Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: Enhancing Deterrence in the New Cold War (Part I)

"Oh ship of state, new waves push you out to sea...."
Horace, Odes

By definition, as long as particular countries regard their nuclear status as an asset, every state that is a member of the so-called nuclear club is a direct beneficiary of the Cold War. This is because all core elements of any national nuclear strategy, whether actual or still-contemplated, were originally conceptualized, shaped, and even codified within the earlier bipolar struggles of post World War II international relations.[1] Nonetheless, as the world now enters into a more-or-less resurrected form of this initial struggle the strategic postures of each extant nuclear weapons state are being modified within the still-developing parameters of Cold War II.

These parameters, it follows, warrant very careful further study by both scholars and policy makers. Already, they are in constant flux, transient, changing in both foreseeable and prospectively unseen ways. Among other things, such critical parameters or boundaries will become increasingly vital and potentially even determinative. In this regard, a great deal will depend upon the precise manner in which this reborn bipolar rivalry impacts the various basic elements and circumstances of nuclear deterrence postures.

Flags Of Israel, Great Britain, France, Russia And The United States  (Shutterstock)

In turn, this manner will depend very considerably upon multiple and overlapping national nuclear power alignments with either Russia or the United States, or conceivably with both.

Antecedent to such starkly complex considerations, much will also depend upon the expected rationality or non-rationality of each relevant national nuclear power, and on certain plausible interactions or synergies between core nuclear adversaries and their respective alliances. Regarding the first concern, Israel's planners will need to bear in mind the timeless wisdom of German philosopher Karl Jaspers: "The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it."[2]

The frontispiece of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, engraved  by Abraham Bosse (Wikimedia)

Never without it. This is an absolutely rudimentary understanding for anyone engaged in strategic nuclear matters. "Everything is very simple in war," counsels Carl von Clausewitz in On War, "but even the simplest thing is difficult."[3] Today, this correspondingly useful insight remains valid not only during periods of conflict, but also in those unsteady periods of latent hostility between possible or still-impending wars. Interestingly, this expected validity during a cold war was already seen by the seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. In his classic Leviathan, this early political thinker opines that a condition of war obtains not only during unambiguous periods of "actual fighting," but also whenever there merely exists a "known disposition thereto."[4]

Accordingly, even during the expansive pre-nuclear era in world politics, a precarious logic of deterrence existed within the global state of nature. Already, there was operative an evidently fearful condition of raw competition, corrosive violence, and seemingly perpetual anarchy.

Significantly, even for Hobbes, and long before the advent of any nuclear weapons, the worst state of war would have to be characterized by an utterly dreadful equality, a bellum omnium contra omnes wherein "the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest."[5]

In any such worst case configurationmost apparent today where nuclear proliferation had managed to continue without meaningfully effective inhibitions—the life of both individual human beings and entire states would inevitably be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."[6] For Israel, the shifting parameters of a Second Cold War and related issues of enemy rationality could have indeterminate or foreseeable effects upon its presumptive nuclear doctrine and strategy. This includes, of course, the various diverse issues surrounding choices between nuclear ambiguity and nuclear disclosure.

Historically, the former posture has prevailed unchallenged until today, and can be referred to metaphorically as Israel's bomb in the basement. Still, as a bipolar axis of conflict is now being aggressively reaffirmed in world politics, and as prospects for enemy irrationality are arguably greater than before, Jerusalem will soon have to make appropriate modifications to its nuclear deterrence doctrine and posture.

Until today, in principle at least, this national doctrine and posture have remained determinedly ambiguous. At the same time, traditional ambiguity had already been effectively breached at the highest possible level by two of Israel's prime ministers, first, by Shimon Peres, on December 22, 1995, and then again by Ehud Olmert on December 11, 2006. Peres, speaking to a group of Israeli newspaper and magazine editors, then affirmed publicly: "...give me peace, and we'll give up the atom. That's the whole story."[7]

When Olmert later offered similarly general but also revelatory remarks, they were widelybut wronglyinterpreted as mere "slips of the tongue."[8]

Today, as Moscow and Washington once again become recognizably bitter adversariesmost obviously in their fundamentally different positions and involvements in Syria and throughout the wider Middle Easta basic question must again be raised in Jerusalem: Is comprehensive nuclear secrecy necessarily in the best survival interests of the Jewish State?[9]  

To respond effectively, Israel must start with the problematic assumption that in any such complex strategic matters, truth could sometimes be counter-intuitive. A full answer to this challenging query must therefore be grounded in the tangible expectations and exigencies of formal strategic doctrine. Whatever else Jerusalem may already have in mind concerning such indispensable doctrine, its response ought never be just a series of incremental ad hoc decisions or otherwise unreflective policies, that is, positions that are invented and re-invented from one specific crisis to the next.

