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Strategic Instability in the Era of Information and Communication Technologies: Crisis or the New Norm?

Natalia Romashkina

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Strategic stability is once again becoming a primary concern in international relations. The topic has received a great deal of attention of late, mainly because of the steady erosion of the reduction and limitation regime: the United States has now withdrawn from both the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), the New START treaty is set to expire soon, and no further talks on reduction and limitation of nuclear arms are being held. Another reason is the rapid development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), which are playing a growing role in the global military and political arena in the 21st century. With a new technological revolution under way, can we ensure a level of strategic security that is both necessary and sufficient? Or will instability become a new trend in global strategic security as well? It would be hard to argue that this is not a crisis.

Today there are two approaches — or rather a rift between the old understanding of “strategic stability,” which took shape during the bipolar era (when the term itself was coined), and a radically new understanding of the ways of ensuring strategic stability in the modern world and the challenges that this presents.

As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. It would be a mistake to discard the experience of maintaining strategic stability that was accumulated throughout the Cold War period and which helped prevent a deep-seated confrontation from boiling over into a large-scale war — even though the political and technological changes that have taken place since then cannot be ignored.

As an example, during the bipolar era, “strategic stability” was defined as a state of relations that would remove incentives for a nuclear first strike.

Since nuclear arms still exist and their destructive capabilities are constantly improving, this understanding of strategic stability is as relevant today as it was during the Cold War, when it was only taking shape. But the situation has grown considerably more complicated over the last three decades, and the methods and mechanisms of preventing nuclear war that were envisaged during the bipolar era are no longer in line with the current geopolitical reality and the level of technological development. With these massive changes in international military and political relations, we need to consider other parameters in addition to the nuclear component, while at the same time preserving the essence of the idea. Furthermore, the bipolar era, when the world was split between two global opposing powers, has given way to a situation where strategic stability is determined by a greater number of players. This is why we need to assess the characteristics and capabilities of the military and political system as a whole.

Strategic stability of the military and political system is a state of the world (the lack of a large-scale war) within which the framework of this system is maintained even under continuous disturbance (destabilizing factors) for a certain (defined) period of time.

Therefore, on a professional level, not only should we be talking about “maintaining” and “strengthening” strategic stability, but we should also acknowledge the need to ensure strategic stability and devise new approaches to assessing its level based on our experience — which means we must develop common qualitative and especially quantitative assessments of this level. For that to be possible, we need to agree on common assessment criteria.

The bilateral discussion of such criteria between the United States and Russia came to a halt in the 1990s, as the U.S. no longer considered it necessary. This has given rise to a global problem, because the reduction of strategic stability to a level that is below what is needed and what is sufficient is dangerous for all states without exception. It is thus in the best interests of all countries to ensure this level, but the extent of their responsibility varies. The nuclear powers are still the most responsible.

What new features of this system, in which ensuring a necessary and sufficient level of stability is so crucial, have emerged over the past few decades?

An increase in the number of local wars and armed conflicts which break out and progress increasingly under the influence of ICTs.

The restructuring of international relations after a period of bipolarity followed by multipolarity dominated by the United States. This new transformation is, first of all, caused by changes in military and strategic relations between Russia and the United States, as well as by the appearance of a new global centre of power, namely China, which is not involved in the nuclear disarmament process.

The gradual erosion of the strategic arms limitation and reduction regime: the United States has now withdrawn both from the ABM Treaty and the INF Treaty, the New START treaty is set to expire soon, and no further talks on reduction and limitation of nuclear arms are being held.

Nuclear missile multipolarity, which consists in a growing number of states possessing nuclear weapons and the increasing probability of their proliferation.

The trend towards doctrinal changes among nuclear powers that are formally aimed at strengthening the deterrence regime but in fact lead to a reduction of the threshold for the use of nuclear arms; in particular, there is a growing possibility of a limited nuclear war.

Creation of a large-scale U.S. missile defence system, which brings about serious changes in the strategic balance of power and increased uncertainty in strategic planning.

The growing role and power of non-nuclear (highly precise and highly intelligent) weapons in strategic planning. These new armaments create the hypothetical threat of a disarming strike against strategic nuclear forces. Developing these kinds of weapons complicates the global strategic landscape and makes crisis decision-making all the more difficult.

Deployment of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons on the same platforms, which may lead to the launch of ballistic or cruise missiles with conventional warheads being perceived as nuclear weapons use.

The appearance of low-yield nuclear weapons, which lowers the threshold for nuclear weapons use and, as a result, increases the probability of an armed conflict escalating to a nuclear war.

Development of ICT-based state-of-the-art anti-satellite weapons that allow countries to interfere with enemy satellites, including parts of the ballistic missile early warning system, and destroy them using ground-based anti-satellite systems. Such weapons can also disrupt the operation of satellites used for network-centric warfare, which is an approach being actively developed by militarily developed states. This is one of the most serious threats to strategic stability at this stage.

The militarization of space. In February 2019, President of the United States Donald Trump signed a Memorandum on the Establishment of the United States Space Force, which lists such purposes as protecting U.S. interests in space, “deterring aggression and defending the Nation,” as well as “projecting military power in, from and to space.”

