Nuclear Weapons Are Not Always Bad: Why Israel is Not the Same as North Korea. Opinion

Nuclear weapons are not inherently undesirable or unnecessary. For Israel, they represent core elements of national security and survival. More precisely, they are needed to fulfill indispensable requirements for certain vital deterrence, preemption, and warfighting options

Nuclear Weapons Are Not Always Bad: Why Israel is Not the Same as North Korea. Opinion

Israeli navy submarine "Rahav" at sea (Photo: AP)

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

Inevitably, as the North Korean crisis heats up in unsteady increments, some commentators will point to another already-nuclear state, complaining that it, too, poses needless risks to regional or global stability. These likely references will be to the State of Israel. Intellectually, they would be "off base." Whether or not they would also be disingenuous or deliberately contrived (that is, proffered merely in order to deceive) is another matter.

It is plain that further nuclear proliferation would be more or less intolerable, and that any such spread should be contained, especially regarding North Korea. Still, there is at least one nation-state that could not survive in the fragmented global "state of nature" without maintaining aptly compelling forms of nuclear protection.  Israel is that particular country.

Should the Jewish state ever have to face its myriad enemies without varied nuclear protections, and for whatever reason, its planned annihilation by these relentless foes would be substantially hastened and enlarged. This potentially unprecedented situation would exist even if all such enemy states were to remain determinedly non-nuclear themselves.

Sooner or later, when it is once again forced to defend its strategic posture from more-or-less disingenuous calls to join a regional "nuclear weapons free-zone," Israel should already have available an aptly lucid and fully persuasive explanation for its refusal.

The template for a more precise explanation may now be offered. In essence, Israel must remain a recognizable nuclear power for the following several and generally intersecting reasons:

1. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter large conventional attacks by enemy states. The effectiveness of such Israeli nuclear deterrence will depend, among other things, upon (a) perceived vulnerability of Israeli nuclear forces; (b) perceived destructiveness of Israeli nuclear forces; (c) perceived willingness of Israeli leadership to follow through on nuclear threats; (d) perceived capacities of prospective attacker's active defenses; (e) perceptions of Israeli targeting doctrine; (f) perceptions of Israel's probable retaliatory response when there is an expectation of non-nuclear but chemical and/or biological counter-retaliations; (g) disclosure or continued nondisclosure of Israel's nuclear arsenal; and (h) creation or non-creation of a Palestinian state. 

2. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter all levels of unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) attacks. The effectiveness of these forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence will also depend, on (a) to (h) above. In this connection, Israel's nuclear weapons are needed to deter enemy escalation of conventional warfare to unconventional warfare, and of one form of unconventional warfare to another (i.e., escalation of chemical warfare to biological warfare, biological warfare to chemical warfare, or biological/chemical warfare to nuclear warfare). This means, in military parlance, a vital capacity for “escalation dominance.”

3. Israel needs nuclear weapons to preempt enemy nuclear attacks. This does not mean that Israeli preemptions of any such attacks would necessarily be nuclear (more than likely, they would almost certainly be non-nuclear), but only that they could conceivably be nuclear. Should Israel ever need to use its nuclear forces for such a purpose, it would signify the utter failure of these forces as a deterrent (per number 2, above). Significantly, such failure is increasingly plausible, both because of the problematic nature of nuclear deterrence in general, and because of the particular circumstances of the Islamic Middle East regarding decisional rationality.

4. Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy nuclear assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. This also relates to the aforementioned need for “escalation dominance.”

5. Israel needs nuclear weapons to support conventional preemptions against enemy non-nuclear (conventional/chemical/biological) assets. With such weapons, Israel can maintain, explicitly or implicitly, a threat of nuclear counter-retaliation. Without such weapons, Israel, having to rely entirely on non-nuclear forces, might not be able to deter enemy retaliations for the Israeli preemptive attack. Again, this illustrates Israel’s incontestable need to dominate escalatory processes.

6. Residually – as only a distinctly last resort – Israel needs its nuclear weapons for warfighting. Although this particular need may never have to arise, and although Israel should always do everything possible to avoid any such use, Israeli planners and decision-makers could still sometime possibly find themselves in a dire situation of "no alternative." Among the possible and more-or-less probable paths to actual nuclear war fighting are the following scenarios: enemy nuclear first-strikes against Israel; enemy non-nuclear first-strikes against Israel that elicit Israeli nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes; Israeli nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets; Israeli non-nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets that elicit enemy nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes. Other pertinent paths to nuclear war fighting include accidental/unintentional/inadvertent nuclear attacks on Israel and regional enemy states, and even the escalatory consequences of nuclear terrorism against the Jewish State.  

Deterrence Options

Israel needs nuclear weapons, among other purposes, to deter massive conventional attacks, and all levels of unconventional attack. Yet, the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in meeting these particular needs is potentially problematic. Even if Israel should move toward partial or full disclosure of its nuclear weapons and related infrastructures, the country cannot reasonably rely entirely upon nuclear deterrence for its survival.

