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

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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).

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) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy 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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Defense

Why shouldn’t Israel Undermine Iran’s Conventional Deterrence

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When Naftali Bennett took over as the prime minister of Israel, it was expected that he would take a different approach compared to Netanyahu. This could be a probable expectation, save for the issue of Iran, since Iran is considered a consistent strategic and existential threat in the eyes of Israeli political and military officials same way that Israel has always been considered an enemy in the strategic culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, with the resumption of the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Israel has intensified its campaign for an imminent military strike on Iran. On the other hand, Iran has tried to create a balance of missile threat against Israel based on valid deterrence during the past years.

However, the level and the nature of performance and deterrence of these two influential actors of the Middle East are fundamentally different. While Iran has defined its deterrence based on hybrid missile deterrence concepts—including direct and extended deterrence—, Israel’s deterrence is based on preemptive warfare, a.k.a. “immediate deterrence,” irrespective of its nuclear capabilities, policies of “strategic ambiguity” and “defensible borders strategy.”

From a direct deterrence perspective (i.e., the strength of a large missile fire from within Iranian territory) and given the extended and asymmetric dimensions (i.e., strengthening missile capabilities of the axis of resistance), the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that Israel will gradually become weaker and more fragile defensively, considering the importance of objective components in the area of ​​deterrence—such as geographical depth and population, and this will derive Israeli leaders to consider their fragile security and survival before any attempt to take on a direct military confrontation with Iran. For instance, when the tensions over Iran’s nuclear program escalated between 2010 and 2013 during the Obama administration, none of Iran’s nuclear facilities was attacked, despite Israel’s repeated expression of its willingness to do so. Former defense minister Ehud Barak justified this inaction with the pretext of Barack Obama’s opposition and lack of support.  In fact, the Netanyahu administration sought to instill this idea to the world that Israel has both the “determination” and the “ability” to attack Iran should this preemptive action not have been faced with Washington objection. The fact that Netanyahu still failed to implement the idea even during Trump administration—as John Bolton points out in the first chapter of his book—despite his overwhelming support for Israel, indicated the fact that Israel does not have independent military capabilities and determination to take such hostile action at no cost without the support of the US.

Therefore, despite the constant claims of Israeli officials, this country’s general strategy so far has been to avoid direct military confrontation with Iran and to focus on less intense and covert warfare. This has changed since 2017 due to Israel’s objection to pro-Iranian forces regaining the control over Al-Bukamal Qa’im border crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border, and the consequent lack of a proportionate and retaliatory response from Iran to Israel’s ongoing operations in Syria. In fact, inaction of Iran has allowed Israeli army to expand its campaign from northern borders and the Golan Heights (as the first ring) to the province of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, then to the depths of Iraq in cooperation with the US (as the second ring), and eventually, inside the Iranian territory (as the third ring). The expansion of Israel’s subversive actions deep inside Iran is an effort to discredit Iran’s deterrence as well as undermining Iran’s strategic stability, while also dismantling Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities.

In the meantime, Israel’s embark on the strategy of Third-Circle Directorate based on intensifying low-level but effective military actions on Iranian soil has played a greater role in undermining Iran’s conventional deterrent advantages. Israel’s repeated operation and its recklessness in accepting responsibility for such actions has taken Israel’s belief and determination that it can target Iran’s assets and strategic resources inside and outside of Iran with numerous intermittent actions to a new level. Therefore, it can be said that while the previous positions of Israeli officials regarding the bombing and cessation of Iran’s nuclear capabilities were mostly focused on the assassination of Iranian scientists, targeted cyberattacks, sabotages, and bombings of industrial, security, and military facilities, there is no guarantee that the Third-Circle Directorate would not extent to explicit and direct entry of Israeli fighters, bombers or ballistic missiles to bomb Iran’s nuclear and military facilities in cooperation with the United States or independently.