In addition to technological developments, experts from various countries increasingly point to the role that psychology plays in influencing strategic stability in the modern world. Western society and its political elites no longer fear nuclear war, which may lead to a considerable reduction of the threshold for weapons use, including with regard to nuclear arms. And most alarming of all is not this confidence in the impossibility of nuclear war, but rather the belief that a “small,” local nuclear war can be fought and won. Such views have started to grow and spread partly due to progress in ICTs, which makes it possible to project informational and psychological influence on a huge audience in a relatively short amount of time and at minimal cost.

We can thus distinguish several key factors of the global influence of ICTs on strategic stability. First, ICTs can be used for destructive military and political purposes. Second, the exponential growth of technologies that force countries to acquire strategic advantages can make it tempting to try and win a large-scale war. Third, the boundaries between peace and war, defence and offence in military planning (including in the nuclear sphere) tend to become blurred. Furthermore, the logic of global confrontation is changing: the combined use of non-military tactics and harmful ICTs enables countries to achieve their war goals even without armed conflict. And one last notable factor of influence is the reduced path to the escalation of conflict, caused by the probability of ICT attacks on nuclear missile infrastructure.

When elaborating criteria for assessing the level of strategic stability and developing plans to ensure it, it is wise both to consider those factors that can be found in any historical period and those specific to the current age. The accelerated progress of ICTs falls into the latter category. Analysis shows that all the destabilizing factors in the modern strategic stability system are due to the development of ICTs. According to expert estimates, over 30 states possess so-called offensive cyber weapons; this is why this threat should really be singled out as a destabilizing factor of its own. Moreover, each of the other factors is enhanced by the destructive use of ICTs, the militarization of peaceful information technologies, and the ease of use, unexpectedness and speed of both IT and psychological weapons.

Additional risks are posed by so-called cyber electromagnetic activities, which are being actively developed by the United States. These include cyber operations, electronic warfare, electronic peacetime attacks, electromagnetic spectrum management operations, the suppression of targets by active and passive interference, as well as electromagnetic disinformation.

The potential use of ICTs to undermine the security of military facilities as part of a nation’s critical infrastructure is clearly a global threat. At the same time, estimating the possible damage from such threats and developing countermeasures is significantly complicated by the intangible nature of ICTs, as well as by the wide range of sources of possible malicious technologies: state and non-state actors, and even single hackers. All of this increases the level of uncertainty and instability. ICT threats may be attributed to various elements of military organization and infrastructure. But in the context of strategic stability, special attention should be paid to the security of nuclear missile weapons. All nuclear powers are modernizing their nuclear systems to keep up with the progress in computer technologies. The integration of network operations in military planning programmes began more than 30 years ago, and today we can already speak of an ICT revolution in military affairs. More and more components of the military nuclear infrastructure — from warheads and their delivery vehicles to control and guidance systems and command and control systems of strategic nuclear forces — depend on sophisticated software, which makes them potential targets for ICT attacks.

Special attention needs to be paid to the protection of strategic weapons, the early warning system, air and missile defence systems, and the command and control system for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in addition to, or instead of, the principle of deterrence by inevitable retaliation, there is now growing interest in deterrence by blocking the use of offensive means (a “left of launch” strategy) through the use of ICTs.

Decreased strategic stability is due to the fact that the development of malicious ICTs increases the probability of a number of adverse events, such as the erroneous authorized launch of ballistic missiles; the decision to use nuclear weapons; the receipt of a false alarm from the early warning system about the launch of ballistic missiles, which is possible on account of the growing sophistication of ICT attacks or the damage or destruction of communication channels; interference in the control system of the armed forces (including nuclear forces); and the decreased confidence of military decisionmakers in the performance of control and command systems. In addition, a critical issue is the impact that the increased probability of nuclear weapons being disabled or destroyed by means of ICTs will have on future nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation processes.

The possibility that decisions about the use of nuclear weapons will be influenced by information and communication technologies is therefore the most serious threat that exists today — not in theory but in fact. There is now a greater probability of an erroneous authorized launch of a ballistic missile as a result of false information or due to a lack of confidence in the proper operation of military systems and some actions being perceived as the first step to mutually assured destruction. This leads to a considerable reduction in strategic stability.

All of the above threats are further exacerbated by the growing use of remote-controlled robotic strike weapons, the development of artificial intelligence technologies for military purposes, machine learning, the autonomous operation capabilities of various systems and subsystems, automated decision-making systems and other elements that may be subject to ICT attacks.

What global steps can be taken today in response to these global threats to strategic stability, based on the experience gained in the bipolar era? First, all the parties involved (Russia, the United States and China) will have to find common ground in terms of what in their opinion constitutes strategic stability; develop and formalize a common understanding of the danger of ICT threats; and, of course, develop common approaches to assessing the probability of intentional and unintentional ICT attacks. Moreover, they will need to have a clear agreement on the probable response in the event that an ICT attack on strategic nuclear forces is detected. These steps may provide building blocks for an ICT deterrence policy, similar to what was done with regard to nuclear weapons in the bipolar era.

