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

Prof. Louis René Beres



“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.


[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:

See also:

[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).

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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India’s strategies short of war against a hostile China



Since India’s independence several peace and border cooperation agreements were signed between the India and China. Prominent among them was the Panchsheel Agreement signed in 1954. A majority of the agreements were signed between 1993 and 2013. Recently genuine efforts were made by PM Narendra Modi by engaging Xi Jinping at the Wuhan and Chennai summits. But China is nowhere near to settling the border dispute despite various agreements and talks at the military and civilian levels.

After the 1962 war peace was largely maintained on the Indo China border. During the Mao and Deng era consensus building was the norm in the communist party. XiJinping appointed himself as chairman of the communist party for life. Today power is centralized with XiJinping and his cabal. Through Doklam and Galwan incidents Xi Jinpinghas disowned the peaceful principles laid down by his predecessors. China’s strategy is to keep India engaged in South Asia as it doesn’t want India to emerge as a super power. After solving a crisis on the border China will create another crisis. Beijing has declining interest in the niceties of diplomacy. Under Xi Jinping China has become more hostile.

China has been infringing on India’s sovereignty through salami tactics by changing the status quo and attempting to own the border territory. At Galwan on Xi Jinping’s birthday the PLA demonstrated hooliganism by assaulting Indian border positions. China violated the 1996 and 2005 bilateral agreements which states that both armies should not carry weapons within 1.24 miles on either side of the border. India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar mentioned that the standoff situation with China in Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh is “surely the most serious situation after 1962.”China is constructing infrastructure, increasing forces and deploying weapon systems on the border.

Options for India

India led by PM Narendra Modi has implemented a realist foreign policy and a muscular military policy.India ended the age of strategic restraint by launching special operations and air strikes in Pakistan. Since the Galwan incident India has increased the military, diplomatic and economic deterrence against China. India is constructing military infrastructure and deploying weapon systems like SU 30 MKI and T 90 tanks in Ladakh. India banned a total of 224 Chinese apps, barred Chinese companies from government contracts and is on the verge of banning Huawei. Other measures include excluding Chinese companies from private Indian telecommunications networks. Chinese mobile manufacturers can be banned from selling goods in India.

India should offer a grand strategy to China. India has a plethora of options short of war. Future talks should involve an integrated strategy to solve all the bilateral issues and not just an isolated resolution of a localized border incident. All instruments of military and economic power and coercive diplomacy should be on the table.

Foreign Policy

China expects other nations to follow bilateral agreements and international treaties while it conveniently violates them. India should abrogate the Panscheel agreement given China’s intransigence and hostility. China claims 35,000 square miles of territory in India’s northeast, including the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. China occupies 15,000 square miles of India’s territory in the Aksai Chin Plateau in the Himalayas. India’s primary objective is to take back territories like Aksai Chin. While the secondary issue is the resolution of the border issue and China’s support to Pakistan. India can leverage the contemporary geopolitical climate to settle all issues. India can target China’s soft underbelly characterized by issues like Taiwan, Xinjiang and the economy. China raises the Kashmir issue at international organizations. As a countervailing measure India can raise Xinjiang at international organizations and conferences.

China has been militarily and diplomatically supporting Pakistan against India. Pakistan is a rentier and a broken state that sponsors terrorism. India can establish bilateral relations with Taiwan thus superseding China’s reunification sensitivities. China has territorial disputes with 18 countries including Taiwan and Japan. India can hedge against China by establishing strategic partnerships with US, Australia, Japanand Vietnam.

Military policy

An overwhelming military is a deterrence for China’s belligerent foreign and military policy. The 1990Gulf War demonstrated the capabilities of high technology weapon systems. As compared to China’s rudimentary weapons systems India has inducted 4th and 5th generation weapons like the SU 30 MKI, AH 64 Apache and T 90 tanks. The deterrence capacity of fighter aircrafts is reduced as they cannot target China’s coastlines due to their restricted range. Full deterrence can be achieved by ICBMs and nuclear powered submarines. With these weapons India can target centers of gravity like Shanghai and Shenzhen.

China is not a signatory to arms limitations treaties like Start I and Start II. China continues to expand its nuclear weapons stockpile and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) like DF 21 and DF-26B which are banned by the INF Treaty. India is a law abiding stable democracy in an unstable region with two hostile nations on its flanks. US and Russia can relax the arms control mechanism considering India’s’ impeccable record on peace and non proliferation. This will allow India to buy Russian weapon systems like Zircon and Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, Topol and Bulava ICBMs and Yasen and Borey class SSBN submarines. While US can sell SSBN submarines and C4ISR gathering platforms like RC 135 and RQ 4 Global Hawk.

