Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: The Importance of Doctrine

by Louis René Beres (February 2015)

But is this policy smart?

reluctant to launch any new major wars. Strategic planners, therefore, are entitled to ask: “Why rock the boat?”

There is more. The United States, either wittingly, or in conspicuous reaction to certain foreign government expectations, might react to any incremental Israeli nuclear disclosures by pressuring Jerusalem to join the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In this continuing matter, it is worth recalling, President Barack Obama has never pulled back discernibly from his oft-stated preference for “a world free of nuclear weapons.”

These nuclear weapons will also need to be seen as “penetration capable” (recognizably able to hit their intended targets) and “usable” (able to be taken seriously, that is, as a plausible retaliation for certain enemy aggressions). If any of these particular enemy perceptions were absent, Israel’s nuclear weapons might not be taken with sufficient seriousness to serve as a sustainably credible deterrent. This could be the case, moreover, even though their physical existence and destructiveness would appear altogether obvious.

For Israel’s nuclear weapons to protect against massive enemy attacks, some of which could sometime be genuinely existential in magnitude, Israel now needs to refineoperationalize, and possibly declare certain precise elements of its strategic doctrine and associated ordnance. Such action would be needed, among other things, to enhance deterrence credibility along the entire spectrum of major security threats, and also to provide Israel with broad conceptual frameworks from which particular decisions and tactics could be suitably extrapolated.

In principle, the especially urgent problems now associated with a steadily nuclearizing Iran should not have to be addressed by Israel on a case-by-case or ad hoc basis. Rather, Israel should stay prepared to fashion its best available response to the unprecedented Iranian nuclear threat within the broader and more coherent context of an antecedent strategic theory. In all fields, including strategic studies, theory is a “net.” Only those who cast, will catch.

answering of certain questions. It follows that to shape its necessary strategic doctrine, Israel should promptly address the following absolutely core questions:

Shall Israel begin to openly identify certain general elements of its nuclear arsenal and nuclear plans? If so, how?

enlarge the probabilities of nuclear war fighting. Always, we must recall, Israel’s nuclear weapons should be oriented toward deterrence, and never to actual conflict. With this in mind, Israeli planners and leaders (in stark contrast to the recent nuclear military planning operationalized in Pakistan) have likely opted not to build or deploy tactical/theatre nuclear forces.

No enemy state should ever be allowed to assume that Israel could be massively attacked with impunity.

Regarding willingness, even if Israel were fully prepared to respond to certain Arab/Islamic attacks with nuclear reprisals, any residual enemy failure to actually recognize such preparedness could provoke an attack upon Israel. Misperception and/or errors in information could quickly immobilize Israeli nuclear deterrence. It is also conceivable that Israel would, in fact, simply lack the willingness to retaliate, and that this damaging lack of willingness were perceived correctly by enemy state decision-makers. In this very worrisome case, Israeli nuclear deterrence would be immobilized, not because of any confused signals, but  because of signals that had not been suitably distorted.

In the relentlessly urgent matter of nuclear Iran, a peril that intersects synergistically with a broad variety of corollary terror threats in the region, Israel will soon have to decide whether that country could sometime be animated more by Jihadist visions of a Shiite apocalypse, than by the usual strategic considerations of national survival. This portentous prospect, one wherein Iran could effectively emerge as a suicide-bomber in macrocosm, is highly improbable, but it is not inconceivable.

First published in Israel National News.


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