At the same time, it would be reasonable to start work on an ICT arms control regime (statements, commitments, agreements and treaties) that could include: a ban on ICT attacks against certain targets, primarily military facilities; the limitation and/or renouncement of offensive ICT capabilities; the introduction of ICT arms control measures; the establishment of international norms regulating the ways and means of preventing and stopping cyber conflicts; and the development of a convention on the prohibition of the harmful use of ICTs in the nuclear weapons sphere.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in Political Science, Head of the Informational Security Problems Department of the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Military Science of the Russian Federation

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Defense

Looking Behind the Daily News: Informed Narratives on Israel’s Nuclear Challenges

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existence (1935)

How shall Israel endure in a prospectively non-rational Middle East? It’s a complicated question, many-sided and uniquely daunting. More precisely, this question represents an authentically existential query, one never to be answered with simplifying political rhetoric, banal discourse or otherwise empty witticisms. Above all, it is a bewilderingly complex and nuanced interrogative; one not suited for the easily misled or intellectually faint-hearted.

What is altogether plain is that Israel’s nuclear forces and posture will soon become more urgently important to the country’s national survival.[1]

Indeed, considering a broad assortment of more or less credible circumstances – some of which may even be unwanted and/or inadvertent – the Israeli survival imperative could sometime concern actual use of nuclear weapons.

How might this most markedly unwelcome circumstance actually come to pass? To begin to answer, this is not the time for any continuously unsystematic or fanciful scenarios of prospective nuclear perils. At the same time, it would be mistaken prima facie to assign precise probabilities to any specific categories of nuclear threat or nuclear conflict outcomes. This is the case, inter alia, because (1) mathematically meaningful probabilities must always be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events; and (2) there are (fortunately, of course) no such events to consider.[2]

At a minimum, scholars and strategists should respond to these unprecedented sorts of challenge in regional or geographic terms, thereby highlighting the particular states or clusters of state-sub-state “hybrids” that seemingly pose the plausibly greatest security concern. For Israel, the most obvious locus of nuclear concern remains Iran, including the related prospect of future nuclear terror attacks by Iranian proxies, e.g., Hezbollah. Still, Sunni Arab fears of an impending “Persian Bomb” could prod Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia to “go nuclear” themselves.

Should that happen, Jerusalem could then have to deal with several nuclear “fronts” simultaneously, a staggering geopolitical challenge that would place utterly herculean intellectual expectations upon Israel’s principal security planners.

How shall Israel best prevent its presence in any conflict involving nuclear weapons, whether as war, or “merely” as terrorism? In principle, at least, Jerusalem should be able to undertake certain timely and capable preemptions wherever needed, thus substantially diminishing any conspicuous risks of nuclear engagement.[3] Under authoritative international law,[4] such defensive first-strikes could conceivably qualify as authoritative expressions of “anticipatory self-defense.”[5]  Still, the primary obstacles, going forward, will not be narrowly jurisprudential. Even a defensive first strike that is fully legal might still not “work.” Inevitably, for the IDF, principal decisional concerns will be broadly operational and specifically tactical. Not concerns about legality

This understanding brings Israel to the overriding need for coherent nuclear strategy and doctrine, a complicated requirement that must include a counter-value targeted nuclear retaliatory force that would be (1) recognizably secure from enemy first-strikes; and (2) recognizably capable of penetrating any such enemy’s active defenses. To meet this imperative security expectation, the IDF would be well-advised to continue with its selective sea-basing (submarines) of designated portions of its nuclear deterrent force. To meet the equally important requirements of penetration-capability, it will have to stay well ahead of all pertinent enemy air defense refinements. Israeli planners will also need to ensure that their own strategic retaliatory forces are always able to get through any such modernized Iranian defenses, and that the Iranian leadership remains fully aware of this particular Israeli ability.

 From the standpoint of making sure that relevant enemy states will have no meaningful doubts about Israel’s capacity to launch “assuredly destructive” retaliations for certain aggressions, Jerusalem will soon need to consider a partial and possibly incremental end to its longstanding policy of “deliberate nuclear ambiguity.”[6] By selectively beginning to remove the “bomb from the basement,” Israel’s planners would then be able to better enhance the credibility of their country’s indispensable nuclear deterrence posture. However counter-intuitive, any mere possession of nuclear forces can never automatically bestow credible nuclear deterrence.[7]

 Also always necessary is that would-be aggressors (e.g., an already-nuclear Iran) believe that Israel has (1) the willingness to launch these nuclear forces in retaliation; (2) nuclear forces that are sufficiently invulnerable to their own now-contemplated first-strike attacks; and (3) nuclear forces that can always be expected to penetrate their own deployed ballistic-missile and certain corollary air defenses. Israel, therefore, would soon benefit from releasing certain broad outlines of strategic information supporting the perceived utility and security of its relevant retaliatory forces.

This information, released solely to enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence, would center upon the targeting, hardening, dispersion, multiplication, basing, and yield of selected Israeli nuclear forces. Si vis pacem, para bellum atomicum. “If you want peace, prepare for nuclear war.”

 Israel must protect itself against Iran or any other potential nuclear aggressor not only by maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent force, but also by fielding assorted and appropriately intersecting elements of national defense. In this connection, an integral core of Israel’s multi-layered active defenses is the Arrow or “Hetz.” Still, the successfully-tested Arrow, even when reinforced by David’s Sling and Iron Dome, could never achieve a sufficiently high probability of intercept to reassuringly protect Israeli civilians.[8] Its main purpose, therefore, will likely be for the protection of Israel’s “hard” nuclear deterrence infrastructures, not for ultimate security of the nation’s “soft” human targets.

