Facing chaotic instabilities

Israel's survival, terrorism and regional nuclear war.

How shall Israel best prevent involvement in any conflict involving nuclear weapons, whether as war or terrorism?  (photo credit: REUTERS)
How shall Israel best prevent involvement in any conflict involving nuclear weapons, whether as war or terrorism?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
How shall Israel endure in a chaotic "neighborhood?" Although this is a bewildering question, it is evident that Jerusalem’s nuclear forces and posture will become increasingly important to national survival. Clear, too, is that certain regional conflicts could sometime lead to a belligerent use of nuclear weapons.
How might such use actually come to pass? Normally, scholars and strategists would respond to this sort of query in expressly regional or geographic terms, thereby highlighting the particular areas or individual states that seemingly pose the greatest threat. For Israel, of course, the most obvious locus of impending nuclear concern remains Iran, including the related prospect of future nuclear terror attacks by Iranian proxies, e.g., Hezbollah.
How shall Israel best prevent involvement in any conflict involving nuclear weapons, whether as war or terrorism? Optimally, Jerusalem could undertake certain timely and capable preemptions wherever needed, thus diminishing any risks of nuclear engagement. This understanding brings Israel to the need for coherent nuclear strategy and doctrine, a complicated requirement that must include a counter-value targeted nuclear retaliatory force that is (1) recognizably secure from enemy first-strikes; and (2) recognizably capable of penetrating an enemy's active defenses.
From the standpoint of making sure that enemy states will have no meaningful doubts about Israel's capacity to launch "assuredly destructive" retaliations for certain aggressions, Jerusalem will soon need to consider a partial end to its historic policy of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity." It is always necessary that would-be aggressors such as an already-nuclear Iran believe that Israel is willing to launch these nuclear forces in retaliation; has nuclear forces that are sufficiently invulnerable to their own now-contemplated first-strike attacks; and has nuclear forces that can penetrate their own integrated air defenses. Israel must protect itself against Iran or any other potential nuclear aggressor not only by maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent force, but also with appropriate elements of national defense. An integral core of Israel's multi-layered active defenses is the Arrow or "Hetz." Still, even the Arrow could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to protect Israeli civilians.
Once faced with a recognizable nuclear adversary in Tehran, Israel will need to convince its Iranian adversary that it possesses both the will and the capacity to make any intended Iranian nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. Yet, no Israeli move from deliberate ambiguity to nuclear disclosure could help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy.
What are the precise circumstances under which Israel could find itself involved with any actual nuclear weapons use? The following four pertinent narratives best explain these circumstances.
(1) Nuclear Retaliation
Should an enemy state or alliance of enemy states launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, assuredly, and to whatever extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve other forms of unconventional weapons, sometimes known as chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction, Israel might launch a nuclear reprisal. This would depend, in large measure, upon Jerusalem's expectations of follow-on aggression, and on its associated calculations of comparative damage-limitation.
If Israel were to absorb a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation could still not be ruled out, especially if: (a) the Islamic state aggressors were perceived to hold nuclear, and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or (b) Israel's leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be entirely ruled out only in those circumstances where enemy state aggressions were clearly conventional, "typical" (that is, sub-existential, or consistent with previous historic instances of Arab/Islamic attack in both degree and intent), and exclusively hard-target directed (that is, directed only toward Israeli weapons and military infrastructures, not at "soft" civilian populations).
(2) Nuclear Counter retaliation
Should Israel feel compelled to preempt enemy state aggression with conventional weapons, the target state(s) response would largely determine Jerusalem's next moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would expectedly turn to nuclear counter retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other weapons of mass destruction, Israel might then also feel pressed to take an escalatory initiative. Any such initiative would reflect the presumed need for what is normally described in more formal strategic jargon as "escalation dominance." All would depend upon Jerusalem's judgments of enemy state intent, and on its calculations of essential damage-limitation. Should the enemy state response to Israel's preemption be limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that the Jewish State would move on to nuclear counter retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation were plainly "all-out," and also directed toward Israeli civilian populations, and not just to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation could not be ruled out.
It would appear that such a counter retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state's conventional retaliation were entirely proportionate to Israel's preemption, confined exclusively to Israeli military targets, circumscribed by the legal limits of "military necessity" (a limit routinely codified in the law of armed conflict), and accompanied by various explicit and verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.
(3) Nuclear Preemption
It is implausible that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would in fact be perfectly rational, it is nonetheless unlikely that Israel would ever allow itself to reach these utterly dire circumstances. Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved were somehow used in a fashion consistent with the laws of war, this form of preemption would represent an especially serious violation of relevant international law.
Even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political impact on the entire world community would be exceedingly negative and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could only be expected (a) where Israel's Arab/Islamic enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction judged capable of annihilating the Jewish State; (b) where these enemies had made it clear that their military intentions paralleled their capabilities; (c) where these enemies were believed ready to begin an active "countdown to launch;" and (d) where Jerusalem believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve the needed minimum levels of damage-limitation - that is, levels consistent with physically preserving the state.
(4) Nuclear War fighting
Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into actual conflict between Israel and its many enemies, either by the Jewish State, or by an Arab/Islamic foe, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another, would ensue. This would be true so long as: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Jerusalem's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Jerusalem's nuclear counter retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy Arab/Islamic second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy Arab/Islamic nuclear counter retaliatory capability.
It follows that to satisfy its essential survival requirements, Israel must now take reliable steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and also the corollary unlikelihood of (c) and (d).
In all cases, Israel's nuclear strategy and forces must remain oriented to deterrence, and never to actual war fighting. With precisely this in mind, Jerusalem has likely already taken steps to reject any discernible reliance upon tactical or relatively low-yield "battlefield" nuclear weapons, and also any corresponding plans for counter-force targeting doctrines.
Looking over this taxonomy of scenarios that could lead Israel to future involvement in some regional military use of nuclear weapons, including the prospect of nuclear terrorism, Jerusalem will need to steadily refine and systematize its underlying strategic doctrine. Little of this effort will help to reduce the incessant aggressions of terrorist rockets, but it will become indispensable to the even more overriding goal of preventing existential harms. In the end, Israel's leaders will be well-advised to follow the counsel of ancient Chinese military theorist, Sun-Tzu's The Art of War: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting must always be the true pinnacle of excellence."
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy. For over forty years, he has lectured on this topic at senior Israeli and United States military institutions, and at leading Israeli centers for strategic studies. In 2003, he served as Chair of Project Daniel (Israel).
Earlier this month, Dr. Beres co-authored, with Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney (USN/ret.), "Israel's Nuclear Strategy - A Larger Role for Submarine Basing" (The Jerusalem Post, 17 August, 2014). Recently, too, he published an essay on Sun-Tzu and Israeli nuclear strategy in The Harvard National Security Journal, "Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu.
Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.