China remains a security threat for Asia. As China foments instability the APAC region from South Asia to South China Sea remains volatile. The Quad can be expanded to include Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia and multinational naval exercises can conducted in the South China Sea.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. China fought small wars with India, Vietnam and Soviet Union. Vietnam defeated the PLA at Lang Son in 1979 with advanced weapon systems and guerilla warfare. India can increase militarily cooperation with Vietnam. China attacked the Soviet Union on the Ussuri river leading to heavy PLA casualties. Historically relations between Russia and India have been close. As a result of the Indo Soviet Friendship Treaty China did not support Pakistan during the 1971 war. India can enhance its military and diplomatic ties with Russia to the next level.

Strategic partnership with US

Its time for a partnership between the world’s largest and the world’s biggest democracies. India and the US have a common objective to preserve peace, maintain stability and enhance security in Asia. India’s reiteration at leaders’ level and international forums that both countries see each other as allies for stability in the APAC region is not enough. India has to go beyond the clichés of the need for closer ties.

Due to the China threat the US is shifting its military from Europe and Middle East to the APAC region.US and India can establish an Asian equivalent of NATO as China’s destructive policy frameworks and threatening postures remain a strategic threat. India should enhance and deepen cooperation with the US intelligence community in the fields of MASINT, SIGINT, GEOINT, TECHINT and CYBINT. Both countries can form an alliance of democracies. If China militarily or economically targets one of the member country then the alliance can retaliate under a framework similar to Article 5 of NATO. Thus power will be distributed in the APAC region instead of being concentrated with China. A scorpion strategy will ensure that China does not harass its neighbors. The strategy involves a military pincer movement by India from the west and US from the East against a hostile China. India can conduct joint military exercises with the US in Ladakh. China cannot challenge Japan and Taiwan due to the US security agreements with these countries.


The world has entered the age of instability and uncertainty. The 21st century is characterized by hybrid warfare through military and coercive diplomacy. South Asia is not a friendly neighborhood where peaceful overtures lead to harmonious relations. China is a threat to India even in the context of a friendly relationship. Diplomatic niceties have no place in India’s relations with China. India can impose costs on China which can be more than the benefits offered by normalizing relations. The application of measures short of war without engaging the PLA will reap benefits. India can fulfill its national security requirements and global responsibilities through a grand strategy.

A policy of engagement and deterrence is crucial against an antagonistic China. While India attempts to develop cooperative ties with China it will need to continue to enhance and implement its military and coercive diplomatic strategies. China does not represent a direct military threat to India but at the same time one cannot deny that challenges remain.

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COVID-19 and Challenges to the Indian Defence Establishment



The COVID-19 pandemic has created an uncertain situation all over the world. It is defined as the greatest challenge faced by the world since World War II. At a certain point, the pandemic had forced world governments to announce lockdowns in their respective countries that led to more than half of the human population being home quarantined. Since then, social distancing, travel bans, and cancellation of international summits have become a routine exercise. Most sectors such as agriculture, health, education, economy, manufacturing have been severely hit across the globe. One such sector which is vital to national security that has been impacted due to the pandemic is defence.

The effect of influenza and pneumonia during WWI on the US military was huge. The necessity to mobilise troops across the Atlantic made it even ideal for the diseases to spread rapidly among the defence personnel and civilians. Between mid-1917 and 1919, the fatalities were more so due to the disease than getting killed in action. Due to COVID-19, there have been many implications within the defence sector. Amid the ongoing transgressions in Ladakh, it becomes imperative to analyse the preparedness of the Indian defence establishment to tackle the challenges at hand.

Disrupting the Status Quo

Many personnel in the Indian armed forces have been tested positive for COVID-19. This puts the operational capabilities at risk. In one isolated incident, 26 personnel of the Navy had been placed in quarantine after being tested positive for COVID-19. The French and the Americans had a great challenge ahead of them as hundreds of soldiers were getting infected onboard their Naval vessels. Furthermore, the Army saw some cases being tested positive as well. In one such incident, the headquarters of the Indian Army had to be temporarily shut down because of a soldier contracting the virus. These uncalled disruptions are very dangerous for our armed forces. These disruptions challenge the recruitment process and training exercises.

