Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity: Would a Shift to Selective Nuclear Disclosure Enhance Strategic Deterrence?

"Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."
—Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

For Israel, a principal component of national strategy has always been to keep military nuclear assets shrouded in the basement.[1] Arguably, at least until now, nuclear ambiguity or opacity has worked. Although this unique stance has apparently done little or nothing to deter various ordinary conventional enemy aggressions or acts of terror, it has plainly succeeded in keeping the country’s multiple enemies from mounting any determined existential aggressions. Significantly, these potentially catastrophic aggressions could, at some point, have been mounted without employing nuclear or biological weapons.

Conceptually, it's largely about the principle of mass. In short, Israel has no meaningful mass. However, for the moment of course, none of Israel’s frontline foes have a nuclear capability or, to put it colloquially, the bomb.

Still, together in a determined and calculated collaboration, these enemies could already have acquired the specific cumulative capacity needed to carry out substantial or fully overwhelming military assaults.

At least in principle, and acting collectively, these states and their assorted insurgent proxies could already have inflicted expressly intolerable harms upon the Jewish State, even without nuclear weapons.

In military nuclear matters, any national security strategy based only upon whispered sotto voce threats has conspicuous limits. Accordingly, Israel’s longstanding policy of deliberate ambiguity will not work indefinitely. To be reliably deterred, a fully nuclear adversary (most plausibly a future Iran) would need readily verifiable assurances Israel’s nuclear weapons were both effectively invulnerable and penetration-capable. This expectation means Israel's nuclear weapons would not only need to be sufficiently protected from a first-strike, but that they would also be able to get through any prospective nuclear adversary's cumulative defenses.

The BADGER explosion on April 18, 1953. (Wikimedia)

Any adversary's judgments concerning Israel’s willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would depend in large measure upon its particular foreknowledge of these weapons and on their corollary operational capabilities.

Ironically, certain enemy perceptions of exclusively mega-destructive, high-yield Israeli nuclear weapons could effectively undermine the credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrence. Expressed more formally, Israel’s strategic deterrence credibility could vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its nuclear arms. While seemingly counter-intuitive, this argument reasonably suggests not only that Israel should have available a usefully wide range of nuclear retaliatory options, but also that it take proper steps to ensure any such expansive range is widely and instantly recognizable.

Should an enemy state with nuclear capabilities ever decide to share some of its offensive nuclear assets with a surrogate anti-Israel terrorist group (e.g., Iran sharing with Hezbollah), Jerusalem would then also need to have prepared satisfactorily for the nuclear deterrence of non-state adversaries.

In all such conceivable scenarios, what will first need to be calculated is the precise subtlety with which Israel should communicate its nuclear positions, intentions, and capabilities to various potential adversaries.

Any rationale for Israeli nuclear disclosure would stem from the absolutely basic understanding that nuclear weapons can serve Israel's security in several different ways. Once faced with a nuclear fait accompli in Tehran or elsewhere, Israel would then need to convince its relevant enemy or enemies it possessed both the will and the capacity to make any intended nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. By definition, any Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure could help in the case of a nuclear enemy, rational or irrational, Iran or some other.

To protect itself against enemy military strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel must quickly and correctly exploit every aspect and function of its still-opaque nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel's efforts will depend not only upon its carefully selected configuration of counterforce and counter value operations, but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to enemy states and their non-state surrogates.[2] However, it will not be enough for such enemies to know Israel has the bomb to ensure they are deterred from launching first strikes against Israel or from launching retaliatory attacks following an Israeli non-nuclear preemptive strike.

Painting (Mohamed Al-Sayaghi/Reuters)

Removing the bomb from Israel's basement could enhance the Jewish State's strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Any such calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for assorted enemy first-strike and/or retaliatory attacks. But would an Israeli move from deliberate nuclear ambiguity or opacity be purposeful with regard to certain non-nuclear threats? This important question still lies latent among capable strategic analysts and theorists. In other words, it is never really asked.

Intuitively, the credibility of any Israeli nuclear retaliatory threat would be greatest wherever the particular aggression posed was also nuclear. Nonetheless, there are circumstances in which a determined enemy or coalition of enemies (state and non-state) might contemplate merely conducting a devastating conventional first-strike against Israel. Here, the decision to restrict activity to non-nuclear weapons would stem from a firm prior assumption that such a purely conventional assault would not elicit an Israeli nuclear retaliation.

In any such conceivable circumstances, the enemy or coalition of enemies would have concluded any non-nuclear first strike against a nuclear Israel could be entirely rational. This is because, in this calculation, Israel's anticipated retaliation would necessarily stop short of crossing the vital nuclear threshold. If, on the other hand, the prospective aggressors had previously been made aware Israel was in possession of a meaningfully wide array of capable nuclear retaliatory forces those enemies would more likely be effectively deterred.

As a welcome consequence of certain incremental and previously-nuanced disclosures, Jerusalem will have signaled its adversaries that it could and would cross the threshold of nuclear retaliation to punish any perceived attempt to destroy the Israeli state. In more narrowly military parlance, Israel's actions would then be designed to ensure escalation dominance. For this particular scenario, moreover, the pertinent nuclear deterrence advantages to Israel of implementing particular moves away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity would lie in the presumptively compelling signals it had managed to send.

