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Israel’s strategic nuclear doctrine: ambiguity versus openness

By Louis René Beres


Israel’s nuclear posture is always closely held. This cautious stance would appear to make perfect sense. But is such secrecy actually in the long-term survival interests of the Jewish State? The answer should be based upon a very carefully reasoned assessment of all available options. Any useful loosening of Israeli nuclear ambiguity would need to be subtle, nuanced, more-or-less indirect, and codified in suitable military doctrine.

Strategic doctrine represents the indispensable framework from which any pragmatic Israeli nuclear policy of ambiguity or disclosure should be extrapolated. The vital importance of military doctrine lies not only in the way it can animate, unify, and optimize Israel’s military forces, but also in the efficient manner it can transmit desired “messages” to an enemy state or sub-state proxy. Understood in terms of Israel’s strategic nuclear policy, any indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity could undermine the country’s national security. This is because effective deterrence and defense could sometimes call for a military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by certain adversary states, or even by particular insurgent/terrorist groups.

For Israel, ultimate military success must lie in credible deterrence, not in actual war-fighting. Understood 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.” There are occasions when too much secrecy can effectively degrade a country’s security.

Israel’s nuclear weapons must be oriented to deterrence ex ante, not to war fighting or revenge, ex post. Nuclear weapons can succeed only in their non-use. Once they have been used for battle, deterrence, by definition, will have failed. Once actually used, any traditional meanings of “victory,” especially if both sides are nuclear, are apt to become moot.

The Cold War is over, and Israel’s deterrence relationship to a potentially nuclear Iran is not really comparable to what had existed between the United States and the USSR. Still, there are Cold War deterrence lessons to be learned in the Jewish State. In essence, any unmodified continuance of total nuclear ambiguity could sometime cause a nuclearizing enemy state like Iran to underestimate Israel’s retaliatory capacity, or resolve.

Similar uncertainties surrounding components of Israel’s nuclear arsenal could lead enemy states to reach the same conclusion. In part, this is because Israel’s willingness to make good on threatened nuclear retaliation could be seen, widely perhaps, as inversely related to weapon system destructiveness. Ironically, therefore, if Israel’s nuclear weapons were believed to be too destructive, they might not deter.

A continuing policy of ambiguity could also cause an enemy state such as Iran to overestimate the first-strike vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear forces. In part, this could be the result of a too-complete silence concerning measures of protection deployed to safeguard Israeli nuclear weapons.

Or it could be the product of Israeli doctrinal opacity on the country’s defense potential, an absence of transparency that could be mistakenly understood, again, by certain enemy states, as an indication of inadequate Israeli Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). Optimally, therefore, certain relevant strengths and capabilities of Arrow3 could soon need to be revealed.

Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Chief_of_Staff_Visits_Paratrooper_Exercise_(2)
Israel’s Chief of Staff Visits Paratrooper Exercise 2011. Photo by Israel Defense Forces. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

To deter (1) an enemy attack; or (2) a post-preemption retaliation against Israel, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv must always prevent a rational aggressor, by threat of an unacceptably damaging retaliation or counter-retaliation, from deciding to strike. Here, 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 that Israel’s state enemies value self-preservation most highly, and choose rationally between alternative options, they will always refrain from any attack on an Israel that is believed both willing and able to deliver an adequately destructive response.

Two factors must communicate such a belief. First, in terms of capability, there are two essential components: payload and delivery system. It must be clear to any prospective attacker that Israel’s firepower, and its means of delivering that firepower, are 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.

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 — that Israel’s nuclear assets met both payload and delivery system objectives – Israel’s nuclear forces could then better serve their critically existential security functions.

The second factor of nuclear doctrine for Israel concerns willingness. How may Israel convince potential nuclear attackers that it possesses the resolve to deliver an appropriately destructive retaliation, and/or counter retaliation? Again, the answer to this question lies largely in doctrine, in Israel’s demonstrated strength of commitment to carry out such an attack, and in the nuclear ordnance that would presumably be available.

Here, too, continued ambiguity over nuclear doctrine could wrongfully create the impression of an unwilling Israel. Conversely, any doctrinal movement toward some as-yet-undetermined level of disclosure could heighten the impression that Israel is, in fact, willing to follow-through on its now explicit nuclear threats.

There are determinedly persuasive connections between an incrementally more “open” or disclosed strategic nuclear doctrine, and certain enemy state perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence. One such connection centers on the expected relation between greater openness, and the perceived vulnerability of Israeli strategic nuclear forces from 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 would need to believe that (a critical number of) Israel’s retaliatory forces would survive any Iranian first-strike, and that these forces could not subsequently be stopped from hitting their pre-designated targets in Iran. Regarding the “presumed survivability” component of Iranian belief, possible sea-basing (submarines) by Israel could be 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 operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from deliberate flows of information about more-or-less tangible matters of dispersion, multiplication, and hardening of its strategic nuclear weapon systems, and also about certain other technical features of these systems. Most importantly, doctrinally controlled and orderly flows of information could serve to remove any lingering enemy state doubts about Israel’s strategic nuclear force capabilities and intentions. Left unchallenged, however, such doubts could lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many major books and monographs dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview,1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press,1980); Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1983); and Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986). His most recent articles have appeared in US News & World Report; The Atlantic; The Jerusalem Post; The Washington Times; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. He has lectured widely on law and strategy issues at both United States and Israeli military/intelligence institutions. In Israel, his specially-prepared monographs have been published for many years as selected Working Papers of the annual strategy conference at Herzliya. Professor Beres is a regular contributor to OUPblog.

If you are interested in learning more about nuclear politics in the Middle East, The Nuclear Question in the Middle East, edited by Mehran Kamrava, combines thematic and theoretical discussions regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear energy with case studies from across the region. The nuclear age is coming to the Middle East. Understanding the scope and motivations for this development and its implications for global security is essential.

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