Adapting Israel's Nuclear Strategy to a New American President

In view of US President Trump's predictably incoherent and destabilizing foreign policies, Prof. Louis René Beres suggests that Israel must prepare immediately for pertinent policy changes in its national nuclear strategy. Opinion

President Trump with PM Netanyahu (Photo: AP)

Popular expectations notwithstanding, Donald Trump's policies will be a net negative for Israel's national security. Even if the new American president should actually "mean well" with respect to securing the Jewish state, this important conclusion is not difficult to support. It follows unerringly from Trump's near-total lack of historical understanding, and also from his corollary disregard for civilized international relations, especially in the always-critical Middle East.

Israel now faces a genuinely unprecedented dilemma. Whatever the logical underpinnings and seeming coherence of its own unilateral foreign policies, President Trump's fully expected missteps with Iran, Russia and the Arabs (not to mention the Europeans, Canadians or Australians) will only further destabilize the Middle East. Whatever Jerusalem decides to do or not to do about security, therefore, an already-unsteady region will assuredly slip into ever deeper levels of chaos in consequence of corrosive Trump positions. Indeed, at this point, the only reasonably plausible question for Jerusalem should inquire whether this anticipated slippage is going to be the immediate result of some singular Trump-generated catastrophe (e.g., an ill-advised US attack upon Iran), or whether it will manifest itself in certain calculable and episodic increments of Trump-induced suffering (e.g., as the outcome of assorted and expanding animosities created by the new American president's widely perceived "war against Islam").

Of course, it is realistic to presume that any further chaotic descent in the region could be the result of multiple and possibly even synergistic Trump Middle East policy errors, a troubling result in which the "whole" of area declension would actually be greater than the simple sum of its variously-flawed "parts."

Jerusalem will need to suitably adapt to the new US president. But what, exactly, should be the proper focus of Israeli strategic adaptation in the destabilizing "Trump era?" Among other things, Israel must determine the precise extent to which the country needs to refine its core national security policies regarding preemption, deterrence, and active defense. An especially critical concern, in this connection, will be military nuclear posture, most notably "deliberate ambiguity."

There is more. Taken together, the viability and durability of Israel's enhanced nuclear strategy will have various and reciprocal implications for the security of the United States. Ironically, because of the inevitable interrelatedness of US and Israeli national security problems and postures, Israeli nuclear enhancements are apt to help safeguard the United States. This is the case even though the particular steps that it chooses to take will be a direct response to President Donald Trump's own initiating American policy errors.

What more should be mentioned about any proposed Israeli revisions of "deliberate nuclear ambiguity? To date, this "bomb-in-the-basement" policy has made eminently good sense.  After all, both friends and enemies now recognize that Israel possesses nuclear capabilities that are survivable and also capable of penetrating any determined enemy's active defenses. For such adversaries not to acknowledge these significant capabilities would now require a very hard-to-explain intellectual deficit.

What should Israel do about its increasingly vital nuclear posture? How, exactly, should this traditionally ambiguous stance now be adapted to the starkly convergent, inter-penetrating, and growing Trump-era threats of Middle Eastern destabilization?" To begin, conventional wisdom (rarely wise) routinely assumes that credible nuclear deterrence is somehow an automatic consequence of merely holding nuclear weapons. By this argument, removing Israel's nuclear bomb from the “basement” would do little or nothing to support national nuclear deterrence, but could only elicit new waves of global condemnation, and to elicit this execration without conferring any commensurate security benefits.

But the argument is erroneous. Pertinent strategic issues for Israel, especially now, must be clarified.  In the necessarily arcane world of Israeli nuclear deterrence, it can never be adequate that enemy states simply acknowledge the Jewish State's rudimentary nuclear status. Instead, it is important, inter alia, that these states will also believe that Israel holds distinctly usable nuclear weapons, and that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv would be ascertainably willing to employ these usable weapons in certain clear and situationally identifiable circumstances.

Soon-to-be-generated Trump instabilities in the Middle East will create increasingly good reasons to doubt that Israel could benefit from any determined continuance of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. It would seem, moreover, from certain apparent developments within Israel's own defense and intelligence communities, that the country's senior leadership now understands such informed skepticism. So how, then, should they proceed?

Over time, Israel will be imperiled by certain existential threats that fully justify its nuclear weapons status and that call for a correspondingly purposeful strategic doctrine. Even now, this utterly basic justification exists beyond any reasonable doubt. Without such weapons and doctrine, after all, Israel could not survive indefinitely, especially if certain neighboring regimes should sometime become more adversarial, more Jihadist, and/or less risk-averse.

Incontestably, Israeli nuclear weapons and a purposeful nuclear doctrine could prove more and more vital to various predictable scenarios requiring preemptive military action or retaliation.