Still, this could change, especially as Israel’s Ministry of Defense continues to produce noteworthy breakthroughs in the development of laser-based weapon systems. Here, Rafael and Elbit Systems will be developing prototypes for advanced laser systems, including some designed for missile interception. In essence, the new Israeli technology will make it possible to develop effective interception systems at relatively low cost, thereby adding an additional layer of national defense protection.[9]

Once it is faced with a fully nuclear adversary in Tehran, Israel will need to convince this adversary that it possesses both the will and the capacity to make any intended Iranian nuclear aggression more costly than gainful. Still, no Israeli move from deliberate ambiguity to nuclear disclosure could meaningfully help in the case of an irrational nuclear enemy, whether appearing in Tehran or anywhere else. For dealing with irrational enemies, those enemies that would not value their own continued national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, even a comprehensive preemption could already be too late.

Eschatology could also matter here. To the extent that an Iranian leadership might authentically subscribe to certain end-times visions of the Shiite apocalypse, Iran – at least in principle – could sometime cast aside the obligations of rational behavior. Were this to happen, Iran could then effectively become a nuclear suicide-bomber in macrocosm. Nonetheless, this riveting but unverifiable prospect is highly unlikely, at least according to the necessarily imprecise forms of measurement available to strategic planners.

For Israel and its allies, it is time to further systematize inquiry about nuclear weapons and nuclear war in the Middle East. What are the tangibly precise circumstances under which Israel could find itself involved with any actual nuclear weapons use? To answer this most basic question, it will be most productive to respond within already well-established canons of logical analysis and dialectical reasoning. Accordingly, four pertinent and plausibly intersecting narratives or scenarios best “cover the bases”: Nuclear Retaliation; Nuclear Counter Retaliation; Nuclear Preemption; and Nuclear War fighting.

(1) Nuclear Retaliation

Should an enemy state or alliance of enemy states launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would assuredly respond, and to whatever extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve other forms of unconventional weapons known as chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Israel might launch a nuclear reprisal. This would depend, in presumptively large measure, upon Jerusalem/Tel Aviv’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 might still not be ruled out, especially if: (a) the 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 could not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation by Israel could be ruled out only in those circumstances where enemy state aggressions were entirely conventional, “typical” (that is, sub-existential, or consistent with previous historic instances of enemy attack in degree and intent), and hard-target directed (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 enemy state aggression with conventional weapons, the target state(s) response would largely determine Jerusalem’s next moves. If this response were in any way nuclear, Israel would expectedly turn to an immediate nuclear counter retaliation. If this retaliation were to involve other weapons of mass destruction, Israel might then also feel pressed to take an appropriate escalatory initiative. Inter alia, any such initiative would reflect the presumed need for what is normally described in formal strategic parlance as “escalation dominance.”

 All 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 suitably verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.

(3) Nuclear Preemption

It is difficult to imagine that Israel would ever decide to launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Though circumstances could arise wherein such a strike would in fact be perfectly rational, it is unlikely that Israel would ever allow itself to reach such dire circumstances. Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved were somehow used in a fashion consistent with the laws of war (aka the law of armed conflict), this extreme form of preemption would represent an especially serious violation of international law.

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

(4) Nuclear War fighting

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

In all cases, Israel’s nuclear strategy and forces must remain oriented to deterrence; never to war fighting. With this obligation in mind, Jerusalem has likely already taken steps to reject any discernible reliance upon tactical or (relatively) low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons, and on any corresponding plans for implementing counter-force targeting doctrines. For Israel, at all times, nuclear weapons can only make sense for deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.

But, always, rationality must remain a key factor in operational deterrence logic. More exactly, in order simply to be sustained in world politics, any viable system of deterrence must be premised on an assumption of rationality. Essentially, each side must consistently believe that the other side will value its continued national survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences.

Indisputably, during the Cold War era, rationality proved to be a consistently reasonable and correct assumption. Now, however, Israel may have good reason to doubt that MAD could work as well in the Middle East as it did more generally during the prior time of US-Soviet bipolarity.[10] Over time, of course, principal decision-makers in Tehran could turn out to be just as rational as were the Soviets. Still, there is no adequately reassuring way of knowing this for certain, or, for that matter, of predicting Iranian rationality with any previously-tested bases of reliable judgment.

This brings up the most sobering question of all: What if Iran should become fully nuclear, and if any consequent nuclear deterrence posture would fail to prevent all-out war between Iran and Israel? What, exactly, would happen if Tehran were to actually launch a nuclear attack against Israel, whether as an atomic “bolt from the blue” or as a result of escalation, whether deliberate or inadvertent?

In considering this basic question, it must be kept in mind that even a fully rational Iranian adversary could sometime decide to launch against Israel because of (1) incorrect information used in its vital decisional calculations; (2) mechanical, electronic, or computer malfunctions; (3) unauthorized decisions to fire in the national decisional command authority; (hacking-related issues); or (5) coup d’état.

In  a conceivably worst case scenario, irrational Iranian adversaries would not value their own national survival most highly. Nonetheless, even as irrational foes, they could still maintain a determinable and potentially manipulable ordering of preferences. It follows that Jerusalem should immediately undertake to best anticipate this expected ordering, and to fashion corollary deterrent threats accordingly.[11]

It should also be borne in mind that Iranian preference-orderings would never be created in a vacuum. Eventually, assorted strategic developments in “Palestine” and elsewhere in the region could impact such hierarchies, either as “synergies,” (where the “whole” of any determinable effect would exceed the ascertainable sum of its “parts”)[12] or (in more expressly military language) as “force multipliers.”

