Israel's nuclear strategy - a larger role for submarine-basing

Looking ahead, it is plausible that it will be in Israel's long-term survival interests to more fully commit to certain submarine-basing options. I

Bushehr nuclear power plant (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bushehr nuclear power plant
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Although Israel's current security emphases following Operation Protective Edge lie most plainly in counter-terrorism operations, this should not obscure the Jewish State's overriding obligation to deter WMD attacks by enemy states, including, in the future,  nuclear blows from Iran. In this connection, Jerusalem will need to fashion a fully comprehensive and calibrated strategic doctrine, one from which aptly specific security policies and operations could be suitably extrapolated. This focused framework could identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence, preemption, active defense, strategic targeting, nuclear war fighting) with assorted national survival goals. 
Israel's proposed strategic doctrine will have to take close account of possible interactions between different strategic options, and also of determinable synergies between possible enemy attacks. Significantly, calculating these particular interactions and synergies will represent a computational task on the highest order of intellectual difficulty. Indeed, going forward, the progressive refinement of Israel's nuclear deterrent should always be seen as a primarily intellectual task, rather than as a merely political operation.
In the analysis that follows, we will identify the basic expectations of any Israeli nuclear deterrence posture, with particular reference to the twin criteria of perceived ability and perceived willingness. Before any rational adversary of Israel could be deterred by an Israeli nuclear deterrent, that enemy would first need to believe that Israel had both the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for certain forms of aggression, and also the will to actually undertake such a launch. In matters involving a prospectively irrational strategic enemy of Israel, successful deterrence would need to be based upon threats to enemy values other than national survival, and/or would need to be supplanted altogether by strategies of preemption, or, as known in law, "anticipatory self-defense."
As part of all considered strategies of Israeli nuclear deterrence, useful preparations will have to include the country's complex and multi-layered systems of active defense, especially Arrow. Here, IDF planners will need to bear in mind that in intercepting Hamas rockets during the recent Gaza War (Operation Protective Edge), a less than 100%  reliability of intercept was acceptable, but that nothing less than a 100% reliability of intercept could be tolerable when facing enemy nuclear missiles in the future.
Iron Dome has performed extremely well in intercepting Hamas rockets, but the prospective task for Arrow in any possible future encounters with long-range Iranian ballistic missiles would be far more demanding.
In meeting the perceived ability criterion of successful nuclear deterrence, Israel will need to demonstrate, inter alia, the substantial invulnerability of its nuclear retaliatory forces to enemy first strikes. Like the United States, Jerusalem is likely to depend upon some form or another of strategic triad deployments. Already, it is likely that Israel has begun to embark upon serious sea-basing of its still-undeclared nuclear forces.
Looking ahead, it is plausible that it will be in Israel's long-term survival interests to more fully commit to certain submarine-basing options. Israel is a tiny country, and its land-based strategic forces could sometime present as too-vulnerable. In part, whether or not Israel actually proceeds to more explicit submarine-basing of nuclear retaliatory forces, it could still acquire certain meaningful deterrence benefits from an incremental end to its policy of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity." Popularly, this policy is generally referred to as Israel's "bomb in the basement."
From the early days of the country's first prime minister, David  Ben-Gurion, Israel has understood the need to rely upon a "great equalizer," that is, on nuclear weapons and (implicit) strategy. Of course, there are a great many circumstances in which a nuclear option would be unsuited - most obviously, in any forms of regional counter-terrorism - but, in the end, there can be no substitute for such a residual option. Doctrinally, Israel has already rejected any notions of theater nuclear deterrence, and/or nuclear war-fighting; nonetheless, there are still some identifiable circumstances wherein a nuclear exchange might not be prevented.
Nuclear war-fighting between Israel and particular enemies could break out, so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes launched against Israel would not destroy Israel's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel's nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) conventional Israeli preemptive strikes would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capability; and (d) Israeli retaliations for enemy state conventional first strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.
What this means, for Israeli security, is that Jerusalem must take appropriate steps to ensure the plausibility of (a) and (b), above, and also the implausibility of (c) and (d).
Submarine deployments could be helpful or even indispensable to Israel's nuclear deterrence posture. Submarines, after all, represent the ultimate stealth weapon, and an SLBM force could essentially guarantee the ability to unleash a catastrophic retaliatory strike. Naturally, these deployments would not replicate America's nuclear response capability. Currently, 50-55% of this country's nuclear response force is submarine-based in certain times of crisis.
Because of Israel's irremediable lack of strategic depth, the small country's submarine force represents an "ace in the hole" element of strategic deterrence. Now, Israel is upgrading its three Dolphin I submarines purchases from Germany with three additional Dolphin II submarines. These boats are diesel powered, and unlike the US nuclear submarine capability, are limited by the length of time they can remain submerged.
Israel's submarines have been designed and built for specific Israeli requirements, and are larger than the German type 212 submarines. One must assume that the larger size is to accommodate nuclear tipped missiles. This capability is critical to maintain Israel's deterrence from enemy attack. The country needs to continue with refinements of this sea-based retaliatory capability. Nuclear powered submarines would be preferable, in principle, but due to cost and construction requirements, they are not attainable, at least in the near term.
In the densely-arcane world of Israeli nuclear strategy, it can never be sufficient that Israel's enemies acknowledge its nuclear status. It is also necessary that Israel's enemies believe that Israel has distinctly secure nuclear weapons, and that Israel would be ready and willing to employ these usable weapons in certain very specific and readily identifiable threat situations.
To ensure that its nuclear forces appear usable, invulnerable, and also penetration-capable, Israel could benefit from a selective release of certain broad outlines of strategic information -  that is, by a loosening of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity." The disclosed information would concern, among other things, the hardening, dispersion, multiplication, basing and yields of selected Israeli nuclear forces. This suggestion, of course, is not meant to "give away" any military secrets, but rather, to use certain bits of pertinent information to substantially enhance Israel's nuclear deterrent. No Israeli shift from nuclear ambiguity to disclosure would likely help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy, an improbable but by no means inconceivable prospect.
By now, Israel has likely adopted a counter-city or "counter-value" nuclear targeting policy. This policy, replicating US targeting doctrine during the Cold War, should soon be made known to certain of Israel's principal existential adversaries. Without such advance disclosures to these adversaries, and without any corollary development of a submarine-based nuclear deterrent, Israel's credible nuclear deterrence posture could be put at risk.          
LOUIS RENÉ BERES is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he is the author of ten books and several hundred published articles dealing with Israeli security matters. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon, 2003).
LEON "BUD" EDNEY, Admiral (US Navy/ret). was Vice-Chief of Naval Operations; NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic; and Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Command. Admiral Edney, who served as a White House Fellow in 1970, holds an advanced degree in international affairs from Harvard. He was also Distinguished Professor of Leadership at the US Naval Academy.