Necessarily, this signal would be that Israel does not need to retaliate in these circumstances with exclusively massive or conspicuously disproportionate nuclear force.

Such advantages could sometime extend beyond enhancing credible threats of Israeli nuclear retaliation to also enhancing credible threats of Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should initiate a non-nuclear defensive first-strike against Iran before that state becomes a nuclear power (an act of anticipatory self defense under customary international law) the likelihood of any massive Iranian conventional retaliation could then be better diminished. This would be the case so long as there had already been issued more openly disclosed and prior Israeli threats of suitably measured nuclear counter-retaliation.

In specifically historical terms, by following an incremental path away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity or the so-called bomb in the basement, Israel would be less likely to replicate America's initial nuclear posture errors vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, namely an initial and identifiable posture of massive retaliation.

In assessing the optimal levels of any deliberate nuclear disclosure, Israel must bear in mind the country's overall strategic nuclear objective: deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post. That is, the desire is purposeful dissuasion before any war, not merely revenge in the aftermath. If, however, nuclear weapons should somehow be introduced into a regional conflict, some form of nuclear war fighting could still ensue. This would be true so long as:

  1. Enemy state first strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish State's second-strike nuclear capability; 

  2. Enemy state retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel's nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; 

  3. Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and 

  4. Israeli retaliations for enemy state conventional first strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

All of this means Israel should take prompt steps to ensure the likelihood of (1) and (2) and the reciprocal unlikelihood of (3) and (4).

Plausibly, should nuclear deployments by an enemy state ever take place, Israel would forfeit non-nuclear preemption options. At that stage, its only remaining alternatives to exercising a nuclear preemption option would be either a no-longer viable conventional preemption or a decision to do nothing preemptively, thereby choosing to rely entirely upon some form of nuclear deterrence, including the corollary protections of ballistic missile defense. Here, of course, any prior decisions having to do with tangible shifts away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity or the bomb in the basement could prove especially critical.

In these literally unprecedented circumstances, there would also be some inevitable intersections with Israel's conventional or non-nuclear deterrence posture. Accordingly, because a conventional war could escalate into some form of unconventional war, Israel's underlying conventional deterrence could prove important to affording protections from chemical, biological, and nuclear war, as well as from a purely conventional conflict. Ultimately, a persuasive conventional deterrent remains inextricably intertwined with Israel's nuclear deterrence posture, and is therefore a genuine precondition for the Jewish State's overall security posture.

Moreover, Israel's conventional and nuclear deterrents are more-or-less seamlessly interrelated. For the foreseeable future, any enemy states choosing to launch an exclusively conventional attack on Israel would probably have multiple unconventional weapons capabilities in reserve. Among other things, this suggests that even if Israel were somehow able to rely upon conventional deterrence as its durable first-line of protection, that line would still be augmented by the country's nuclear arms and order of battle. The obvious objective would be to prevent any injurious intra-war escalations that could be initiated by specific enemy states.

All things considered, Israel must now prepare to rely upon a multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In turn, this doctrine must be rendered selectively less ambiguous and more expressly synergistic. Its operational range of application must include both rational and non-rational adversaries and both state and sub-state foes.[3] Once again, recalling Sun-Tzu, Jerusalem must never forget that s"Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."

Louis René Beres is the author of many books and monographs dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His twelfth and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy. He has lectured widely on law and strategy issues at both United States and Israeli military and intelligence institutions.

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Header Image: Israel and Nuclear Weapons (YouTube)


[1] For earlier essays by Professor Beres dealing with Israel's nuclear ambiguity, see, for example:  Louis René Beres and General (USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, "Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran"? The Atlantic, 2012; Professor Beres and General Chain, "Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour," Oxford University Press (OUP Blog, 2012); Louis René Beres and Admiral (USN/ret.) Leon "Bud" Edney, "Facing a Nuclear Iran, Israel Must Re-Think its Nuclear Ambiguity," US News & World Report, 2013; and Louis René Beres and Admiral Edney, "Reconsidering Israel's Nuclear Posture," The Jerusalem Post, 2013. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, US Strategic Air Command. Admiral Edney was NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic. See also:;;;; and

[2] Louis René Beres, "Israel's Strategic Future," prepared for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, January 16, 2003.

[3] Issues of enemy rationality and irrationality are absolutely primary to the fashioning of any purposeful Israeli strategy of nuclear deterrence. Accordingly, Israeli strategic planners must remain acutely aware that even irrational state adversaries could remain suitably subject to certain persuasive deterrence threats, but also that a third category of adversary need not necessarily be either rational or irrational, but mad. Significantly, unlike irrational foes, an adversary that is genuinely mad would no longer display a preference ordering that is expectedly hierarchical, consistent and transitive. In these still-conceivable circumstances, there might essentially be no plausible strategy for Israel to deter a presumptively mad enemy. Here, of course, all pertinent efforts would need to be directed toward war avoidance via cost-effective preemptions, and/or war winning (especially in those cases where the enemy state is already nuclear).