There is more. It is frequently assumed that Israel’s nuclear weapons and strategy are more-or-less irrelevant to non-nuclear threats. This erroneous assumption stipulates, albeit implicitly, that (1) extraordinary ordnance and posture must refer exclusively to roughly parallel levels of prospective enemy destructiveness; and that (2) non- nuclear threats – whether from individual states, alliances of states, terror-group adversaries, or even state-terror group “hybrids” – must be symmetrically countered. The invariant core of any such assumption is the following seemingly plausible proposition:

 A particular state’s deterrent credibility must be directly proportionate to calculable enemy threats.

At first, this  “symmetry hypothesis” appears to make perfect sense. But authentic strategic truth can sometimes be “recalcitrant” or counter-intuitive. Moreover, because virtually all of the Israel-related scenarios or cases in point are effectively sui generis, or without any determinable precedent, nothing of any true scientific value can ever be extrapolated concerning probabilities.

It follows, inter alia, that any meaningful assessment of hypotheses regarding “asymmetrical deterrence” and Israel’s security must always be limited to formal deductive analysis. This indicates, among other things, assessments that are effectively devoid of tangible empirical content, yet are still defined by appropriately stringent standards of internal consistency, logical interconnectedness and conspicuously dialectical thinking.

How to begin? A good place would be with the “grey area” of future enemy non-nuclear threats that are nonetheless unconventional. Most obvious, in this connection, would be credible enemy threats of biological warfare and/or biological terrorism. While assuredly non-nuclear, biological warfare attacks could conceivably also produce grievously injurious or even near-existential event outcomes for Israel.

In principle, at least, Israeli policies of calibrated nuclear reprisal for certain BW attacks could exhibit significant deterrent effectiveness against three of the four above-mentioned adversarial categories. Such policies would be inapplicable, prima facie, against threats from those terror groups functioning without any recognizable state alignments. In such expectedly residual cases, Israel – then plainly lacking operational targets suitable for nuclear ordnance – would need to “fall back” upon the more usual arsenal of counter-terrorist methods and options.

This tactical retrogression would be required even if the particular terror group involved (e.g., Sunni ISIS or Shiite Hezbollah) had already revealed plausible nuclear threat capabilities.

What about those enemy conventional threats that would involve neither nuclear nor biological attack, but were still prospectively massive enough to produce existential or near-existential consequences for Israel? On its face, it seems that in such cases, a would-be conventional aggressor could still reasonably calculate that Jerusalem might actually make good on certain of its decipherable nuclear deterrent threats. Here, however, Israel’s nuclear deterrent threat credibility could be largely dependent upon an antecedent doctrinal shift from “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” (the so-called “bomb in the basement”) to more overt “nuclear disclosure.”

Why? The correct answer must hinge on Israel’s presumed operational flexibility. More specifically, in the absence of any prior shift away from deliberate ambiguity, a would-be aggressor state might still not really understand or accept that the Jewish State already had available to it a sufficiently broad array of graduated nuclear retaliatory responses. Of course, in the presumed absence of such an array, Israeli nuclear deterrence could be correspondingly diminished.

As a direct consequence of its presumptively diminished nuclear ambiguity, Jerusalem could signal its relevant adversary or adversaries that Israel would wittingly cross the nuclear retaliatory threshold to punish  any acts of existential or near-existential aggressions. Using more expressly military parlance, Israel’s shift to apt forms of nuclear disclosure would then be intended to ensure “escalation dominance.”

In any such dynamic and complex scenario, the nuclear deterrence advantages for Israel of moving beyond traditional nuclear ambiguity would lie in the compelling signal it is then able to send to particular foes. This signal warns that Jerusalem would not necessarily be limited to launching retaliations that employ only massive and disproportionate levels of nuclear force. A timely Israeli move from ambiguity to disclosure – as long as this doctrinal move were suitably nuanced and incremental – could substantially improve Israel’s prospects for deterring large-scale conventional attacks with more consciously “tailored” nuclear threats.

Finally, it is well worth noting that these stipulated nuclear deterrence benefits could extend to certain Israeli threats of nuclear counter-retaliation. If, for example, Israel should sometime consider initiating a non-nuclear defensive first-strike against Iran, a preemptive act that would persuasively represent “anticipatory self-defense” under authoritative international law, the likelihood of suffering any massive Iranian conventional retaliation might then be diminished. In essence, by following a properly prepared path from deliberate nuclear ambiguity to nuclear disclosure, Jerusalem could expectedly upgrade its indispensable deterrence posture vis-à-vis both nuclear and non-nuclear threats.

Ultimately, Israel’s nuclear deterrent must be oriented toward dominating escalation at multiple levels of conventional and unconventional enemy threats. For this to work, Israeli strategic planners must bear in mind that all future operational success will depend upon prior formulations of national nuclear doctrine.

