Louis René Beres was chair of Project Daniel in Israel, is a professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue, and is the author of many major books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney served as vice chief of Naval Operations; NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic; and commander in chief of U.S. Atlantic Command. Admiral Edney, who holds an advanced degree from Harvard, was also distinguished professor of Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy.
A core element of Israel's nuclear posture has always been "deliberate ambiguity," or the so-called "bomb in the basement." To date this policy has made eminently good sense. After all, both friends and enemies of the Jewish state now recognize that Israel possesses significant nuclear capabilities that are (1) survivable; and (2) capable of penetrating any determined enemy's active defenses.
Further, Israel's nuclear arsenal is plainly governed by a very sophisticated command/control system, and by a carefully conceived targeting doctrine. So, why rock the boat?
A partial answer must be sought in today's chaotic instability, that is, in still-expanding regional patterns of revolutionary unrest and uncertainty. In Egypt, a country "at peace" with Israel since 1979, the post-Hosni Mubarak era exhibits heightened prospects for Islamist or Jihadist influence that create significant risks for Israel's security. Still more portentous, such hazardous developments could arise not only in Egypt, but additionally, in Syria, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, or even in Saudi Arabia. In the case of the Saudis, soon to be faced with a Shi'ite nuclear adversary in Tehran, there could even be a growing incentive to "turn nuclear" themselves.
Of course, especially significant for Israeli security is the always-intersecting issue of "Palestine." A Palestinian state, any Palestinian state, could pose a serious threat to Israel, primarily as a convenient base of operations for launching lethal terrorist attacks against Israel citizens. A possibly even more important security issue for Israel lies in the potential for a rapidly deteriorating regional correlation of forces. Such deterioration could include various destabilizing synergies resulting from both the so-called "Arab Spring," and from Iranian nuclearization.
By itself, a Palestinian state would surely remain entirely non-nuclear. This is obvious. But when viewed together with Israel's other regional foes, this new and 23rd Arab state could still have the consequential effect of being a "force multiplier," thereby impairing Israel's already-minimal strategic depth, and rendering the Jewish state considerably more vulnerable to a panoply of both conventional and unconventional attacks. Here, for a variety of determinable reasons, a non-nuclear adversary could still heighten the chances of involving Israel in certain nuclear weapons operations, or even a nuclear war.
Assuming Palestinian statehood, or at least an incremental United Nations recognition of "Palestine," such perilous developments are not contrived or hypothetical. Rather, they are distinctly plausible. To be sure, there would need to take place an antecedent Fatah-Hamas rapprochement. Yet, such a reconciliation is not at all difficult to imagine.
What is Israel to do? More precisely, what should it do about its nuclear posture and corollary order of battle? How, exactly, should this ambiguous stance be adapted to the increasingly convergent and interpenetrating threats of surrounding Middle Eastern/North African revolutions, a nuclear Iran, and Israel's more or less volitional territorial dismemberment?
In these matters, the conventional wisdom routinely assumes that credible nuclear deterrence is somehow an automatic consequence of merely holding nuclear weapons. By this argument, removing Israel's nuclear bomb "from the basement" would only elicit new waves of global condemnation, and would do this without returning any commensurate benefits.
History, however, reveals that conventional wisdom is often incorrect. The strategic issues for Israel are not at all simple or straightforward. Instead, in the necessarily arcane world of Israel's nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states simply acknowledge the Jewish state's nuclear status. Instead, it is important, inter alia, that these states will believe that Israel holds distinctly usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would also be willing to employ these usable weapons in certain clear, and situationally identifiable, circumstances.
Current instabilities in the Middle East create good reasons to doubt that Israel would benefit from the continuance of its deliberate nuclear ambiguity. It would seem, moreover, from certain apparent developments within Prime Minister Netanyahu's inner cabinet, that Israel's pertinent leadership now understands such informed skepticism.
Israel is imperiled by existential threats that fully justify its nuclear weapons, and that require a correspondingly purposeful strategic doctrine. This utterly basic need exists beyond any reasonable doubt. Without such weapons and doctrine, Israel could not survive over time, especially if certain neighboring regimes should soon become more adversarial, more Jihadist, and/or less risk-averse. Incontestably, nuclear weapons and a purposeful nuclear doctrine could prove vital to various predictable scenarios requiring preemptive action or retaliation.