Any purposeful loosening of Israeli nuclear ambiguity would need to be subtle, nuanced, more-or-less indirect, and visibly incremental. Contrary to the often parodied views of any such prospective disclosure that may be found in popular news stories or on television, this loosening would not have to take the expressly provocative form of openly forthright or otherwise official Israeli policy pronouncements. Instead, Israel’s nuclear status could be allowed to leak out on its own, thereby allowing a point to be made without precipitating any immediate sense of crisis.

Among other things, formal doctrine would represent the indispensable framework from which any gainfully pragmatic Israeli nuclear policy of ambiguity or disclosure could then be suitably extrapolated. In all military institutions and traditions, such doctrine must describe the tactical manner in which pertinent national forces ought to fight in plausible combat situations.

There is more. The central importance of codified Israeli military doctrine lies not only in the particular way it can animate, unify, and optimize national military forces, but also in the expectedly efficient manner that it can transmit certain desired messages to an enemy state, enemy states, or sub-state proxies. Understood in terms of Israel's strategic nuclear policy, any indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity could prove injurious to the country's national security rather than beneficial. Although possibly counter-intuitive, this is the case because any truly effective deterrence and defense could sometimes call for a military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by adversary states, and also by certain sub-state proxies.

In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first, in these circumstances a manifestly complex effort of dissuasion, projecting too much secrecy could quickly prove counter-productive.

In any routine military planning, having available options for strategic surprise can be helpful, if not fully prerequisite, to successful combat operations. But successful deterrence is another matter entirely. In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first, in these circumstances a manifestly complex effort of dissuasion, projecting too much secrecy could quickly prove counter-productive.

In the matter of Israel and its potential enemies, any sincere military success must lie in credible deterrence, and not in actual war-fighting. Examined in terms of ancient Chinese military thought offered by Sun-Tzu in The Art of War, "Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."[9] With this worthy dictum in mind, there are times for Israel when successful deterrence policies could require the deliberate loosening of information that had formerly been tightly held. In essence, such information could concern Israel's capabilities, its intentions or both complex qualities taken together.

Looking ahead to the emerging Cold War II, such information would also need to be rendered compatible with Jerusalem's preferred and specific superpower alignments. More than likely, Jerusalem’s alignments will still favor ties to Washington over Moscow, but it is also not inconceivable that the current incoherence within relevant US foreign policies could temper this historical preference.

The War Room and the Big Board in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Wikimedia)

Sometimes, strategic truth must be counterintuitive. There are foreseeable circumstances wherein ordinary secrecy could actually be too much secrecy, thereby undermining any country's national security. We may recall, in this connection, a popular Cold War era movie in which Dr. Strangelove, an eccentric strategic advisor to the American president discovers, to his horror, that the existence of America's doomsday machine had never been made known in advance to the Soviets.

"The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost," complains Dr. Strangelove, "if you keep it a secret." To have been suitably deterred, the film instructs, and not too subtly, the Soviets ought to have first been given sufficiently prior warnings of the doomsday machine. This device, after all, had been designed solely to ensure the perceived automaticity of America's nuclear retaliatory response. Remembering the commonly-held strategic posture known as Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD), this response would have been instantly recognizable to the Kremlin as massive and assuredly destructive.

As instruments of deterrence, nuclear weapons can succeed only in their protracted non-use.

It follows from all this that Israel's nuclear weapons must consistently remain oriented to deterrence ex ante, and not to actual war fighting or revenge ex post. As instruments of deterrence, nuclear weapons can succeed only in their protracted non-use. Once they have been used for tangible battle, deterrence by definition, will have failed. It is also worth noting that, once actually used, any traditional meanings of victory, especially if both sides are already nuclear, would instantly become moot.