Looking over this comprehensive delineation of scenarios that could lead Israel to some future involvement in a regional use of nuclear weapons, Jerusalem will need to steadily refine and systematize its core strategic doctrine. In certain circumstances, the tangible results of any such enhancements could also impact United States security.[13] In absolutely all conceivable circumstances, Israel would need to carefully prepare for both rational and non-rational adversaries.[14]

 Though the likelihood of the latter is plausibly small, the consequences could be literally incalculable.


[1] Among other things, this development will call for a suitably incremental end to “deliberate ambiguity” or “the bomb in the basement.” The point here would not be to reveal the obvious –  that is, that Israel merely has the bomb – but rather to communicate to all prospective adversaries  (and pertinent allies) that its nuclear forces are usable (not too destructive), well-protected and fully capable of penetrating any nuclear enemy’s active defenses. See earlier, by this author: Louis René Beres, “Changing Direction? Updating Israel’s Nuclear Doctrine,” INSS, Israel, Strategic Assessment, Vol. 17, No.3., October 2014, pp. 93-106. See also: Louis René Beres, Looking Ahead: Revising Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East, Herzliya Conference Policy Paper, Herzliya Conference, March 11-14, 2013 (Herzliya, Israel); Louis René Beres and Leon “Bud” Edney, Admiral  (USN/ret.) “Facing a Nuclear Iran, Israel Must Rethink its Nuclear Ambiguity,” U.S. News & World Report, February 11, 2013; 3pp; and Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney,  “Reconsidering Israel’s Nuclear Posture,” The Jerusalem Post, October 14, 2013. Admiral Edney served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

[2] There has never been a nuclear war. The use of atomic bombs against Japan at the end of World War II represented the inclusion of nuclear weapons in a non-nuclear conflict.

[3] Historically, Israel’s two major preemption operations concerned with an eventual adversarial access to nuclear weapons were Operation Opera (1981) and Operation Orchard (2007). Much less is known about  “Orchard” than about  “Opera.” In brief, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reasserted the 1981 “Begin Doctrine,” only this time in reference to perceived dangers from the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. Later, in April 2011, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the bombed Syrian site had been a developing nuclear reactor. Olmert’s decision on “Orchard” – like Begin’s earlier one on “Opera” – proved substantially gainful not only for Israel, but also derivatively, for the United States and others.

[4] Regarding international law, it is ultimately deducible from natural law, which is the foundation of both US and Israeli municipal (domestic) law. Inter alia, according to Blackstone, each state is expected “to aid and enforce the law of nations, as part of the common law.” See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4, “Of Public Wrongs.” Lest anyone question the significance of Blackstone, we need merely to recollect that his Commentaries represent the original and authoritatively core foundation of United States law, and that they are themselves ultimately based on various scriptural sources. International law is most expressly incorporated into U.S. law by Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”), and also by certain U.S.  Supreme Court decisions, especially the Paquete Habana (1900).

[5] In jurisprudential terms, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive” ones. Preemption is a military strategy of striking an enemy first, in the expectation that the only likely alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of any genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but rather for fear of some longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  Hence, in a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is very short, while in a preventive strike, the interval is considerably longer. A problem for Israel, in this specific regard, is not only the practical difficulty of determining imminence, but also the fact that delaying a defensive strike until some more appropriately ascertained imminence is acknowledged could be “fatal.”

[6] On identifying pertinent nuclear disclosure options, see: Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: Updating Intelligence Community Responsibilities,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 28. No.1., Spring 2015, pp. 89-104.

[7] On this most ambiguous element of Israeli nuclear deterrence, see: Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral (USN/ret.) Leon “Bud” Edney, “Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine Basing,” The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, “A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel,” Washington Times, September 5, 2014.

[8] On prospective shortcomings of Israeli BMD, see: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,” Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and M-G Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

[9] https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/41573

[10] For scholarly writings by this author on the global security implications of this earlier era of bipolarity, see: Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Reliability of Alliance Commitments,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 25, No.4., December 1972, pp. 702-710; Louis René Beres, “Bipolarity, Multipolarity, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.4., December 1973, pp, 649-658; and Louis René Beres, “Guerillas, Terrorists, and Polarity: New Structural Models of World Politics,” Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 27, No.4., December 1974, pp. 624-636.

[11] On deterring a potentially irrational nuclear adversary, most notably Iran, see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?”  The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog). February 23, 2012. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[12] The concept of “synergy” here would concern not only various intersections of national security policy, but also of possible attack outcomes. In this connection, regarding the expected consequences of specifically nuclear attacks, by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986), See also, Ami Rojkes Dombe, “What Happens When a Nuclear Bomb Hits a Wall?”  Israel Defense, September 10, 2016.

[13] On vital interconnections between US and Israeli nuclear security, see special 2016 monograph (published at Tel Aviv University) co-authored by Professor Beres and US General (USA/ret.) Barry R. McCaffrey:

https://sectech.tau.ac.il/sites/sectech.tau.ac.il/files/PalmBeachBook.pdf

See also: http://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/Articles/07spring/beres.pdf

[14] If facing a still non-nuclear adversary in Iran, a preemption option could appear prudent and rational to Israel if executed before certain new protective measures were put in place. Whether in regard to rational or non-rational foes, newly- nuclear adversaries in Tehran could sometime implement protective measures that would pose significant additional hazards to the Jewish State. Designed to guard against preemption, either by Israel or by other regional enemies, these specific measures would involve the attachment of  “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with hazardous pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, in essence, that Israel would be increasingly endangered by once-preventable steps taken by a nuclear enemy to prevent a preemption. Optimally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its own armaments and populations. Yet, if such steps were allowed to become a fait accompli, Jerusalem might still calculate, and accurately, that a residual preemptive strike would be both legal and cost-effective: The expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of any enemy first-strikes (strikes likely occasioned by the failure of certain  “anti-preemption” protocols).