Since the Indian Army has been involved in quarantining tasks, this exposes the personnel to the virus. As a result of this, the first soldier was tested positive on March 20 in Leh. Among them, those who work as medical personnel are even more exposed to the virus. In order to enforce damage control to the operational capabilities, the Army made sure that the non-essential training, travel, and attending conferences remained cancelled. They called off any foreign assignments and postings for the time being. The Army also made it a point to extend leaves for that personnel who were already on absence. This was a major preventive measure adopted to prevent further infection.

As a result of the lockdown that had been imposed nationwide, the defence services were forced to temporarily stall all the activities that relate to soldiering during peacetime. These activities include training, pursuing professional qualification, fitness tests and regimes, equipment maintenance such as unit assets and stores, up-gradation of the cadres among others. Since the Indian Army boasts of a force that has signed up voluntarily to guard the borders, most of the troops are away from their families, which makes it even more difficult during the times of crises. The mega biennial naval exercises scheduled to be held in Vizag were cancelled due to COVID-19. A total of 41 navies were planned to be a part of the joint exercises called MILAN. The Service Selection Board (SSB) training and the recruitment process have been put to a halt as well. This will severely impact the intake process for this year.

Handling Biohazards

The Army’s capable of operating in a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) environment and has sufficient equipment like infantry vehicles, helicopters and tanks which can operate without any hassles. Since instances of chemical warfare have been witnessed in West Asia and other regions in the last two decades, the focus of the Army has been on that and not on biological warfare. Most Armies believe that bio-weaponry is still fictional and won’t come into play any time soon. Naturally, due to this mindset, most Armies are not capable of handling biohazards. This is a major setback in the time of COVID-19 and has to be addressed.

Riding Down the Slope

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the Indian economy has been nose-diving day by day. This is some bad news for the defence sector since the military spending will possibly be reduced as a result of the slowdown. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), India’s GDP will grow at 1.9 per cent. This is one of the lowest in the history of post-independent India. Allocations and spendings will naturally take a hit and will take a long time to revive again. Defence manufacturing will also face a setback and discourage indigenous players who are looking at getting involved in the manufacturing and innovation sector. MoD has already received the Ministry of Finance’s circular that called for the defence spending to be limited to 15-20 per cent of the total amount allocated. This will ensure that the defence budget is not the priority for the finance ministry. A gap of Rs. 1,03,000 crore has been highlighted between the requirement and the allocated money. More than 60 per cent of this allocated amount anyway goes towards paying salaries and pensions. This means that the modernisation efforts will face a major slowdown in the next two years. Defence procurement is already difficult due to the bureaucratic hurdles, now the monetary crunch only adds more woes.

Moreover, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had announced earlier that more than 9,000 posts belonging to the Military Engineering Services (MES) will be abolished in the said industrial division. The reason cited was that this would bring about a balance to the expenditure. Due to the lockdown, the military development has taken a hit and has seen a decline in the production of freights. As of now, there is no manufacturing that is ongoing as far as fighter planes or aircraft, in general, is concerned. Some of the signed defence deals and contracts are said to be reviewed due to the financial crunch. India’s defence budget is expected to see some cuts due to the economy slowing down. The pandemic has worsened this even further. There is already an existing order to cap the spending for the first quarter of this fiscal year. Most of the payments that are being disbursed is largely that of paying for the existing contracts. This will diminish any scope for procurement of newer defence equipment that helps in modernising the armed forces in the long run. According to a report, it says that the Ministry of Defence is looking at a savings of anywhere between Rs. 400 and 800 billion in the 2020-21 financial year. To quote Yuval Noah Harari from his recent article in the Financial Times would seem relevant in this case, “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours.”  India has displayed the significant political will to make impactful decisions during the pandemic. The question is, how far and how soon can we push ourselves to be prepared on all fronts?

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Rafale deal: A change in aerial balance in South Asia?

Shaheer Ahmad



The induction of the first consignment of five Rafale jets in the Indian Air Force inventory is considered to be a game-changer in the aerial balance of the South Asian region. A multi-billion-dollar package will be beneficial to increase the air prowess of Indian Airforce. While equipped with weapons of tangible accuracy including long-range SCALP and Meteor missiles, it will be able to hunt any target with accurate precision.  The arrival of French-made engines has concerned neighboring Pakistan and China due to its high accuracy of conducting sea and ground attacks.

