The “Mind over Mind” Battle in the Nuclear Theater

September 27, 2016

4 min read

Louis Rene Beres

“…in the highest branches of strategy, intellectual complications and a great diversity of quantities and relations are to be looked for” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War).

More than likely, the first post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki use of nuclear weapons will be undertaken by North Korea or Pakistan. Should this actually turn out to be the case, the cumulative consequences would impact not only the responsible aggressor state and its multiple victims, but also still-developing strategic nuclear policies in certain other countries. The most obvious and concerning case of such a prospective secondary impact would be Israel.

For now, Israel’s nuclear strategy remains “deliberately ambiguous,” or in the “basement.” Whether well-founded or foolishly conceived, this intentional opacity has endured as national policy because Jerusalem has not yet had to worry about confronting any enemy nuclear forces. This potentially fragile posture would almost certainly need to change, however, if Iran were sometime perceived to have become a near-nuclear adversary.

Significantly, while seldom discussed “out loud,” Israel could also feel compelled to shift away from nuclear ambiguity once an actual nuclear attack had taken place elsewhere on earth. In other words, there would need to be no direct connection between such an attack and Israel for the Jewish State to acknowledge certain derivative obligations to alter or modify its own nuclear strategy.

To be sure, any such predictive analytic leap cannot readily be drawn from relevant historical examples. After all, such expectedly pertinent examples simply do not exist. Moreover, to be suitably scientific, any assessments of probability regarding an actual resort to nuclear weapons would have to be based upon the ascertainable frequency of past nuclear events. Fortunately, for human welfare, if not for the science of strategic prediction, there have been no nuclear wars.


What about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Incontestably, the American atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945 were not proper examples of a nuclear war, but rather of a unique or one-time use of nuclear weapons designed to end an ongoing and worldwide conventional war. Further, there were no other nuclear weapons states in August 1945 (Washington was not even sure that its own Little Boy and Fat Man would work), so any corollary U.S. strategic calculations could bear no resemblance to what might actually confront Israel today.

For purposes of Israeli strategic thinking, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were utterly sui generis; hence, forever dissimilar to any present or future national security circumstances.

Nonetheless, we needn’t make any plausible or persuasive probability assessments about North Korea, Pakistan and Israel in order to reach the following conclusion: Once North Korea and/or Pakistan fires nuclear weapons against another state or states, a principal nuclear “taboo” will have been broken, and all existing nuclear powers – especially Israel – will then begin to take more seriously the actual operational use of their own nuclear weapons. The precise manner and extent to which Israel would be impacted in such circumstances would depend, among several more-or-less intersecting factors, on prevailing geopolitical alignments and cleavages, both regional and worldwide. For example, North Korea has already had tangible ties to both Syria and Iran, and all concerned parties could be forced to take into distinctly calculable account the presumed expectations of an already resurgent Cold War.

The “spillover” impact on Israel of any actual nuclear weapons use by North Korea or Pakistan would also depend upon the particular combatants involved, expected rationality or irrationality of these same combatants, yields and range of the nuclear weapons fired, and the prompt aggregate calculation of civilian and military harms actually suffered in the affected areas. If North Korea had fired its nuclear weapons against American targets, military or civilian, Israel could correctly anticipate an overwhelmingly destructive U.S. response. If, in another apt scenario, a government in Islamabad (possibly a post-coup Islamist regime) fired “only” its tactical or theater nuclear weapons, and “only” against exclusively military targets, the Indian response might then be substantially less overwhelming.

It also ought to be noted here, for further predictive clarification, that Pakistan recently shifted certain specific portions of its nuclear targeting doctrine to expressly lower yield, shorter range weapons, presumably to enhance the underlying credibility of its nuclear deterrence posture vis-à-vis India.

All of this would pose stunningly complex calculations for Israeli strategists. Indeed, these planners would have to account capably not only for singular nuclear weapons operations by North Korea or Pakistan, but also for any multiple interactions or synergies that might be involved. It is even conceivable, to offer still another meaningful example, that any North Korean resort to nuclear attack would be followed, more-or-less promptly, by a separate Pakistani use of nuclear weapons.

This prospect could represent a chaotic or near-chaotic development, in which Israel would then be faced with a palpably unprecedented analytic challenge.

In dealing with such strategic dangers and possibilities, Israeli planners would steadfastly need to identify their basic task as an intellectual struggle of “mind over mind,” not merely one of “mind over matter.” Such a critical distinction was already well heeded by ancient Greek and Macedonian war planners in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, as well as by the ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu. In the Nuclear Age, even by definition, this vital distinction has become even more urgent and necessary.

Where should Israeli strategic planners now go with such complicating insights and expectations? Above all, they will soon need to factor into their nuclear policy calculations an altogether refined version of Carl von Clausewitz’s concept of “friction,” or his closely related emphases on the “fog of war.” In this nuanced and updated version, they will need to base suitably enhanced preparations for Israeli nuclear posture changes upon a much more integrated geographic area of global strategic interaction, and on a correspondingly wider range of worldwide military developments.

These developments must include certain conflicts and operations that could arise outside of the Middle East, especially North Korea and Pakistan. Ultimately, this is because of the immutably systemic nature of all world politics, including all core strategic interactions between individual states.

This suggests, among other things, that because of “friction” created by nuclear weapons use outside the region, Jerusalem could have to move beyond “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” sooner or more suddenly than may originally have been intended. In turn, any such unanticipated shift would have immediately urgent implications for Israel’s strategic nuclear deployments, its nuclear targeting doctrine, its elaborate cyber-defenses, and its similarly multi-faceted ballistic missile defenses. For Israel, therefore, anticipating and understanding strategic complexity could offer the country an invaluable if not genuinely indispensable security “net.”

In Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, it plainly follows, only those “mind over mind” nuclear planners who choose to cast widely, could be expected to catch.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Defense

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