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Defense

How the Withdrawal of US Troops in Syria Impacted Regional Politics and Security

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As northern Syria attempts to adjust to life without US troops, which destabilized what was already considered a tenuous situation, the regional politics and security of the nation have been thrown into disarray with no sight of improvement. In addition to the civil war and refugee crisis, the nation has been an arena where world powers have been vying for a foothold in the Middle East for nearly a decade. With the abrupt shift in territorial control it has become apparent that due to its geographical location and political makeup, Syria is the subject of a custody battle with repercussions that extend far beyond its borders. 

In March of 2011, when peaceful protesters were brutalized for anti-government graffiti, Syria joined the Arab Spring movement sweeping across the Middle East. But unlike neighboring countries, whose own uprisings were brief and relatively non-violent, Syria was pulled into an outright civil war. Later that year, when more citizens were killed and tortured, the sentiment reached a critical mass. What complicated things in Syria, however, was not a more violent response by the national government – the Lybian leader Muammar al-Gaddafi didn’t hesitate in unleashing his military onto his citizens calling for social reform – but the unique nationalities and religions that make up the Syrian population. 

The kindling that sparked the civil war can be attributed to the large ethnic group known as the Kurds who, since the end of WWI when the winning side drew arbitrary borders that divided villages and townships, have remained nationless and spread across multiple countries including Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurds in Syria, who differ from those in Iraq and Turkey, became easy scapegoats when they formed a rebellion with the intent to not only fight back against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but to fight for land control they felt was long overdue. However, when the initial Kurdish rebellion fractured into nearly a dozen smaller groups, they became pawns that allowed world powers to engage in a proxy war. Though it’s impossible to predict who might fill the vacuum that was recently created by the withdrawal of American troops, there are some key players who are strategically postured to make a move

The war in Syria is comprised of three main groups which is why the situation is often a complex one to follow. After the first shots were fired, the Syrian government was immediately backed by long-time ally Iran, and eventually received military support from Russia. Saudi Arabia, who saw the rebellion as a means to counter Iran without starting a war on its own soil, sent funding and military arms to the Kurds. The US watched this localized fighting from afar until the decision was made to support Kurdish forces in an effort to defeat the newly emerged ISIS, or Islamic State, who threatened western civilization with extremist tactics such as chemical weapons. The third player to throw their hat into the proverbial ring was Turkey, who took the opportunity to wage war against their own Kurdish population whom they consider terrorists but who in reality have little connection to their Syrian counterparts. 

The status quo has been broken and already a trend of uncertainty and chaos has emerged. With the US no longer aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey was granted tacit permission to invade northern Syria. The Kurdish rebels are being forced to either flee the region or join Russian-backed Syrian forces to the south, leaving behind abandoned ISIS prisoners and further displacing overrun refugee camps. Although Russia may outwardly appear to be working against the Turkish government, recent delegations and official engagements suggest that an agreement might be in the works. It would make sense as Russia has a lot to gain by striking a peace deal between Turkey and Syria. Not only would it provide more access to the region through developed seaports but getting Turkey to move away from NATO would give Russia more status as a world power.

 In addition to wondering what comes next for Syria, the world is also left with the question of why the US so abruptly decided to pull its troops out of areas it has been defending for years.  Although this move seems sudden, there is a historical precedent that suggests it may have been long overdue. In 1947, barely two years after WWII ended, Britain found itself overextended and unable to effectively manage its global empire. Realizing it was financially impossible to maintain oversight of the region, the British government abdicated control to the US. Now, years later, America finds itself in a similar position, but without a viable candidate to hand things over to. While there is much to be said and plenty to criticize about how and why the decision was made, it’s hard to imagine there’s ever a ‘good time’ or ‘right way’ to exit the Middle Eastern crisis. 

Although there’s no way to predict what Syria’s future looks like, there are a few variables the move has cemented into place. Firstly, the US has all but permanently severed ties with the Kurds and rebellion forces, making it unlikely the abandoned populace will place its trust another super-power anytime soon. Secondly, the Russian government’s influence will no doubt throw a spanner in the works, and stability in the region seems to be far fetched. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the ISIS and other extremist groups have threatened to resurge and create further instability in already unstable country. With the Turkish Kurds being forced to move south, and the Syrian Kurds involuntarily enlisted into Assad’s regime, they are prime recruits for any movement that can convince the world it is less extreme than the current governments of Syria, Russia, or Turkey. 

Sadly, the one fact that has not changed is that more innocent lives will continue to be lost, and the world will continue to face the refugee crises. European countries who amended immigration policy in response to the crisis have maxed out their ability to assimilate them into society. Without proper management and oversight, this could be the set-up for history to repeat itself. A large population of disenfranchised individuals who feel their land and their rights have been taken away from them is the definition of what started the Arab Spring. Whether with words or with weapons, the fighting will continue until a nation (or collective of nations) with direct experience and understanding of the problem, as well as a personal stake in the availability of oil, steps in with the intention of eventually stepping out. 