The experience of operation ‘Swift Retort’ and Chinese intrusion in Ladakh, compelled New Delhi to introspect the efficiency of IAF in any major or minor engagement in the future. The deal to acquire Rafale fighting jets to plug the loopholes in the aerial power of IAF was inked in September 2016.  This induction is meant to enhance the Indian Air force’s operational capabilities and will also assist it to overcome the technological disparity with the US manufactured Pakistan’s F-16 and Chinese Chengdu JF-17 thunder. However, the task for PAF to restrict IAF moves in the future has become more challenging. Despite its competence and better training of its personals as compared to IAF the air superiority is still not guaranteed if the technological gap between IAF and PAF gets wider. Notably, it’s hard to assess the proficiencies of one jet over another because the ‘man behind the machine is more critical’. 

Rafale is a twin-engine Medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRC) whose design instigate from Dassault Mirage with an up to date frame of the 1990s, already used by the French Navy and air force as well as by Egypt and Qatar. Furthermore, these jets were also engaged in combat missions in Afghanistan and Libya where they demonstrated a high proficiency. Whilst JF-17 thunder holds a conventional design originating from Mig 33 having an airframe of 1980s and it also demonstrated its capabilities in PAF’s Operation “Swift Retort”.

In an overall assessment, JF17 is a lightweight, conventional, fuel-economical, and cost-effective jet aircraft. The most momentous factor in JF17 thunder is it’s beyond visual range capabilities and integration of AESA radar that will not only allow detecting the wide-ranged targets but also to detect and lock multiple targets instantaneously. Meanwhile, it is less disposed to jamming and leaves a low sign to radar that makes the detection of fighter difficult hence increasing its reliability. Moreover, a crop numerical advantage and training aptitude due to the use of a similar platform and its cost-effectiveness makes itself a suitable aircraft for the Pakistan air force. Similarly, the ability of any up-gradation domestically for JF-17 also increases the feasibility of this aircraft, while Rafale lacks this opportunity because Indians lack the platform that can guarantee any domestic up-gradation for Rafale. Generally, Dassault Rafale is advanced in airframe, delta wing Canard design, semi stealth specter to counter threats as well as MBDA meteor that makes it a very affluent fighter with a high operational cost.

Rafales are considered superior over existing fighter jets present in PAF inventory and with the advanced technology they will relish an edge over Pakistani jets. But in case of any aerial engagement on Pakistani soil, Experts orate that in such a scenario Pakistani fighters will enjoy an edge due to its enhanced Air defense ground environment (ADGE) and also a window will remain open for PAF that when and where to carry out a counter strike as it did during operation ‘Swift Retort’. In such case, Indian numerical advantage and war resilience will be of less significance because these factors are relished by the party having a counter-strike option and that party will decide that how much allocation of resources is needed to engage for a mission after having a careful assessment of adversary’s air defense capabilities.

It’s also important to know that PAF and IAF can carry out surprise air raids nearby to the international border in peacetime without the probability of interception by adversary radars. Neither sides have the strength and capabilities to maintain 24/7 air surveillance across a 3323-kilometer long international border. Hence it’s also necessary for Pakistan to counter or deter any kind of surgical or tactical strike in the future. But the concern is still there that after the Balakot experience will India be deterred for conducting similar strikes in the future?

While viewing this scenario and having an experience of Balakot episode, PAF efforts to enhance its capabilities of airborne intercept radar and BVR missiles in JF-17 thunder’s fleet are noteworthy.  However, PAF should pursue an up-gradation on its existing F16 squadron. The presence of Rafale and S-400 air defense system will be challenging for PAF to retaliate, but the Indian S-400 and Rafale jets can’t shield the whole international border so the PAF needs a careful assessment to choose the targets that are not under the umbrella of S-400 or the access of Rafales while keeping in mind not to carry out an action that can trigger the adversary towards any escalation.

In a nutshell, the arrival of French-made engines equipped with long-range SCALP and meteor missiles having high precision is not only beneficial for Indian air prowess but it has also concerned its neighbors notably Pakistan for countermeasures. The experience of Operation Swift Retort and the recent military standoff in Ladakh has compelled New Delhi to modernize its Soviet-era air force by the induction of Dassault Rafales that will provide IAF an edge over the existing fighter jets in PAF’s inventory. However, the crop numerical advantage and training aptitude due to the use of a similar platform increases the feasibility of JF-17 thunder in PAF’s inventory. Hence in case of any aerial engagement in future the numerical advantage will be of more concern as 100+ JF-17 thunders will relish an edge over 36 Rafales and PAF will have the option of counterstrike that when and where to carry out a retaliation after carefully assessing the adversary capabilities in light of S-400 air defense system and Dassault Rafales. Hence Rafale jets have air superiority over existing Pakistani fighter jets but it can’t alter the aerial balance in South Asian region unilaterally.

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