Typically, military doctrine describes how national forces would fight in various combat operations. The literal definition of doctrine derives from the Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction. Though generally unrecognized, the full importance of doctrine lies not only in the ways that it can animate and unify military forces, but also in the particular fashion that it can transmit certain desired "messages." In other words, doctrine can serve a state as a critical form of communication, to both its friends and foes.
Israel can benefit from such broadened understandings of doctrine. The principal risks facing Israel are more specific than merely general or generic. This is because Israel's extant adversaries in the region will likely be joined by: (1) a new Arab state of "Palestine;" and by (2) a newly-nuclear Iran.
Still, for Israel, merely having nuclear weapons, even when fully recognized by enemy states, can not automatically ensure successful deterrence. In this connection, although starkly counterintuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could substantially improve the credibility of Israel's nuclear deterrent. With this point in mind, the potential of assorted enemy attacks in the future could be reduced by making selectively available additional information concerning the security of Israel's nuclear weapon response capabilities.
This crucial information, carefully limited, yet helpfully more explicit, would center on distinctly major and interpenetrating issues of Israeli nuclear capability and decisional willingness.
Skeptics, no doubt, will disagree. It is, after all, seemingly sensible to assert that nuclear ambiguity has "worked" thus far. While Israel's current nuclear policy has done little to deter multiple conventional terrorist attacks, it has succeeded in keeping the country's enemies, singly or in collaboration, from mounting any authentically existential aggressions.
As the 19th century Prussian strategic theorist Karl von Clausewitz observed in his classic essay, "On War," there inevitably does come a military tipping point when "mass counts." Israel is very small. Its enemies have always had an undeniable advantage in "mass." Perhaps more than any other imperiled state on earth, Israel needs to steer clear of such a tipping point.
Excluding non-Arab Pakistan, which is itself hardly a pillar of stability these days, none of Israel's extant Jihadist foes has "the bomb." However, acting together, and in a determined collaboration (had they been capable of cooperation), they could still have carried out intolerable and lethal assaults upon the Jewish state.
An integral part of Israel's multilayered security system lies in effective ballistic missile defenses, primarily, the Arrow or "Hetz." Yet, even the well-regarded and successfully-tested Arrow, augmented by the newer and shorter-range operations of "Iron Dome," could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to protect Israeli civilians. No system of missile defense can ever be entirely leak proof, and even a single incoming nuclear missile that somehow managed to penetrate Arrow or corollary defenses could conceivably kill tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelis. This reality could potentially be less consequential if Israel's continuing reliance on deliberate ambiguity were suitably altered.
The current Israeli policy of an undeclared nuclear capacity is highly unlikely to work indefinitely. Leaving aside a Jihadist takeover of nuclear Pakistan, the most obviously unacceptable "leakage" threat would come from a nuclear Iran. To be effectively deterred, a newly-nuclear Iran would need convincing assurance that Israel's atomic weapons were both (1)invulnerable and (2) penetration-capable.
Any Iranian judgments about Israel's capability and willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would then depend largely upon some prior Iranian knowledge of these weapons, including their degree of protection from surprise attack, as well as Israel's capacity to "punch-through" all pertinent Iranian active and passive defenses.
A nuclear weapons-capable Iran may already be a fait accompli. For whatever reasons, neither the "international community" in general, nor Israel in particular, has managed to create sufficient credibility concerning timely preemptive action. Such a critical defensive action would require complex operational capabilities, and could generate Iranian counter actions that would have a very significant impact on the entire Middle East. Nevertheless, from a purely legal standpoint, such preemptive postures could be justified under the codified and authoritative criteria of anticipatory self defense under international law.
It is likely that Israel has already undertaken some very impressive and original steps in cyberdefense and cyberwar, but even the most remarkable efforts in this direction would not be enough to stop Iran altogether. The so-called "sanctions" sequentially leveled at Tehran over the years have had an economic impact, but they have had no determinable impact in halting Iranian nuclearization. In fact, it is perhaps more likely that sanctions have actually increased Iran's desire to obtain nuclear weapons.
A nuclear Iran could decide to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah, or with another kindred terrorist group. To prevent this, Jerusalem would need to convince Iran, inter alia, that Israel possesses a range of distinctly usable nuclear options. Israeli nuclear ambiguity could be loosened by releasing certain very general information regarding the availability and survivability of appropriately low-yield weapons.
Israel should now be calculating (vis-à-vis a nuclear Iran) the exact extent of subtlety with which it should consider communicating key portions of its nuclear positions. Naturally, Israel should never reveal any very specific information about its nuclear strategy, hardening, or yield-related capabilities.
An Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would not help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy. It is possible that certain elements of Iranian leadership might subscribe to certain end-times visions of a Shi'ite apocalypse. By definition, such an enemy would not value its own continued national survival more highly than every other preference or combination of preferences.
Were its leaders to be or turn nonrational, Iran could effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a destabilizing prospect is certainly improbable, but it is not inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect exists in already-nuclear and distinctly coup-vulnerable Pakistan. To protect itself against military strikes from irrational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to reconsider virtually every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine.
Removing the bomb from Israel's basement could enhance Israel's strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of the severe and likely risks involved. This would also bring to mind the so-called "Samson Option," which could allow various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.
Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel's nuclear strategy must always remain correctly oriented toward deterrence, not war-fighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon a more-or-less implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions. Israel's small size means, inter alia, that any nuclear attack would threaten Israel's very existence, and could not be tolerated.
A Samson Option would make sense only in "last-resort," or "near last-resort," circumstances. If the Samson Option is to be part of a credible deterrent, an end to Israel's deliberate ambiguity is essential. The really tough part of this transformational process is determining the proper timing for such action vis-a-vis Israel's security requirements, and also pertinent expectations of the international community
The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel's overriding security objective: to seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels of military conflict. As a last resort, it basically states the following to all potential nuclear attackers: "We (Israel) may have to 'die,' but (this time) we won't die alone."
In our often counterintuitive strategic world, it can sometimes be rational to pretend irrationality. The nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend, at least in part, upon an enemy state's awareness of Israel's intention to apply countervalue targeting when responding to a nuclear attack. But, once again, Israeli decision-makers would need to be wary of releasing too-great a level of specific information.
In the final analysis, there are specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of a purposefully selective and incremental end to its policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The right time to begin such an "end" has not yet arrived. But at the precise moment that Iran verifiably crosses the nuclear threshold, Israel should remove "the bomb" from its "basement."
When this critical moment arrives, Israel should already have configured (1) its optimal allocation of nuclear assets; and (2) the extent to which this particular configuration should now be disclosed. This preparation could importantly enhance the credibility of its indispensable nuclear deterrence posture.
When it is time for Israel to selectively ease its nuclear ambiguity, a fully-recognizable second-strike nuclear force should be revealed. Such a robust strategic force—hardened, multiplied, and dispersed—would necessarily be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major enemy cities. Iran, it follows, so long as it is led by rational decision-makers, should be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned aggressions against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains.
To comprehensively protect itself against potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, Israel has no logical alternative to developing an overwhelmingly problematic conventional preemption option. Operationally, especially at this very late date, there could be no reasonable assurances of success against multiple hardened and dispersed targets. Regarding deterrence, however, it is also noteworthy that "irrational" is not the same as "crazy," or "mad," and that even an irrational Iranian leadership could still have preference orderings that are both consistent and transitive.
Even an irrational leadership could be subject to threats of deterrence that credibly threaten certain deeply held religious as well as public values. The difficulty for Israel, is to ascertain, the precise nature of these core enemy values. Should it be determined that an Iranian leadership were genuinely "crazy" or "mad," that is, without any decipherable or predictable ordering of valued preferences, deterrence bets could have to give way to preemption.
Such determinations are strategic, rather than jurisprudential. From the discrete standpoint of international law, especially in view of Iran's expressly genocidal threats against Israel, a preemption option could still represent a permissible expression of anticipatory self defense. Again, this purely legal judgment would be entirely separate from any parallel or coincident assessments of operational success.
Chaotic instability in the Middle East heightens the potential for expansive wars. The "Arab Spring," Iranian nuclearization, and Palestinian statehood, singly, and in synergy with each other, augur badly for Israel's long-term security interests. To counter this still-evolving hazard, Israel must do many things, simultaneously, on the political, diplomatic and military fronts. From the strategic perspective, in particular, it must, among other refinements, prepare immediately to modify or abandon its long-standing policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
As we have already noted earlier, to meet unprecedented existential threats, Israel must finally acknowledge the timeless warning of Karl von Clausewitz. In certain more-or-less residual strategic circumstances, such acknowledgment would instruct, "mass counts."
By itself, removing Israel's bomb from the basement will not immediately ensure the success of the imperiled country's indispensable nuclear deterrent. Nonetheless, in the not-too-distant future, this strategy would still present a strongly-preferred security option to any continued posture of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
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