The race is on.
With the US and Russia formally pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, we may now witness a brand-new nuclear arms race.
How will all of this impact Israel?
First, it is critical to understand what the INF was, and why it has unwound.
The INF was a US-Soviet arms control treaty that eliminated an entire category of nuclear weapons in the final years of the Cold War.
Following years of Russian violating the treaty, the US said it would no longer fall behind in developing the next generation of nuclear weapons.
Despite Russian violations, expert opinion in the US has been mixed.
Even as most acknowledge some Russian violations, Vladimir Putin had still kept many of the INF’s provisions, and some observers were concerned that a US pullout would lead to a broader nuclear arms race.
Another reason the US wanted out of the treaty was China’s emergence as a greater threat whose development of advanced new weapons is not bound by the INF.
China has already deployed massively powerful intermediate range ground missiles, including so-called “aircraft carrier killer missiles.”
By withdrawing from the INF, the US will be free to develop the means to counter these missiles with its own ground-based missiles.
In November, INSS experts Shimon Stein and Emily Landau wrote a paper stating that China, Russia and the US will collectively need to devise “the new arms control and disarmament architecture as a means to reach a new paradigm of strategic stability.”
They added that, “An open question remains what impact the multilateralization of the US-Russian nuclear arms control architecture will have on other states, including Israel.”
All of this presumes that a new architecture will emerge.
The truth is that based on the current competition between the US, Russia and China, it may be years before the competing powers agree to limit and stabilize the nuclear picture.
Right now, Russia seems intent on developing asymmetric nuclear abilities, such as its hypersonic weapons, which combine speed, range and maneuverability to take unpredictable flight paths, making them close to impossible to shoot down by existing defense systems.
This can only be bad news for Israel.
While Israel is not concerned that Russia or China would start a nuclear war with it, the more these powers develop new nuclear weapons systems, the more Israel’s older systems may fall behind.
If any of the new weapons were to find their way into the hands of Iran, Hezbollah or another enemy of Israel, the results could be disastrous.
This is problematic as there is an ongoing debate as to whether Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor can last another 20 years or may shutdown at any moment since it is already 16 years past its original lifespan.
In other words, Israel may lose the ability to develop further nuclear weapons. According to foreign sources, it has stockpiled between 80 to 200 nuclear weapons.
There have been no reports that Israel is following the US’s example to develop new defense systems against hypersonic weapons
It is unclear why, though former missile defense expert Uzi Rubin said it is not impossible that Israel’s current three-tiered missile defense shield might be sufficient even against hypersonic missiles.
However, none of Israel’s current missile defense systems are reported to have been built with next-generation hypersonic weapons in mind.
All of these risks are aggravated even more by the new cyber era we live in.
As Penn State Prof. Stephen Cimbala wrote in a separate INSS journal in September, “Cyberwar, preceding or during nuclear crises, can marginally or even fatally strain the requirements of nuclear deterrence stability and is capable of disrupting the communications between governments” at the critical moment when they may be trying to pullback from disaster.
Cimbala said that, “Disruptive cyber operations against enemy systems on the threshold of nuclear first use… could increase the already substantial difficulty of halting the fighting before… a strategic nuclear war occurs.”
If cyber hacking could mess up failsafe communications to avoid a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia, this is an even bigger concern for Israel.
According to foreign sources, Israel’s nuclear abilities are nowhere near the US’s thousands of nuclear weapons widely spread among air, land and sea-based weapons.
In the pre-cyber era, Israel’s reported weapons were more than enough to deter any adversary. But in the cyber-era, might an Israeli adversary take a risk at using an advanced nuclear weapon taken from Russia or China against Israel in conjunction with a cyber campaign to try to block Israel from responding?
The answer partly might be for Israel to make it clearer to adversaries like Iran and Hezbollah that it will respond in a massively destructive way. But such a policy of mutually assured destruction could be difficult to carry out while Israel maintains a stance of nuclear ambiguity.
While Israel reportedly has nuclear weapons, it keeps a low public profile on the issue and has never formally announced its nuclear capabilities.
None of this means that Israel is in any immediate danger from nuclear weapons. But it does mean that the country may need to confront a darker and more complex future.