel were somehow to remain the only nuclear weapons state in the chaotic region.

How is this possible? Significantly, a bellum atomicum could arrive in Israel not only as a “bolt from the blue” enemy nuclear missile attack, but also as a result, intended or unwitting, of escalation.

If, for example, certain Arab/Islamic states were to begin hostilities with conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem could decide to respond, sooner or later, with thoughtfully calculated and correspondingly graduated nuclear reprisals. Alternatively, if these enemy states were to commence conflict by launching large-scale conventional attacks upon Israel, Jerusalem’s conventional reprisals could then be met, sometime in the not-too-distant future, with certain enemy nuclear counter-strikes.

If it hadn’t been for Israel’s earlier preemptive operations against both Iraq and Syria (Operations Opera and Orchard, respectively), the Middle East could already have been rife with Arab/Islamist nuclear forces. Looking back upon these uniquely focused expressions of national self-defense, Israel had effectively ensured that such assorted terror groups as Islamic State, al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah are not presently nuclear. The still generally unrecognized benefits of these extraordinary operations have impacted not only Israel, but also the United States and its allies, all now fighting jihadists in a rapidly disintegrating region.

The regional future, however, is apt to be less secure. For one thing, with a prospectively nuclear Iran, the derivative risks of nuclear terrorism could become intolerable. Some of these newer risks might not stay contained to the Middle East. In some form or other, they could carry over to the scarcely protected American or European homelands.

Still, by planning ahead, by maintaining a maximally credible conventional deterrent, Israel could reduce its exposure to any eventual nuclear war fighting. A fully persuasive Israeli non-nuclear deterrent, at least to the extent that it would prevent enemy conventional attacks, could expectedly lower Israel’s overall risk of any escalatory vulnerabilities to nuclear war. In the impressively arcane lexicon of nuclear strategy, this means that Israel could likely reap considerable security gains by staying in firm control of “escalation dominance.”

Such gains could be genuinely existential.

But why should Israel require a conventional deterrent at all? Wouldn’t its nuclear deterrent alone, whether still ambiguous or more expressly disclosed, reliably deter any and all national aggressions? Wouldn’t all enemy states, at least those that were determinedly rational, resist launching even “only” conventional attacks upon Israel? This reasonably presumed reluctance would stem from a well-founded fear of Israeli nuclear retaliation.

Here is something to consider. Aware that Israel would cross the nuclear threshold only in unusual circumstances, enemy states could remain convinced, rightly or wrongly, that as long as their initial attacks were “merely” conventional, Israel’s expected response would be similarly non-nuclear. It follows, any by deliberately calculated inference, and also according to the conspicuous history of Israel’s major and minor wars, that the only way for Israel to successfully deter a large-scale conventional war would be by maintaining large-scale and secure conventional force capabilities.

Yet, some noteworthy strategic nuances still warrant special mention. Any rational Arab/Islamic enemy states considering first-strike attacks against Israel using chemical and/or biological weapons would take more seriously Israel’s nuclear deterrent. This suggests that a strong conventional capability will still be needed by Israel to deter or to preempt certain anticipated conventional attacks, plausible strikes that could quickly lead, perhaps via starkly unpredictable escalations, to unconventional war.

Doubtlessly, in seeking to ascertain their own relative power positions, Israel’s enemies will attempt to determine just how Israel views its conventional opportunities and limitations. If Arab/Islamic enemy states did not perceive any Israeli sense of an expanding conventional force weakness, these states, animated by expectations of an Israeli unwillingness to escalate to nonconventional weapons, could then choose to attack. The net result in this scenario could include: 1) defeat of Israel in a conventional war; 2) defeat of Israel in an unconventional (chemical/biological/ nuclear) war; 3) defeat of Israel in a combined conventional/ unconventional war; or 4) defeat of Arab/Islamic enemy states by Israel in an unconventional war.

Ironically, for Israel, even the “successful” fourth possibility could actually prove catastrophic.

This sober reasoning brings to mind the related matter of Israel’s “bomb in the basement,” or deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The credibility of Israel’s still hidden or “opaque” nuclear deterrent must depend, in some measure, on the perceived “usability” of its nuclear arsenal.

Should Israel’s own nuclear weapons be perceived by prospective attackers as very high-yield, inherently indiscriminate, “city-busting” (counter-value) weapons, rather than as minimal-yield, “war fighting” [counterforce] weapons, they might not deter.

Ironically, contrary to prevailing conventional wisdom on the subject, successful Israeli nuclear deterrence could sometime vary inversely with perceived destructiveness.

Going forward, this means that Israel’s nuclear deterrent will require not only recognizably secure second-strike forces, but also weapons that could reasonably be used in war. It also implies that any continued Israeli policy of “deliberate ambiguity” could encourage certain erroneous calculations by prospective attackers. On one occasion or another, such an unsystematic policy could lethally undermine Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

In all matters of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it must never be overlooked, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, that enemy perceptions will be most important. By keeping its nuclear doctrine and capacity in the “basement,” Israel could unknowingly contribute to an impression among pertinent regional enemies that its nuclear weapons are operationally unusable. In these fully believable circumstances, increasingly recalcitrant enemies, now unconvinced of Israel’s alleged willingness to actively employ its nuclear weapons, could accept the presumed cost-effectiveness of striking first themselves.

For any enemy aggressor, this acceptance could well be an irremediable error. Nonetheless, it could prove equally devastating to Israel. In other words, as a result of specific enemy miscalculations, everyone would lose.

In tangibly human terms, what precisely would this loss mean? To begin, if aggressor states were correct in rendering just such a calculation, Israel could then be overrun. If these states were incorrect in their reckoning, all states in the region, including Israel, could suffer the corollary consequences of multiple nuclear weapons detonations.

Within the directly affected areas, thermal radiation, nuclear radiation and blast damage could generate unprecedented levels of death and devastation.

For anything new to be born out of such utter destruction, only a gravedigger could wield the forceps.

There is more. A nuclear war would not respect political boundaries. Because of the particular manner in which nuclear explosions behave in the atmosphere, the altitude reached by the mushroom-shaped cloud would depend primarily upon the force of the explosion.

For yields in the low-kiloton range, this cloud would remain situated in the lower atmosphere. Its effects would be almost entirely “local.” For those yields exceeding 30 kilotons, parts of the cloud of radioactive debris would “punch” into the stratosphere, thereby afflicting the launching state and certain noncombatant states together.

Assuredly, to prevent a regional nuclear war, especially as Iran approaches full and plausibly irreversible membership in the “nuclear club,” Israel will need a steadfastly reliable nuclear deterrent. Nonetheless, it cannot properly rely exclusively upon this one necessary basis of national security any more than it can depend solely upon conventional deterrence. It must depend, instead, upon increasingly complementary nuclear/conventional forces and doctrine, appropriately intersecting systems of anti-missile defenses, and the residual availability of certain eleventh-hour preemption options. Even now, when the expected costs of any preemption against Iran would be very high, Israel could not rationally disavow absolutely all last-resort options for “anticipatory self-defense.”

In life, some serious games are not entirely volitional.

In the Middle East, for example, strategic deterrence is a “game” that sane national leaders will simply have to play. In Jerusalem, this means, inter alia, a continuing willingness to fully respect doctrinal complexity – that is, both its own military doctrines, and those of its enemies – and then to forge appropriate and reciprocally complex defense policies.

Taken together, these multiple and mutually-reinforcing foundations of security could best endow Israel with the utterly indispensable elements of national survival.

Reprinted with author’s permission from The Jerusalem Post

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