Generically, all military doctrine describes how particular national forces would fight in various combat operations. The literal definition of doctrine derives from the Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction. Though generally unrecognized, the full importance of doctrine lies not only in the identified ways that it can expectedly animate and unify military forces but also in the particular fashion with which it can transmit certain desired "messages."

In other words, the doctrine can serve a state – any state – as a plainly critical form of communication, and to friends and foes alike.

For Israel, merely possessing its nuclear weapons, even when fully recognized by enemy states, cannot automatically ensure successful nuclear deterrence. In this connection, although starkly counter-intuitive, an appropriately selective and nuanced end to deliberate ambiguity could substantially improve the credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.  With this point in mind, the potential of assorted enemy attacks in the future could be gainfully reduced by making selectively available additional information concerning the protective security of Israel’s nuclear weapon response capabilities.

This crucial information, carefully limited, yet helpfully more explicit, would center on distinctly major and inter-penetrating issues of both Israeli nuclear capability and decisional willingness. Much of Israel's problem here rests upon geography. In other words, it rests upon the literal absence of "mass."

As the nineteenth-century Prussian strategic theorist Karl von Clausewitz famously observed in his classic essay, On War, there inevitably does come a military tipping point when “mass counts.” Israel is very small.  Always, its enemies have had an undeniable advantage in mass.  

More than any other imperiled state on earth, Israel needs to steer clear of such a tipping point. And for reasons already mentioned, this imperative is more compelling than ever in the predictably problematic Trump years, even if the new American president should prove to be vastly more conspicuously "pro-Israel" than his predecessor.

 An integral part of Israel's multi-layered security system lies in maintaining effective ballistic missile defenses. Yet, even the well-regarded and successfully-tested Arrow, now augmented by newer, shorter-range and systematically-integrated operations of related active defenses, could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to adequately protect Israeli civilians. Indeed, no system of missile defense can ever be entirely "leak proof," and even a single incoming nuclear missile that somehow managed to penetrate Arrow or its corollary defenses could conceivably kill tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Significantly, this reality could potentially be less fearful if Israel's continuing reliance on deliberate ambiguity were somehow suitably altered.

The current Israeli policy of an undeclared nuclear capacity is highly unlikely to work indefinitely, especially in an inherently erratic "Trump Era." Leaving aside a Jihadist takeover of nuclear Pakistan, the most obviously unacceptable "leakage" threat would come from a nuclear Iran. To be effectively deterred, a newly-nuclear Iran (an outcome not likely to be meaningfully stalled by any plausible forms of Trump-era interference) would need convincing assurance that Israel’s atomic weapons were both invulnerable and penetration-capable.

Any Iranian judgments about Israel’s capability and willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would depend largely upon some prior Iranian knowledge of these weapons, including their degree of protection from surprise attack, as well as their capacity to “punch-through” all deployed Iranian active and (selected) passive defenses.  

For now, it is altogether obvious that Israel has already undertaken some very impressive and original steps in critical cyber-defense and cyber-war (a major conference on these issues has just been completed in Tel-Aviv), but even the most remarkable efforts in this direction would likely not be enough to stop Iran altogether. For whatever reason, the sanctions sequentially leveled at Tehran over the years have had a tangible economic impact, but they had no determinable impact in effectively halting Iranian nuclearization or associated enhancements of intercontinental ballistic missile testing.

There is more. A nuclear Iran could decide to share some of its nuclear components and materials with Hezbollah, or with another kindred terrorist group. To prevent this, Jerusalem would need to convince Iran that Israel possesses a range of distinctly usable nuclear options. Here, Israeli nuclear ambiguity could be purposefully loosened by releasing certain very general information regarding the availability and survivability of appropriately low-yield weapons.

Israel should now be calculating (vis-à-vis a prospectively nuclear Iran) the exact extent of subtlety with which it should consider communicating key portions of its nuclear positions. Naturally, Israel should never reveal any very specific information about its nuclear strategy, hardening, or yield-related capabilities. This is an observation hardly worth mentioning, but for the fact that oftentimes, in strategic practice, the obvious is still misunderstood.

There is more. An Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure would not likely help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy. It is possible that certain elements of Iranian leadership could sometime subscribe to certain end-times visions of a Shiite apocalypse. By definition, such an enemy would not value its own continued national survival more highly than every other preference, or a combination of preferences.        

Were its leaders to be or to become non-rational, Iran could effectively become – at least in principle – a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Such a destabilizing prospect is certainly unlikely, but it is not inconceivable. A similarly serious prospect exists in already-nuclear and distinctly coup-vulnerable Pakistan.

Strictly speaking, under no circumstances could Israeli strategists offer any meaningful probability estimates on such contingencies. This is because, in science, all convincing assessments of probability must be based upon the decipherable incidence or frequency of past events.