Aware of these limitations, Israel must nonetheless seek to strengthen nuclear deterrence, such that an enemy state will always calculate that a first-strike upon the Jewish State would be irrational. This means taking steps to convince enemy states that the costs of any such strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this important objective, Israel must first convince prospective attackers that it maintains both the willingness and the capacity to retaliate with nuclear weapons. 

Here, inter alia, the importance of "usable" nuclear weapons must be examined from the standpoint of probable harms. Should Israel's nuclear weapons be perceived by any would-be attacker as being "too destructive," they might not deter. To some extent, at least, successful nuclear deterrence may vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. At the same time, it is essential that Israel always base its central deterrence position on appropriate levels of "counter value" targeting, never on "counterforce."

No examination of Israeli nuclear deterrence options would be complete without consideration of the "Bomb in the Basement." From the beginning, Israel's bomb has remained deliberately ambiguous. For the future, however, it is by no means certain that an undeclared nuclear deterrent will be capable of meeting Jerusalem's security goals, or that it will even be equal in effectiveness to a more or less openly-declared nuclear deterrent.

Israel's disclosure would not be intended to reveal the obvious, i.e., that Israel has the bomb, but rather to heighten enemy perceptions of Jerusalem's capable nuclear forces, and/or Jerusalem's willingness to use these forces in reprisal for certain first strike attacks. 

What, exactly, are the plausible connections between an openly declared nuclear weapons capacity, and enemy perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence? One such connection concerns the relation between disclosure, and perceived vulnerability of Israel's nuclear forces to preemptive destruction. Another such connection concerns the relation between disclosure and perceived capacity of Jerusalem's nuclear forces to penetrate the attacking state's active defenses.

One must mention here the vital connections between disclosure, doctrine, and deterrence. To the extent that Israel's strategic doctrine actually identifies nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal, disclosure of such doctrine could contribute to Israel's nuclear deterrence. Without such disclosure, Israel's enemies could be kept guessing about Jerusalem's probable responses, a condition of protracted uncertainty that could serve Israel's security for a while longer, but, at one point, might fail altogether.     

Where should Israel go from here? Recognizing the substantial limitations of any "Peace Process," the Jewish State must seek tangible security beyond the protections offered by nuclear deterrence. It must, therefore, remain prepared for certain possible preemptions against pertinent military targets. The right of preemption is authoritatively well established under the customary international law as "anticipatory self-defense."

Preemption Options

Among other purposes, Israel needs its nuclear weapons to undertake, and/or to support, various forms of conventional preemption. In making its preemption decisions, Israel must carefully determine whether such essential defensive strikes would be cost-effective. This determination would depend upon a number of critical variables, including (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployment; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected US and world community reactions to Israeli preemptions.

Regarding preemption options, Israel's overarching questions must center upon which particular configurations of hard targets should be targeted, and when certain considered attacks should actually be mounted. If it is assumed that designated enemy states will only add to their chemical/biological/nuclear arsenals, and that these additions will render effective Israeli preemptions more and more difficult, if not altogether impossible, rational Israeli strategy would seem to compel Jerusalem to strike defensively as soon as possible. If, however, it is assumed that there will be no significant enlargement/deployment of enemy unconventional weapons over time, this may actually suggest an incrementally diminished rationale for Israel to strike first. 

A vital factor in any Israeli judgments on the preemption option should be the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers. If these leaders could be expected to strike at Israel with unconventional forces irrespective of anticipated Israeli counterstrikes, deterrence would not work. This means, inter alia, that enemy strikes could be expected even if enemy leaders understood that (1) Israel had "successfully" deployed its own nuclear weapons in survivable modes; (2) Israel's weapons were entirely capable of penetrating active enemy defenses; and (3) Israel's leaders were altogether willing to retaliate.

Will Iran become another North Korea? Israel must consider still-expanding dangers from Iran. Those who would downplay the Iranian threat following the July 2015 Vienna agreement sometimes argue that Tehran's nuclear capabilities are increasingly problematic, and/or that its willingness to actually attack Israel – Jihadist ideologies/motivations notwithstanding – is reassuringly low. Still, over the next several years, that country's further development of nuclear weapons could become irreversible, creating conditions whereby a first-strike against Israel might even be construed as rational. 

What would happen if Israel were to relinquish its nuclear options? Under such portentous circumstances, Israel would not only be more vulnerable to enemy first strikes, but it would also be deprived of its essential preemption alternatives. This is the case because Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence would be immobilized by reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential and because Israeli preemptions could not possibly be 100% effective against unconventional enemy forces.


Israel’s nuclear weapons are required to fulfill essential deterrence options, preemption options, and even certain residual war fighting options. For Israel, all particular nuclear weapons choices should be made in cumulative conformance with the six (6) relevant options just discussed, and, correspondingly, with the ever-changing strategic environment of regional and world power configurations.

Israel is not North Korea. It needs its presumptive nuclear weapons not for any gratuitous intimidation of other states, but instead for its existential defense and literal survival. Nothing could be more apparent.

Si vis pacem, para bellum atomicum.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with national security studies, nuclear strategy, and nuclear war. 


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