If Israel mistakes Iran’s inaction with inability to respond and decides to extend Mabam Campaign to air or missile strikes inside the Iranian borders, it should not be sure of the unpredictable consequences. Iran has not yet responded decisively to cyber-attacks, the assassination of its scientists, and the Israeli sabotages due to the fact that these actions have been designed and carried out in such a way that Iran has assessed the damage as compensable. That is, a long set of low-level attacks were conducted to change the state of the field without taking actions that justifies an extensive reaction. Iran’s failure to respond to the recent Israeli attack on the port of Latakia is a clear example of the success and effectiveness of Salami Slicing strategy. Such strategies are designed to engage Iran in a polygonal dilemma: that it cannot respond to every individual military actions and small-scale sabotage, while inaction against these multiple small and non-intensive attacks will gradually result in losing its strategic position and deterrent credibility.

This very, unique Israeli strategy in military confrontation with Iran has reinforced the assessment of the Bennett administration about the serious weakness of Iran’s conventional deterrence. As a clear case Foreign Minister Yair Lapid claimed that “Israel could attack Iran if necessary without informing the Biden administration, which is looking to rejoin the nuclear deal”. This problem became more apparent after the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, especially in the last months of Donald Trump’s presidency. In other words, if Tehran decided to respond directly to various Israeli actions, such as the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and attacks on its military and industrial centers, the risk of a war with Israel with the support of the US would increase. By the same token, this has in fact given Tehran an opportunity not to retaliate based on the concept of conventional strategic stability. That is, at this level of conflict, Iran’s confidence in its ability to retaliate makes it easier for this country to limit and delay the response. From Iranian perspective, therefore, conventional strategic stability means preventing armed conflict in the Middle East, especially a level of conflict that directly threatens its security and territory.

However, if Israel tries to discredit Iran’s conventional deterrence and strategic stability by launching a direct air strike into Iranian territory, Iran’s retaliatory response will not be as limited and symbolic as the attack on the US base of Ain al-Assad in Iraq, because Tehran would face the so-called “Sputnik moment” dilemma, which forces it to test its missile credibility. In such a situation, Iran will be forced to first, launch a decisive comprehensive missile response against Israel and then change its deterrent structure from conventional to nuclear by leaving the NPT in order to contain pressure of domestic public opinion, maintain its credibility with regional rivals such as Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and even the Republic of Azerbaijan, and to reassure its proxy forces in the axis of resistance.

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Defense

Indo-Pacific strategy and the new China-IDF relationship

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The signing of the United States of America (the new Aukus defense agreement and the Quad Quartet agreement with Japan, India and Australia), had significant future repercussions on the Middle East region and the balances of power and influence within it, given its great geopolitical importance, according to these new American agreements in the “Indo-Pacific region”, China will have to (face a new strong defense alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, then transfer this entire Chinese conflict to the Middle East and the Iranian nuclear file and increase Chinese influence in the sea straits and waterways in the Middle East), an alliance welcomed by regional partners such as  Japan. The three countries in the new US regional alliances and polarizations of “Japan, India, and Australia” also make it clear that such agreements with the United States of America are a (historic opportunity for them and their allies to protect common values ​​and enhance security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region). On the other hand, we find that those American agreements and alliances in the “Indo-Pacific” region surrounding China will be reflected in one way or another and may increase in the Middle East, for China will have to transfer conflict and competition with Washington to the region, Israel and Iran, and this will have future consequences and repercussions.  The countries of the region in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, as follows:

The equation of competition between the United States and China in the Middle East has increased since the Biden administration took office, and here (placing the neutral countries in the middle became more difficult). One of the areas that may witness an escalation in the intensity of competition between the two sides is the Middle East.

To understand the vision of regional countries for their interests with the two powers, it is necessary to look at the initial indicators issued by the Biden’s administration towards the region. It has become clear that the US administration has a desire to reformulate its approach towards the region, but (it is not yet clear how deep this American step and its impact on the regional security structure sponsored by the United States, especially in the Arab Gulf region).

The US Defense Secretary “Lloyd Austin” announced a comprehensive strategic review of the status of US forces around the world, including the Middle East. It seems that officials in the US Department of Defense “Pentagon” are tending to reconsider the status of US forces in the Middle East, which may be understood (not a condition of reducing them), in favor of increasing the size of the forces in the “Indo-Pacific” region.

At the present time, the Biden administration’s focus was on (ending the war in Yemen, reviving the negotiation track over the Iranian nuclear file), and it did not show much interest in other pivotal files.

