Forging Israeli strategic doctrine to deal with Iran

The overriding purpose of Israel's nuclear forces, whether still ambiguous, or newly disclosed, must consistently be deterrence, not actual military use.

Ayatollahs centrifuge 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ayatollahs centrifuge 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In core matters of war and peace, timing is everything. For Israel, now at the historical eleventh hour vis-à-vis a still nuclearizing Iran, the remaining options are stunningly polar. Either the IDF launches a last-minute defensive first-strike - before Iran's prospective nuclear forces can become operational - or the country prepares to settle in for a decidedly long-term process of deterrence and (hopefully) coexistence.
Should Israel decide to decline the residual preemption option, and get ready instead for reliable and protracted dissuasion of a nuclear adversary, assorted corollary decisions would be required. These critical decisions would concern especially an expanding role for ballistic missile defenses, primarily the finely-tuned Arrow system of interception, and also continuance or discontinuance of Israel's deliberate nuclear ambiguity. Once Israel is actually facing a fully-nuclear Iran, the "ambiguity" question could quickly become overriding. At that point, it would become necessary to convincingly advise Tehran, that Israel’s nuclear forces were substantially secure from enemy first-strikes, and simultaneously capable of penetrating enemy active defenses.
Then, it would also become necessary to assure a now-nuclear Iran that Israel’s own nuclear weapons were plainly usable. In this connection, there could be a pertinent lesson for Israel from another adversarial competition in world politics. More precisely, Pakistan, observable in its own currently protracted nuclear standoff with India, is expressly tilting toward smaller or "tactical" nuclear weapons (TNW).
Since Pakistan first announced its test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile in 2011, that country’s “advertised” emphasis upon TNW seems to have been designed to most effectively deter a conventional war with India. By threatening, implicitly, to use relatively low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons in retaliation for any major Indian conventional attacks, Pakistan plainly hopes to appear less provocative to Delhi, and thereby less likely to elicit any Indian nuclear reprisals.
Amid the arcane and complex minutiae of strategic planning, Israel vs. Iran is not directly analogous to India vs. Pakistan. For Israel, any purposeful nuclear retaliatory threats, whether still ambiguous, or now newly disclosed, would ultimately need to deter an Iranian nuclear attack. Nonetheless, just as Pakistan had apparently calculated the benefit of tactical nuclear weapons-based retaliatory threats in curbing unwanted escalations from conventional to nuclear conflict, so too might Israel figure accordingly. Here, more-or-less consciously drawing upon the pertinent Pakistani doctrinal changes in southwest Asia, Jerusalem would reason that it, too, could better prevent the onset of a conventional war with a nuclear foe, by suitably employing credible threats of TNW, or theatre nuclear deterrence.
In the “good old days” of the US-USSR Cold War, such calibrated strategic thinking had been given its own special name. Then, it was called “escalation dominance.” Already, it had been understood by the bipolar superpowers that fully adequate protection from nuclear attack must include not only the avoidance of "bolt-from-the-blue" missile attacks, but also the prevention of unwitting or uncontrollable escalations, from conventional to atomic war.
Occasionally, in difficult strategic calculations, truth can be counter-intuitive. Regarding Israeli preparations for nuclear security from Iran, there is an obvious but still generally overlooked irony. It is that in foreseeable circumstances of nuclear deterrence, the credibility of certain Israeli threats could sometimes vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. This means that one especially compelling reason for moving from deliberate ambiguity to selectively limited forms of nuclear disclosure would be to communicate, to an Iranian enemy, that Israel’s retaliatory nuclear weapons were not too large for actual operational use.
Israel’s decision-makers will also need to proceed more self-consciously and explicitly with another basic choice. This closely-related decision would concern a core comparative judgment between "assured destruction strategies,” and "nuclear war fighting strategies.” In narrowly military parlance, assured destruction strategies are sometimes also called "counter-value," or “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) strategies. Nuclear war fighting strategies, on the other hand, are synonymous with "counterforce."
