Israel's nuclear strategy after the Iran agreement
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"Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence." — Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

Following the new agreement with Iran, Israel must face one overriding question: How shall the Jewish State best prevent any involvement in conflicts involving nuclear weapons? In turn, this unavoidably core question should bring Israeli decision-makers to plainly antecedent considerations of strategy and doctrine.

What exactly are these more-or-less urgent military considerations? One has to do with continuance of Israel's "bomb in the basement." To ensure that pertinent enemy states will harbor no meaningful doubts about Israel's capacity to launch "assuredly destructive" retaliations in response to certain mega-aggressions, Jerusalem will soon have to consider an incremental end to its historic policy of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity." As corollary, it will also be necessary that would-be aggressors, such as a nearly nuclear Iran, acknowledge that (1) Israel is willing to launch its nuclear forces in retaliation for certain substantial aggressions; (2) Israel maintains nuclear forces that are sufficiently invulnerable to any first-strike attacks; and (3) Israel deploys nuclear forces that can adequately penetrate any aggressor's active defenses.

Israel must protect itself against Iran, or against any other potential nuclear foe, not only by maintaining a thoroughly credible nuclear deterrent force, but also by implementing appropriate foundations for national defense. The integral core of Israel's integrated and multilayered active defenses continues to be Arrow or "Hetz." But even the Arrow-based ballistic missile defense shield could never expectedly achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to protect Israeli civilians. This shield could still provide meaningful protection for Israel's nuclear retaliatory forces — which is supportive of deterrence — but that points to a fundamentally different objective.

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There is more. Once it is faced with a recognizable nuclear adversary in Tehran, Israel will need to convince the threatening enemy leadership that it possesses both the will and the capacity to make any contemplated Iranian nuclear aggressions more costly than gainful. At the same time, no Israeli move from deliberate ambiguity to nuclear disclosure could reliably diminish the unprecedented hazards of an irrational nuclear foe. Going forward, therefore, Israeli planners will need to devote very substantial intellectual resources to dealing with prospective enemy irrationality.

Now is the time for greater specificity in detailing plausible scenarios and corresponding remedies. What are the precise circumstances under which Israel could sometime find itself involved with actual nuclear weapons use? In response, the following four narratives could prove to be gainfully clarifying.

1. Nuclear retaliation. Should an enemy state, or alliance of enemy states, launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, assuredly, and to whatever extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve other forms of unconventional weapons, sometimes known as chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Israel might launch a nuclear reprisal. This would depend, in large measure, upon Jerusalem's expectations of follow-on aggression, and on its associated calculations of comparative damage-limitation.

If Israel were to absorb a massive conventional attack, a nuclear retaliation could still not be excluded, especially if: (a) the Islamic state aggressors were perceived to hold nuclear, and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or (b) Israel's leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations simply could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out entirely only where enemy state aggressions were clearly conventional, "typical" (that is, sub-existential, or consistent with previous historic instances of Arab/Islamic attack, in both degree and intent) and exclusively "hard-target" directed. This last precondition references enemy targeting doctrine that is directed only toward Israeli weapons and military infrastructures, and not at any "soft" civilian populations.

2. Nuclear counter-retaliation. Should Israel feel compelled to preempt an enemy state aggression using its conventional weapons, the target state(s) response would largely determine Jerusalem's next moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would plausibly turn to a nuclear counter-retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other weapons of mass destruction, Israel might then also feel pressed to take a considered escalatory initiative. In more formal strategic parlance, any such initiative would reflect a presumed need for "escalation dominance."

Much would depend upon Jerusalem's judgments of enemy state intent, and on its calculations of essential damage-limitation. Should the enemy state response to Israel's preemption be limited to hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that the Jewish State would then move on to nuclear counter retaliations. If, however, the enemy conventional retaliation were plainly "all out," and directed toward Israeli civilian populations — not "just" to Israeli military targets — an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation could not be ruled out.

It would appear that such a counter-retaliation could be ruled out only if the enemy state's conventional retaliation were entirely proportionate to Israel's preemption, confined exclusively to Israeli military targets, circumscribed by the legal limits of "military necessity" (a limit routinely codified in the law of armed conflict), and accompanied by various explicit and verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.

3. Nuclear preemption. It is highly implausible that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would in fact be perfectly rational, and simultaneously legal (see the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, 1996), it is nonetheless unlikely that Israel would allow itself to actually reach these dire circumstances. Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved were used in a fashion consistent with the laws of war, or the law of armed conflict, this particular form of preemption could represent an egregious violation of relevant international law.

Even if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political impact on the entire world community would be negative and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear preemption could only be expected where (a) Israel's Arab/Islamic enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons of mass destruction, judged capable of annihilating the Jewish State; (b) these enemies had made it clear that their military intentions paralleled their capabilities; (c) these enemies were believed ready to begin an active "countdown to launch;" and (d) Jerusalem believed that Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not possibly achieve the needed minimum levels of damage-limitation — that is, levels consistent with physical preservation of the Jewish State.

4. Nuclear war fighting. Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into actual conflict between Israel and its many enemies, either by the Jewish State, or by an Arab/Islamic foe, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another, would ensue. This would be true so long as: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Jerusalem's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Jerusalem's nuclear counter retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy Arab/Islamic second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy Arab/Islamic nuclear counter retaliatory capability.

It follows that in order to satisfy its essential survival requirements, Israel must now take reliable steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and also the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

In all cases, Israel's nuclear strategy and forces must remain conspicuously oriented to deterrence, not to actual war fighting.

In each and every case, Israel's nuclear strategy must aim for deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post. This does not mean that such strategy should necessarily steer clear of preparations for actual nuclear war fighting. On the contrary, there is still likely to be established a purposeful and productive association between enemy perceptions of any such nuclear war-waging preparations, and Israeli nuclear deterrence.

In complex matters of nuclear strategy, truth may be counterintuitive. Accordingly, Israel must soon take proper note: Si vis pacem, para bellum atomicum. "If you want peace, prepare for atomic war."

Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many major books and articles dealing with Israeli nuclear strategy. For over 40 years, he has lectured on this topic at senior Israeli and United States military institutions, and at leading Israeli centers for strategic studies. His 10th book, Israel's Nuclear Strategy: Surviving amid Chaos, will be published later this year (Rowman and Littlefield). Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.