Selective Nuclear Disclosure and Israel's Strategic Deterrence

Prof. Louis René Beres argues it is time for Israel to think more seriously about a suitably refined and incremental end to "deliberate nuclear ambiguity," especially concerning an optimally comprehensive and seamless strategy of deterrence. Opinion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Photo: AP)

"Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence." (Sun-Tzu, The Art of War)

For Israel, a principal component of national strategic policy has always been to keep presumptive military nuclear assets (aka "the bomb") shrouded in the "basement." Arguably, at least until now, nuclear ambiguity (sometimes also called "opacity") has managed to work. Although this unique stance has apparently done little or nothing to deter various ordinary (conventional) aggressions or acts of terror, it has succeeded in keeping the country’s multiple enemies from launching any determinedly existential aggressions. Significantly, such potentially catastrophic aggressions could sometime have been mounted even without nuclear or biological weapons.

Conceptually, the underlying issues are largely about "mass." Quite plainly, Israel has no meaningful mass. In the foreseeable worst case, this irremediable lack of territory could combine with enemy nuclearization, most plausibly Iran.

Were this ominous fusion ever to take place, Israel could find itself having to consider becoming the first "player" to introduce related nuclear weapons into a rapidly deteriorating conventional conflict. Although normally counter-intuitive (capable analysts usually think exclusively in terms of an enemy first-use scenario), a coordinated conventional attack by certain determined adversaries could sometime compel Jerusalem to choose between accepting wholesale defeat or reluctantly using its related atomic arms.

Jurisprudentially, choosing the latter option in unpredictable circumstances of genuinely imperiled national survival would not necessarily represent a violation of international law. This is because of the International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion issued on 8 July 1996. Inter alia, the landmark ICJ ruling concluded that while "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict....," this orthodox finding might not obtain "in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."

Nonetheless, the most urgent considerations in any such future narratives would be broadly operational, and not narrowly jurisprudential. In more expressly military nuclear matters, any national security strategy based exclusively upon sotto voce threats would have distinctly conspicuous limits. Accordingly, Israel’s longstanding policy of deliberate ambiguity will not work indefinitely. Instead, to be reliably deterred, a fully nuclear adversary would require readily verifiable assurances that Israel’s related attribute nuclear weapons were effectively (1) invulnerable and (2) "penetration-capable." This second expectation means that Israel's nuclear weapons would not only need to be sufficiently well-protected from any adversarial first-strikes, but that they should also be presumptively able to "get through" any nuclear adversary's active defenses. There is more. Any adversary's judgments concerning Israel’s willingness to retaliate with nuclear weapons would depend in significant measure upon its useable foreknowledge of these weapons and on their corollary operational capabilities.

There are some pertinent ironies. Looking ahead, certain enemy perceptions of only mega-destructive, high-yield Israeli nuclear weapons could effectively undermine the credibility of Israel’s nuclear deterrence. Expressed more formally, in such calculations, Israel’s strategic deterrence could sometime vary inversely with the perceived destructiveness of its nuclear arms. While (again) seemingly counter-intuitive, this argument reasonably suggests not only that Israel should have available a purposefully wide range of nuclear retaliatory options, but also that it take proper steps to ensure that any such suitably expansive range be widely and instantly recognizable.

In the future, should an already-nuclear enemy state ever decide to share some of its offensive atomic assets with a surrogate anti-Israel terrorist group (e.g., Iran and Hezbollah), Jerusalem would then need to have already prepared satisfactorily for the nuclear deterrence of assorted non-state adversaries.

In all such still-conceivable scenarios, what will first need to be calculated, among other things, is the precise extent of subtlety with which Israel should be communicating its nuclear positions, intentions, and capabilities to various categories of possible adversaries.

A refined doctrine is necessarily antecedent to any sound nuclear posture. The core rationale for Israeli nuclear disclosure would inhere in the absolutely basic and immutable understanding that nuclear weapons can serve Israel's security in several very specific ways. Once it is faced with a nuclear fait accompli in Tehran or elsewhere, Israel would need to convince its then-relevant enemy or enemies that it possessed both the will and the capacity to make any intended adversarial nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. By definition, of course, no Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure could help in the bewildering case of an irrational nuclear enemy, whether Iran or any other recalcitrant foe.

To protect itself against enemy military strikes, particularly those attacks that could potentially carry authentic existential costs, Israel must quickly and correctly exploit every aspect and function of its still opaque nuclear arsenal. In this connection, the success of Israel's efforts will depend not only upon its carefully selected configuration of "counterforce” and "counter value" operations, but also upon the precise extent to which this important choice was made known in advance to particular enemy states and to certain of their non-state surrogates. Always, before such enemies could be deterred from launching any first strikes against Israel, and before they could be deterred from launching any retaliatory attacks following an Israeli non-nuclear preemption (always a possibility), it will not be enough for them to know only that Israel has "The Bomb."

It's time for particulars. Removing the bomb from Israel's basement could enhance the Jewish State's strategic deterrence only to the extent that it would heighten enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Any such calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also helpfully underscore Israel’s apparent willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for enemy first-strike and/or retaliatory attacks. But would an Israeli move from deliberate nuclear ambiguity or opacity also be purposeful with regard to non-nuclear threats?