Counter-value and counterforce strategies are essentially alternate theories of deterrence, differential nuclear postures in which a state chooses to primarily target its strategic weapons on either its presumed enemy’s "soft" civilian populations and supporting infrastructures, or on that same enemy's "hard" military assets. Although seemingly in prima facie violation of humanitarian international law, or the law of armed conflict (because it would apparently disregard the binding obligation to protect noncombatants), it is still reasonable to maintain that employing counter-value targeting doctrines could more persuasively reduce the probability of a nuclear war. In essence, therefore, a national commitment to assured destruction strategies could effectively be less corrosive, and ultimately, more humane.
It is also plausible that a state contemplating "counter-value versus counterforce" targeting issues would opt for some sort of "mixed" strategy. In any event, whichever deterrence strategy a state (Israel) might choose, what would really matter most is what the pertinent enemy state (Iran) would itself perceive as real. War can be microcosm. Recalling classical Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, on "foggy" strategic matters, the most authentically meaningful reality is always perceived reality.
In choosing between the two core targeting alternatives, Israel could decide to opt for nuclear deterrence based disproportionately upon assured destruction strategies. Here, in the negative consequence column, it could run an enlarged risk of "losing" any nuclear war that might actually arise. This is because counter-value-targeted nuclear weapons, by definition, would not be designed to destroy military targets.
If, on the other hand, Israel were to opt for nuclear deterrence based primarily upon counterforce capabilities, its Iranian enemy could then feel especially threatened, a potentially precarious condition that could then, incrementally, heighten the prospect of an enemy first-strike, and thereby of an eventual nuclear exchange.
There are also "intervening variables" to be considered. Israel's strategic decisions on counter-value versus counterforce doctrines should depend, at least in part, on its prior investigations of: (1) enemy state inclinations to strike first; and (2) enemy state inclinations to strike all-at-once, or in stages. Should Israeli strategic planners assume that a nuclear Iran is apt to strike first, and to strike in unlimited fashion (that is, to fire all or most of its nuclear weapons, right away), Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads, used in retaliation, could hit only empty silos/launchers. Anticipating these particular circumstances, Israel's only determinable application of counterforce doctrine could then be to strike first itself. Needless to say, any such thought of an Israeli nuclear preemption, even if technically "rational" and/or legal, would and should be dismissed out-of-hand.
Concerning specific issues of law and nuclear weapons use, the UN's International Court of Justice, in a 1996 Advisory Opinion, ruled that even nuclear weapons could be used permissibly, when the "very survival of a state would be at stake."
If, for whatever reason, Israel were to reject all residual preemption options, there would be no compelling reason to opt for a counterforce strategy vis-à-vis Iran. Rather, from the critical standpoint of persuasive intra-war deterrence, a counter-value strategy would likely prove more appropriate. With this in mind, The Project Daniel Group (2003) had earlier urged Israel to "focus its (second-strike) resources on counter-value warheads...." This suggestion is still valid today.
Should Israeli planners ever assume that an already-nuclear Iran is apt to strike first, but, for whatever reason, to strike "only" in a limited fashion, holding some measure of nuclear firepower in reserve, for anticipated follow-on strikes, Israeli counterforce-targeted warheads might then display certain damage-limiting benefits. Moreover, counterforce targeting preparations could serve an Israeli conventional preemption, either as a vital counter-retaliatory threat, or, should Israel decide not to preempt, as a threatened Israeli retaliation. For example, should an Israeli defensive first-strike (conventional) be intentionally limited, perhaps because it would have been coupled with a calculated quid-pro-quo of no further destruction in exchange for an enemy cessation of hostilities, recognizable counterforce targeting preparation could serve to reinforce an Israeli counter-retaliatory strike. Here, Israel's attempt at intra-war deterrence could simply fail, occasioning the need for follow-on damage-limiting strikes.
Israeli preparations for nuclear war-fighting should never be understood as a narrow alternative to nuclear deterrence. Instead, such preparations should always be considered as essential and integral components of Israeli nuclear deterrence. A critical linkage can emerge between likely net prowess/success in war, and the persuasiveness of pre-war nuclear deterrence. The overriding purpose of Israel's nuclear forces, whether still ambiguous, or newly disclosed, must consistently be deterrence, not actual military use.
Taking a page from Sun-Tzu, the ancient Chinese military thinker, Israel should always understand this: "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."    Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy. His most recent contributions were published in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Herzliya Conference Working Papers  (Israel); and The Brown Journal of World Affairs. Professor Beres is a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Post.