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Defense

Escalating to De-Escalate: From Balakot to Ain al-Asad

M Waqas Jan

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With tensions between the United States and Iran dramatically escalating just days into the new year, the risks of a new and even more damaging war erupting in the Middle East have once again reached worrying levels. This was sparked by the brazen US drone strike which targeted General Qassem Soliemani – the commanding General of Iran’s Elite Quds forces- just outside Baghdad airport earlier this month. As a result, US-Iran tensions had seemingly skyrocketed overnight in what senior Iranian officials termed as an act of war against their country by the US. These fears were further realized by the Iranian response, which comprised of a late-night fusillade of ballistic missiles launched at two US military bases in Iraq just three days later.

However, with no casualties reported as a result of the Iranian missile strikes and President Trump’s de-escalatory statement following the Iranian response, those same tensions seem to have subsided over the last two weeks at least for the time being. This de-escalation has largely been ascribed to the fact that Iran had deliberately chosen to avoid US casualties by choosing to balance an overt display of its intent and resolve, against its unwillingness to engage further in a protracted and costly conflict with the US.  The argument follows that hence, while on the one hand widespread public sentiment and anger in Iran had demanded a punitive response in the form of clear retaliation against the US, the proportionality of such a response had required careful calibration with regards to its potential for further escalation.Thus, representing one of the most recent examples of how the importance of optics and crafting a domestic narrative remain key within the battle for escalation dominance in this century’s limited wars.

This emphasis on optics and narrative was also evident last year in the South Asian context, where following the Pulwama incident, both India and Pakistan had engaged in a dangerous yet limited exchange to gain escalation dominance over one another. For instance, the Indian cross-border air strikes at Balakot had also been domestically framed as being a punitive response to an attack which – like the strike against General Suleimani – had resulted in an unacceptable loss of military personnel. Hence, the retaliatory airstrikes which targeted a suspected militant haven inside Pakistan were also accompanied by growing national outrage and calls for revenge from India that was further amplified by its domestic media. 

However, just like Iran’s retaliatory strikes against US bases in Iraq, the Indian strikes at Balakot did not result in any casualties despite official claims to the contrary. This was evident in the considerable extent to which the Indian media then and Iranian media earlier this month, had bragged of scores of enemy causalities including damage to key infrastructure. Hence, constructing palatable narratives that remained acceptable enough for domestic consumption while also helping quell the same national outrage these governments had themselves helped amplify. Consequently, questions following the Balakot strikes that were then raised by Pakistan over whether the absence of casualties was intentional or purely accidental stand as similar to the ones being debated currently within the US with regards to Iran. These further boil down to questions over whether it was a lack of capability or instead a deliberate display of precision and intent by these strikes’ perpetrators.

In order to assess this, it is important to note that while both the Indian and Irani strikes bear some similarities in terms of the preceding context within which they were conducted, their differing scopes and execution plans led to two very different outcomes. For one Iran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles targeting key locations and structures at US military bases, which drawing on the recent damage assessment reports appear to have been deliberately chosen as targets.  While there were a couple of missiles that seemed to have fallen off target and remained unexploded, the vast majority seemed to have hit specific structures according to satellite photographs. In comparison, the air strikes launched by the Indian Air force while representing a clear show of intent, instead failed to offer a credible display of their strike capabilities. Specifically, if the objective was to display the reach and precision of their strike abilities in the form of a forced near miss, the ambiguity surrounding their choice of targets seems to have spectacularly back-fired, if that in fact was the objective. Even worse, if it was simply an accidental miss, then instead of communicating military prowess, the strike simply presented a display of sheer ineptitude in which the battle for escalation dominance was already lost, no matter the media spin.

This for instance is further evident in the different responses generated by both the Indian and Iranian strikes. Whereas the US has chosen quite visibly and publicly to not escalate the situation any further; Pakistan last year felt compelled to not only respond in kind, but to reassert its ability to conventionally deter any provocative incursions into its air-space. Following Pakistan’s own display of a forced near miss via air launched stand-off weapons, the highly publicized downing of an Indian fighter jet, and the unconditional release of its captured pilot; eventually presented a very real and irrefutable advantage in terms of escalation dominance

It is important to understand here that while the above incidents may offer a tantalizing vindication of the very concept of escalation dominance, expected outcomes only appear as clear cut in hindsight. Especially considering the inherent temptation of favoring escalation itself as a means of de-escalation, there exist a whole of host of uncertain variables that not only amplify the inherent risks, but may dramatically alter the situation for the worse. In the recent standoff between the US and Iran, the US drawing on its already established military supremacy did not have todisplay any capability to Iran or anyone else, hence making to de-escalate a lot easier. Especially after already having achieved its objective of taking out General Soleimani. In contrast and as evident in the events following Balakot, Pakistan being on the receiving end of a much larger and better funded adversary would be in any similar situation hard-pressed not to escalate and restore deterrence. This holds a highly dangerous truth considering that the escalation ladder in South Asia is essentially built around the threat of nuclear war. Even more so with competing and vague indications of where the nuclear option lies on said ladder, this alone should technically deter any misplaced sense of adventurism if simple common sense is to prevail in the region. Yet as both incidents have shown, nothing with regard to limited war remains predictable in today’s day age.

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