Surprisingly, perhaps, this conspicuously important question still lies latent among capable strategic analyses and theories. In other words, it is effectively never really asked. Appropriately, it should immediately become part of a much wider "strategic dialectic."

Intuitively, the credibility of any Israeli nuclear retaliatory threat would inevitably be greatest where the aggression posed was nuclear. Nonetheless, there are plausibly distinct circumstances in which a determined enemy or coalition of enemies (both state and non-state) might contemplate "only" a devastating conventional first-strike against Israel. Here, the adversarial decision to restrict activity to non-nuclear weapons would stem from a firm assumption that any such purely conventional assault would not likely elicit an Israeli nuclear retaliation.

In these altogether conceivable circumstances, the enemy or coalition of enemies (state and non-state) would already have concluded that any non-nuclear first strike against a nuclear Israel could be entirely rational. This is because, in this complex calculation, Israel's anticipated retaliation would necessarily stop short of crossing the specifically nuclear threshold. If, on the other hand, the prospective aggressor(s) had previously been made aware that Israel was in possession of a meaningfully wide array of capable nuclear retaliatory forces – capability being expressed in terms of both range and yield – those enemies would more likely be effectively deterred.

Here, as an expectedly welcome consequence of certain incremental and previously-nuanced disclosures, Jerusalem will have signaled its adversaries that it could and would cross the nuclear retaliatory threshold in order to punish any potentially existential national destruction. In more narrowly military parlance, Israel's actions would then be designed to ensure Jerusalem's "escalation dominance." For this particular scenario, the pertinent nuclear deterrence advantages to Israel of implementing particular moves away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity would lie in the presumptively compelling "signal" it had managed to send.

This critical signal would reveal that Israel does not need to retaliate in these circumstances with exclusively massive and/or conspicuously disproportionate nuclear force.

Such advantages could sometime extend beyond enhancing credible threats of Israeli nuclear retaliation to enhancing credible threats of Israeli nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should initiate a non-nuclear defensive first-strike against Iran before that enemy state should become nuclear – an act of "anticipatory self-defense" under customary international law – the likelihood of any massive Iranian conventional retaliation could then be better diminished. This would be the case so long as there had already been issued more openly disclosed and prior Israeli threats of (a suitably measured) nuclear counter-retaliation.

In specifically historical terms, by following an incremental path away from deliberate nuclear ambiguity or the "bomb in the basement," Israel would also be less likely to replicate America's initial nuclear posture errors vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

This was an initial and then identifiable posture termed "massive retaliation."

In assessing the optimal levels of any deliberate nuclear disclosure – levels that must always be carefully selective and aptly nuanced – Israel must continuously bear in mind the country's overall strategic nuclear objective: This goal is deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post. If, however, nuclear weapons should somehow be introduced into a regional conflict, some form or other of nuclear war fighting could still ensue. Incontestably, this would be true so long as (a) enemy state first strikes against Israel would not destroy the Jewish State's second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel's nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliations for enemy state conventional first strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

All of this means that Israel should now take appropriately prompt steps to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b), above, and the reciprocal unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

Should enemy state nuclear deployments ever take place, Israel would then forfeit any non-nuclear preemption options. At that stage, its only remaining alternatives to exercising a nuclear preemption option (a virtually inconceivable choice) would be: (1) a no-longer viable conventional preemption; or (2) a decision to do nothing preemptively, thereby choosing to rely entirely upon some form or other of nuclear deterrence, including the corollary protections of ballistic missile defense. Here any prior decisions having to do with tangible shifts away from "deliberate nuclear ambiguity" or the "bomb in the basement" could prove especially critical.

In these literally unprecedented circumstances, there would also be some inevitable intersections with Israel's conventional or non-nuclear deterrence posture. Because a conventional war could escalate into some form or other of unconventional war, Israel's underlying conventional deterrence could prove important or indispensable to affording valued protections from chemical/biological/nuclear war as well as from any purely conventional conflict. Ultimately, a persuasive conventional deterrent remains inextricably intertwined with Israel's nuclear deterrence posture and is, therefore, a genuine sine qua non of the Jewish State's overall security posture.

This point should be borne in mind especially for those strategic planners who might erroneously believe that the conventional and nuclear spheres are somehow separate and discrete.

Israel's conventional and nuclear deterrents are more-or-less seamlessly interrelated. For the foreseeable future, any enemy states that would choose to launch an exclusively conventional attack on Israel would probably have multiple unconventional weapons capabilities in reserve. Among other problematic considerations, this suggests that even if Israel were somehow able to rely upon conventional deterrence as its durable first-line of protection, that line would still be augmented by the country's nuclear arms and corresponding "order of battle." The obvious objective here would be to prevent any injurious intra-war escalations that could be initiated by enemy states.

All things considered, Israel must now prepare to rely upon a thoughtfully multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. This expectedly complex doctrine should be rendered selectively less ambiguous and more expressly "synergistic." Its operational range of application should include both rational and non-rational adversaries, and – as plausibly overlapping factors – state and sub-state foes. In the final analysis, recalling Sun-Tzu, Jerusalem must never forget that "Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence."

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Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, 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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