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

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

This article will continue the examination of Israel's nuclear strategy begun with “Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: Enhancing Deterrence in the new Cold War.” Specifically, Part II will address Israel’s core nuclear deterrence posture. In Part I, we posited the prospective importance of any re-born superpower rivalry upon this posture. Most critically, Israel's nuclear strategy will depend, in meaningful measure, upon the expected rationality and irrationality of its friends and foes, and upon a broad variety of plausible synergies between allied and adversarial actions. Recalling Thomas Hobbes' 17th-century prophetic description of a "state of war" not just "actual fighting," but also a "known disposition thereto," Part I ended with specific and informed references to certain considered modifications of Israel's deliberate nuclear ambiguity, and also to its need for further expansion and codification of formal nuclear military doctrine.

There is more. To best understand the utility of Israeli strategic nuclear doctrine and posture, analysts must first identify the various core foundations of Israeli nuclear deterrence. These foundations concern prospective attackers' perceptions of Israel's nuclear capability and Israel's willingness to use this capability. Any selective telegraphing of Israel's strategic nuclear doctrine could potentially enhance Israel's nuclear deterrence posture by heightening enemy perceptions of Israel's nuclear forces and by its announced willingness to use these forces in reprisal for certain first-strike and/or retaliatory attacks.

To deter an enemy attack, or a post-preemption retaliation, Israel must always prevent a rational aggressor, by threat of an unacceptably damaging retaliation or counter-retaliation, from deciding to strike. Here, Israel's national security would be sought by convincing the potential rational attacker that the costs of any considered attack will always exceed the expected benefits. Assuming Israel's state enemies (1) value self-preservation most highly; and (2) choose rationally between alternative options, they will always refrain from an attack that is believed both willing and able to deliver an unacceptably destructive response.

These enemy states might also be deterred by the plausible prospect of a more limited Israeli attack, one that would be directed only at national leaders. In the usual parlance adopted by military and intelligence communities, this particular prospect refers to more-or-less credible threats of regime targeting.

Always, two factors must combine to communicate such essential belief. First, in terms of capability, there are two critical components: payload and delivery system. It must be successfully communicated to any calculating attacker that Israel's firepower, and its means of delivering that firepower, are invariably capable of inflicting unacceptable levels of destruction. This means that Israel's retaliatory or counter-retaliatory forces must always appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes, and also aptly elusive to penetrate the prospective attacker's active and civil defenses.

It may or may not need to be communicated to a potential attacker that such firepower and delivery vehicles are superior to those of the relevant adversary. Deterrence, Israel's planners must continuously bear in mind, is never about victory. The capacity to deter may or may not be as great as the capacity to win. As a suitable current example, Israeli planners could think about North Korea and the United States. In this increasingly problematic dyad of international adversaries, the Americans are in fact clearly superior in all of the usual expressions of battle-readiness, but the North Koreans could still be able to inflict  terrible damage to American military forces  and even, perhaps, to portions of the American mainland. And this is to say nothing about parallel damages that might be brought to US allies in South Korea or Japan.

With Israel's strategic nuclear forces and doctrine kept locked in the basement, enemy states could conclude, rightly or wrongly, that a first-strike attack or post-preemption reprisal would be cost-effective. But were relevant Israeli doctrine made more plainly obvious to enemy states contemplating an attack—obvious in that Israel's nuclear assets seemingly met both payload and delivery system objectives—Israel's nuclear forces could then better serve their existential security functions.

The second factor of nuclear doctrine for Israel concerns willingness. Can Israel convince any potential nuclear attackers that it possesses the resolve to deliver an appropriately destructive retaliation, and/or counter retaliation? Again, the answer to this core question lies largely in doctrine, that is, in Israel's demonstrated strength of commitment to actually carry out such an attack, and in the nuclear ordnance that would presumably be available to its forces. Here, too, continued ambiguity over nuclear doctrine could wrongfully create the impression of an unwilling Israel. Conversely, any doctrinal movement toward some level of disclosure could meaningfully heighten the impression that Israel was in fact willing to follow-through on its now explicit nuclear threats.

There are persuasive connections between any incrementally more open or disclosed Israeli strategic nuclear doctrine, and certain enemy state perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence. One such connection centers on the expected relationship between prospectively greater openness and the perceived vulnerability of Israeli strategic nuclear forces to preemptive destruction. Another such connection concerns the relation between greater openness and the perceived capacity of Israel's nuclear forces to reliably penetrate the offending state's active defenses.

To be deterred by Israel, a newly-nuclear Iran or any other newly nuclear adversary would need to believe that at least a critical number of Israel's retaliatory forces would successfully survive any first-strike, and that these forces could not subsequently be stopped from hitting their pre-designated targets. Regarding the presumed survivability component of such adversarial belief, reliable sea-basing by Israel could prove an especially relevant case in point.

Carefully articulated, expanding doctrinal openness, or partial nuclear disclosure, could represent a distinctly rational option for Israel, at least to the extent that pertinent enemy states were made appropriately aware of Israel's relevant nuclear capabilities. The presumed operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from deliberate flows of information about assorted matters of dispersion, multiplication, and hardening of its strategic nuclear weapon systems, and about certain other technical features of these systems. Most importantly, doctrinally controlled and orderly flows of information could serve to remove any lingering adversary state doubts about Israel's strategic nuclear force capabilities and also its plausible intentions. Left unchallenged, such doubts could literally and lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.