The Cold War is over, and Israel's emerging deterrence relationship to a prospectively nuclear Iran is not reasonably analogous or even comparable to the historic American-Soviet Balance-of-Terror. Still, there are crucial elements of Cold War superpower antagonisms that will necessarily and substantially impact Israel's nuclear strategic choices. This means that Israel must never construct its own nuclear strategic doctrine and policy apart from various close assessments of US-Russian relations.

The Cold War is over, and Israel's emerging deterrence relationship to a prospectively nuclear Iran is not reasonably analogous or even comparable to the historic American-Soviet Balance-of-Terror.

There are also certain Cold War deterrence lessons to be learned and adapted by the Jewish State to the current situation. More precisely, any unmodified continuance of total nuclear ambiguity concerning Israel's (a) strategic targeting doctrine; (b) secure basing modes; and/or (c) capacity to penetrate a designated enemy's active air defenses, could cause a newly-nuclearizing or still-nuclearizing enemy state such as Iran to critically underestimate Israel's retaliatory capacity or resolve.

As a subsidiary but still urgent nuclear concern, Israeli planners will need to continually assess the capability and intentions of Pakistan, an already-nuclear Islamic state, and one that has openly declared a nuclear war fighting concept of national nuclear deterrence. Returning to the formative lexicon of the Cold War, this non-Arab Islamic state has made a formal shift from mutual assured destruction to nuclear utilization theory. In the specialized discourse and parlance of all orthodox nuclear strategic theory, this represents an overt shift from MAD (mutual assured destruction) to NUT (nuclear utilization theory).[10]

Going forward assorted uncertainties surrounding the presumed components of Israel's nuclear arsenal could lead enemy states to sometimes reach a wrong conclusion. In part, this is because Israel's willingness to make good on any threatened nuclear retaliation could then be seen, widely perhaps, as inversely related to weapon system destructiveness. Ironically, if Israel's nuclear weapons were sometime believed to be too destructive, they might not deter.

In the future, any continuing policy of complete ambiguity could cause an already nuclear enemy state to overestimate the first-strike vulnerability of Israel's nuclear forces. In part, at least, this overestimation could be the result of a too-complete silence concerning measures of protection that had been deployed to safeguard Israeli nuclear weapons. Such silence, in turn, could be the product of Israel's perceived alignments with one or the other current superpower by any then-relevant regional foe.

TA test of the Arrow-3 interceptor by the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. (MDA Image)

A related problem could be the product of certain Israeli doctrinal obfuscations regarding the country's defense potential, a silence that could be mistakenly understood by certain enemy states, as an indication of inadequate Israeli Ballistic Missile Defense. To be maximally useful, certain relevant strengths and capabilities of Arrow-3 and other interrelated and multi-layered elements of active defense could therefore need to be revealed, perhaps even in previously unimaginable operational detail.

Going forward, certain elements of strategic truth could be counter-intuitive. Once again, the then-prevailing conditions of Cold War II could expect to have certain meaningful impacts upon any such considered revelations.

Further examination of such prospective impacts can be found in Part II of this essay, forthcoming.

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: "Ships in a Storm on a Rocky Coast" by Jan Porcellis (Wikimedia)


[1] In essence, hypothesizing the emergence of "Cold War II" means expecting the world system to become increasingly bipolar. For early writings by this author on the global security implications of such expanding bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, "Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, "Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, "Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[2] Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existence,  1935; cited in Walter Kaufman, ed., Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, New York, Meridian Books, 1956, p. 158

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War,  Chapter VI, "Friction in War," in Edward M. Collins, War, Politics and Power; Chicago; Henry Regnery Company, 1962, p. 131

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter XIII, "Of the Natural Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery," (1651) in C.B. Macpherson, ed., New York, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 186

[5] Hobbes, Leviathan, op cit., p. 183

[6] Hobbes, Leviathan, op. cit., p. 186

[7] Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (New York and London, Rowman & Litttlefield, 2016), p. xxix

[8] Beres, op. cit., p. xxix

[9] Sun-Tzu, The Art of War, Ralph D. Sawyer, tr., New York, Barnes & Noble, 1994, p. 129. See also:  Louis René Beres, "Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu,"  Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, October 24, 2013

[10] Several of this author's earlier books deal expressly with the pertinent distinctions. See, for example, by Louis René Beres: The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis; Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics; Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order; Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Nuclear Strategy; Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy; and Israel's Nuclear Strategy and US National Security (Tel Aviv), a 2016 monograph co-authored by Professor Beres and General (USA/ret.) Barry McCaffrey.