Israel's nuclear doctrine: Clarification, codification and disclosure

The primary point of Israel's nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post. From Israel's Strategic Future, the final report of Project Daniel, Israel, 2004.

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)
 Even at a time of expanding existential peril, some of which may be rooted in escalating and intersecting terror-insurgencies, Israel has yet to make any explicit policy disclosures concerning its nuclear status. Still, two former Israeli prime ministers - Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert – displayed quite substantial “slips of the tongue" on this vital issue. Both Peres and Olmert made plain public statements that could have left no reasonable doubt about Israel’s nuclear basics. With these particular “slips,” all residual uncertainties about Israel's "bomb" effectively became moot.
At the same time, and with utter deliberateness, no nuanced strategic details were disclosed by Messrs. Peres or Olmert. Indeed, in their pertinent remarks, neither prime minister ever went so far as to take the presumed Israeli bomb out of the “basement.” This means that although the core question of Israel’s membership in the Nuclear Club was already resolved years ago, the country’s long-term and underlying commitment to “nuclear opacity” had nonetheless remained in place.
With an apt regard to specific policies, key components, and operational details, everything nuclear was still very intentionally shrouded in “deliberate ambiguity.”
This continuing Israeli commitment to a nuclear status quo seems to have been correct. Every conceivable adversary is understandably convinced that Israel has nuclear weapons. Further, US President Barack Obama would likely be opposed to any greater declared levels of Israeli nuclear specificity.
Si vis pacem, para bellum atomicum. To expect peace, Israel must always plan recognizably for nuclear war. In the end, Israel wouldn't long endure without its nuclear weapons, not, of course, to actually fight a war, but rather for protracted and indispensable strategic deterrence.
Soon, there may be a distinctly overriding reason for taking the bomb out of the "basement." This would concern the complex requirements of a credible nuclear deterrence posture. To present such an essential posture, Israel’s nuclear weapons would always need to appear sufficiently invulnerable to any preemptive destruction.
These weapons would also need to be seen as “penetration capable” (recognizably able to hit their intended targets) and “usable” (able to be taken seriously, as a plausible retaliation for enemy aggression). If any of these particular enemy perceptions were absent, Israel’s nuclear weapons might not be taken with sufficient seriousness to serve as a credible deterrent.
For Israel’s nuclear weapons to protect against massive enemy attacks, some of which could be genuinely existential, Israel now needs to refine, operationalize, and possibly even declare certain precise elements of its strategic doctrine and associated ordnance. Such action would be needed, inter alia, 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, as needed, be suitably abstracted.
Optimally, the urgent problems associated with a steadily nuclearizing Iran should not even have to be addressed by Israel on an ad hoc basis. Rather, Israel should prepare to cast its best available response to this unprecedented threat within the broader and more coherent context of antecedent strategic theory.
Simple Arab/Islamic awareness of an Israeli bomb can never automatically imply that Israel has a credible nuclear deterrent. If, for example, Israel's nuclear arsenal were seen as vulnerable to enemy first-strikes, it still might not persuade certain enemy countries to resist attacking the Jewish State. Similarly, if Israel's political leadership were seen as unwilling to resort to nuclear weapons in reprisal for anything but unconventional and fully exterminatory strikes, these enemy states may also not be deterred.
A presumptive counter-force targeting doctrine could  be damaging to Israel, because it could enlarge the probabilities of actual nuclear war fighting. Always, Israel’s nuclear weapons should be oriented toward deterrence, never to actual conflict. With this in mind, Israeli planners and leaders have already likely opted not to build or deploy tactical nuclear forces.
To best ensure long-term survival of Israel, it can never be sufficient that Israel's enemies merely know that the Jewish State has nuclear weapons. They must also be convinced, always, that these atomic arms are sufficiently secure and usable, and that Israel's leadership is likely willing to launch these particular weapons in response to certain first-strike and retaliatory aggressions.
Israel's strategic doctrine must always aim at strengthening nuclear deterrence. It can meet this core objective only by convincing enemy states that a first-strike upon Israel will always be irrational. This means communicating to enemy states that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits.
Israel's strategic doctrine must convince prospective attackers that their intended victim has both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Where an enemy state considering an attack upon Israel were unconvinced about either or both of these fundamental components of nuclear deterrence, it could still choose rationally to strike first.
Regarding willingness, even if Israel were fully prepared to respond to certain Arab/Islamic attacks with nuclear reprisals, any enemy failure to actually recognize such preparedness could still 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, lack the willingness to retaliate, and that this damaging lack of willingness were perceived correctly by enemy state decision-makers.
Regarding capacity, even if Israel were to maintain a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that enemy states always believe these weapons to be distinctly usable. This means that if a first-strike attack were ever believed capable of sufficiently destroying Israel's atomic arsenal and associated infrastructures, that country's nuclear deterrent could conceivably be immobilized. To best guard against any such perilous eventuality, Jerusalem would be well-advised to continue working closely at improving all viable and affordable submarine nuclear basing options.
The importance of usable nuclear weapons must also be examined from the standpoint of probable harms. Should Israel's nuclear weapons be perceived by a would-be attacker as too uniformly high-yield, "city-busting" weapons, they might also fail to deter. In certain residual circumstances, successful nuclear deterrence may even vary inversely with perceived destructiveness, at least to a point. This does not mean that Israel should ever incline toward a nuclear war-fighting doctrine, but only that it must always be aware of possibly subtle or eccentric decisional correlations between successful nuclear deterrence and enemy perceptions of Israeli nuclear destructiveness.
This brings us back to the overall core importance of Israeli strategic doctrine. To the extent that this doctrine were to identify certain nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal, any disclosure could contribute to Israeli nuclear deterrence. Without such doctrinal disclosure, Israel's enemies could be kept guessing about the Jewish State's probable responses, a condition of persistent uncertainty that could possibly serve Israel's security for a while longer, but at one time or another, could fail altogether.
One final observation. All nuclear deterrence is contingent upon an assumption of enemy rationality. This means that in calculating deterrence, an enemy must always be assumed to value its continued physical survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. Where this assumption might be unwarranted, all deterrence “bets” could be off. Then, the would-be deterrer’s own survival would likely depend upon certain aptly configured forms of preemption, and/or ballistic missile defense.
In the urgent matter of nuclear Iran, a peril that intersects synergistically with a broad variety of terror threats in the region, Israel will have to decide whether that country could still be animated more by Jihadist visions of a Shiite apocalypse than by the more usual strategic considerations of national survival. This ominous prospect is highly improbable, but it is also not inconceivable.
Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." Israel should never construct its overall strategic doctrine upon such an eccentric mantra, but it ought also not to ignore this insightful paradox altogether.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was born in Zürich, Switzerland (August 31, 1945), and educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971).  He is the author of many major books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. The Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, 2003, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon), his work is well-known in both Israeli and American senior military/intelligence communities. See, for example, Louis René Beres and (Major General) Isaac Ben-Israel (IDF/res.), "Deterring an Iranian Nuclear Attack," The Washington Times, January 27, 2009; Louis René Beres and (General) John T. Chain (USAF/ret.), "Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran,"? The Atlantic, August 2012; Louis René Beres and (General) John T. Chain (USAF/ret.), "Living With Iran: Israel's Strategic Imperative," Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (Israel), BESA Perspective Paper # 249, May 28, 2014; and Louis René Beres and (Admiral) Leon "Bud" Edney (USN/ret.), "Israel's Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine-Basing," The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014