No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as a corollary, the precise reactions of individual human commanders under fire.

A key problem in purposefully refining Israeli strategic nuclear policy on deliberate ambiguity issues has to do with what the Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, famously calls friction. No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as a corollary, the precise reactions of individual human commanders under fire. It follows that Israel's nuclear doctrine must somehow be encouraged to combine adequate tactical flexibility with a selective doctrinal openness. To understand exactly how such seemingly contradictory objectives can be reconciled in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv now presents a distinctly primary intellectual challenge to Israel's national command authority.

In the end, Israeli planners must think about plausible paths to a nuclear war that also include relevant risks of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. It is entirely possible—even plausible—that risks of any deliberate nuclear war involving Israel would be very small, but that the Jewish State might still be more-or-less vulnerable to such a war occasioned by a mechanical/electrical/computer malfunction on one side or another, and/or by assorted decision errors in related reasoning which would present themselves as catastrophic miscalculations. To properly assess the different but intersecting risks between a deliberate nuclear war and an inadvertent or accidental nuclear war must be seen in Jerusalem as an absolutely overriding obligation. Significantly, these risks could exist independently of one another, and could be impacted in various ways by Cold War II alignments.

There is one more core conceptual distinction that warrants mention at this concluding point. It references the distinction between inadvertent and accidental nuclear war. By definition, any accidental nuclear war would need to be inadvertent. Conversely, however, an inadvertent nuclear war would not necessarily be accidental. False warnings, for example, which could be generated by various types of technical malfunction or sparked by third-party hacking--which may manifest as a real dynamic of Cold War II--would not be included under causes of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. Instead, they would represent cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war.

Most critical among the plausible causes of an inadvertent nuclear war would be errors in calculation by one, both, or several sides. The most blatant example would involve misjudgments of either enemy intent or enemy capacity that would emerge and propagate as any particular crisis would escalate. Moreover such misjudgments would possibly stem from an understandable desire by one or several parties to achieve escalation dominance.

Always, in any such projected crisis condition, all rational sides would likely strive for escalation dominance without too severely risking total or even near-total destruction. Where one or several adversaries would not actually be rational, all the usual deterrence bets would plainly be off. Where one or several sides would not be identified as rational by Israel, Jerusalem would then need to input various unorthodox sorts of security options, including some that could derive in whole or in part from particular Cold War II alignments.

Still other causes of an inadvertent nuclear war involving Israel could include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings; an unequal willingness among adversaries to risk a catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and or defense capabilities on one or several sides; adversarial regime changes; outright revolution or coup d' etat among adversaries, and certain poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among apparent foes.

Serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation's active missile defense operations, whether by Israel itself, or by any of its relevant adversaries. These problems could also be encouraged by any too-optimistic assessments of Cold War II alliance guarantees. An example might be an intra-crisis judgment in Jerusalem that Washington stands firmly behind its every move during the ongoing crisis, up to and including forms of reprisal that are more imagined that genuine. Reciprocally conceivable is that an enemy of Israel could similarly mistake the seriousness and commitment of its own preferred Cold War II guarantor, whether identifiably Russian or American.

A potential source of an inadvertent nuclear war during Cold War II could be a backfire effect from strategies of pretended irrationality. A rational enemy of Israel that had managed to convince Jerusalem of its own decisional irrationality could spark an otherwise avoidable Israeli military preemption. Conversely, an enemy leadership that had begun to take seriously any hint of decisional irrationality in Jerusalem could then be frightened into striking first.

Moshe Dayan (Wikimedia)

Regarding this second scenario, it might also be remembered that many years back General Moshe Dayan, then Israel's Minister of Defense, had argued expressly, "Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother."

Although not readily discernible or predictable, these significant impacts upon enemy rationality could themselves be derived from the ever-changing dynamics of Cold War II. A pertinent future example of what is being described here would be any strategic nuclear decisions in Tehran that are based in whole or in part upon that enemy country's particular interpretations or assessments of Cold War II.

With still largely unpredictable enlargements of Cold War II, Israeli decision-makers must systematically prepare for the progressively higher seas of Horace. To avoid being pushed out to sea, they will first have to prepare for conceivably unprecedented levels of world systemic upheaval and transformation, and for seemingly unfathomable levels of decisional complexity. In some cases, these decision-maker calculations will even have to assume varying levels of enemy irrationality that obtain among both state and sub-state adversaries.

Accordingly, for Israel, ultimate survival tasks will necessarily be profoundly intellectual or analytic, and require utterly durable victories of "mind over mind" as well as more traditional ones of mind over matter.[1] These victories, in turn, will depend upon prior capacities to fully understand the prospectively many-sided elements of Cold War II. In principle, at least, such prior capacities could lead Israel to seriously consider certain preemption options.

In Jerusalem, there will surely be Horatian new waves pushing the Israeli ship of state out to sea, but these waves could still remain subject to purposeful national control. Among many other things already mentioned and examined above, what will be required is a determined willingness to face the endlessly bewildering complexities in world politics with more than just a perfunctory nod to Cold War II. Looking ahead, this starkly resurrected expression of superpower bipolarity will provide a genuinely core context within which everything else must inevitably transpire.

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] For this term I am indebted to F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1957)