Fortunately, one must ultimately acknowledge, there has never been a nuclear war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki don't "count" as a nuclear war). There are, therefore, no analytically relevant past events.

To protect itself against military strikes launched by irrational enemies, particularly those attacks that could carry existential costs, Israel will need to reconsider virtually every aspect and function of its nuclear arsenal and doctrine.

Removing the bomb from Israel's basement could enhance Israel's strategic deterrence to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of the severe and likely risks involved. This would also bring to mind the so-called Samson Option, which could better "allow" various enemy decision-makers to note and underscore that Israel is prepared to do whatever is needed to survive.

Irrespective of its preferred level of ambiguity, Israel’s nuclear strategy must always remain correctly oriented toward deterrence, not nuclear warfighting. The Samson Option refers to a policy that would be based in part upon a more-or-less implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions.  Israel’s small size means that any nuclear attack would threaten Israel’s very existence, and could therefore not be tolerated.

A Samson Option would make sense only in “last-resort,” or “near last-resort,” circumstances. If the Samson Option is to be part of a credible deterrent, an end to Israel's deliberate ambiguity is essential. The really tough part of this transformational process is determining the proper timing for such action vis-a-vis Israel’s security requirements, and also pertinent expectations of the international community

The Samson Option should never be confused with Israel’s overriding security objective: To seek stable deterrence at the lowest possible levels of military conflict.

In our often counter-intuitive strategic world, it can sometimes be rational to pretend irrationality. The nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would depend, at least in part, upon an enemy state’s awareness of Israel’s intention to apply counter-value targeting when responding to a nuclear attack. But, once again, Israeli decision-makers would need to be wary of releasing too-great a level of specific information. Also worrisome, of course, is that the new American president would, in fact, be perceived as profoundly and genuinely irrational, an enemy perception that could then occasion various forms of "anticipatory preemption" by Iran.

In essence, any such "preemption of the preemptor" would have been spawned by the latter's too great "success" in pretending irrationality.

In the final analysis, there are specific and valuable critical security benefits that would likely accrue to Israel as the result of a purposefully selective and incremental end to its policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. The right time to begin such an “end” may not yet have arrived. But at the precise moment that Iran would verifiably cross the nuclear threshold - a moment not likely to be delayed by any Trump-era attempts at dissuasion - Israel should already have configured its optimal allocation of nuclear assets, and the extent to which this particular configuration should now be disclosed. Such preparation could importantly enhance the credibility of its indispensable nuclear deterrence posture, especially in the destabilizing shadow of America's new president.

When it is time for Israel to selectively ease its nuclear ambiguity, a fully-recognizable second-strike nuclear force should be revealed. Any such robust strategic force - hardened, multiplied, and dispersed - would necessarily be fashioned to inflict a decisive retaliatory blow against major enemy cities. Iran, it follows, so long as it is led by rational decision-makers, should be made to understand that the actual costs of any planned aggressions against Israel would always exceed any conceivable gains. This Israeli imperative continues whatever sideshows should be more-or-less simultaneously directed from Washington.

To comprehensively protect itself against potentially irrational nuclear adversaries, Israel has no logical alternative to developing an overwhelmingly problematic conventional preemption option. Operationally, especially at this very late date, there could be no reasonable assurances of success against multiple hardened and dispersed targets. Regarding deterrence, however, it is also noteworthy that “irrational” is not the same as “crazy,” or “mad." Even an irrational Iranian leadership could still have distinct preference orderings that are both consistent and transitive.

Even an irrational leadership could be subject to threats of deterrence that credibly threaten certain deeply held religious as well as public values. The difficulty for Israel will be to ascertain the precise nature of these core enemy values.  Should it ever be determined that an Iranian (or other) enemy nuclear leadership were genuinely “crazy” or “mad,” that is, without any decipherable or predictable ordering of valued preferences, deterrence bets could then have to give way to residual forms of preemption.     

Naturally, such determinations are strategic, not jurisprudential. From the discrete standpoint of international law, especially in view of Iran’s expressly genocidal threats against Israel, a preemption option could still represent a permissible expression of anticipatory self-defense. Again, however, this purely legal judgment would be entirely separate from any parallel or coincident assessments of operational success. For now, moreover, these assessments point overwhelmingly to avoidance of any remaining preemption option.

Growing area instability in the Middle East will be the plausible outcome of US President Donald Trump's expected foreign policies. Such instability, in turn, will heighten the potential for certain expansive and prospectively unconventional wars. Israel, it follows, must prepare immediately to upgrade its national military nuclear strategy, in particular, to revise its longstanding policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.             

Ultimately, all such Israeli preparations, however regrettable, will have been made obligatory by a new American president with distinctly limited (and limiting) strategic understanding.


Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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