In parallel with the previous US approach, the US National Security Adviser “Jake Sullivan”, reduced the number of Middle East experts in the US National Security Council, and significantly increased the number and hierarchy of Indo-Pacific experts.

Defense Minister “Lloyd Austin” also appointed three advisers to him, all of them are Asian experts, and none of them specialize in Middle Eastern issues, in contrast to the approach of all previous US administrations, due to the danger of China, according to the current US security strategy.

These American steps toward China reflect the Biden administration’s vision of the world from the perspective of “the theory of the great power conflict”, which prevailed during the Cold War, and the decline of the Middle East on its list of priorities.

On the Israeli-Chinese side, Beijing will try to play an increasing role inside Israel in order to bring about rapprochement with Tel Aviv at the expense of Washington.  Here, we note the (extent and seriousness of Chinese companies sought to obtain contracts to operate the main Israeli ports, as Washington was particularly concerned about a Chinese company winning a tender to manage a port in Haifa, where the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet is anchored).

Perhaps the future analysis will come in (China’s attempt to play a challenge to American interests inside Israel, and China’s future planning in order to manage all Israeli ports, and thus control the shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea). Which is what Washington fears the most.

In addition to China’s desire to invest and be present in vital infrastructure projects in Israel, (China is trying to obtain this advanced Israeli technology, and trying to obtain any monopoly information that can be harvested in China by Israeli companies to benefit from it in the aspects of Chinese progress and innovation), thus, he challenged American technological progress from the Israeli gate.

The most important and most dangerous for me, analytically, is the attempts of the People’s Republic of China to obtain all Israeli trade secrets related to the United States of America, and even more dangerous in the future is (the rapprochement of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with the Israel Defense Forces, which relies heavily on advanced American equipment such as  Fighter “F-35”).

From my analytical point of view, the expectation remains that (if China succeeds in increasing its ability to exist, monitor and infiltrate the Israeli army), this may allow Beijing to obtain all American military technological secrets from Israel directly, and here is the danger for the United States of America being  Israel is a conduit through which the (People’s Liberation Army of China) “PLA” achieves greater parity with the US armed forces. This is what Washington is trying to confront from Tel Aviv to counter Chinese influence there, as the United States of America cannot in any way allow its military technology to fall into the hands of its main opponent, China.

   Perhaps the final analysis here, is explaining that (the absence of American thinking of a clear strategy until now to confront the growing Chinese influence in the region and the world), and perhaps it is a continuation of the same approach of the “Trump’s administration”, as the United States shows interest in what it does not want, without presenting a clear vision of the results that you want access to this conflict.

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Defense

China, Vietnam, Philippines and United States Sustainability in the South China Sea

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The guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville during a replenishment-at-sea with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Harris/U.S. Navy/Flickr

Authors : Nabel Akram, Imran Altaf, Komal Tariq

Supremacy of any world power depends upon its control over the important Geo-strategic places. A hegemon must have influence over the Geo-strategic places. This rule is generally applied for every world super power. Other factors like the will to lead, economic, political and military factors are also important but these factors are restricted in a specific sphere of influence. Influence over Geo-strategic important places enhances the influence over other countries related to that place. Britain remained the superpower due to occupation of such important places. The US as a super power and hegemon, is enjoying influence over the Geo-strategic places in the world. The US has influence over Malacca Strait, Suez Canal, and Panama Canal etc. (Oral, 2012). On strategic places, the US is facing challenges from China and Russia. Russia has occupied Crimea the strategically important place in East Europe which covers black sea and offered a way towards Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, China is struggling hard to get control over South China Sea (SCS). The SCS is an important Geo-strategic, Geo-economic and geopolitical place for world. It contains plenty of natural resources and the hub of fishing. It covers half of the world trade passage. The US has enjoyed strong influence in this place after WWII, but, now the US is facing great resistance from China. The US does not want to lose its influence in East Asia and the SCS. The US is struggling hard with the coordination of the ASEAN states, Japan, Australia and India. China is gradually strengthening its control over the SCS. Due to economic growth, China has got influence over regional countries. Most critical area of South China Sea dispute contains two groups of islands such as Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. Paracel archipelago comes under the rule of China (The People’s Republic of China, 2014). China has occupied this group of islands in 1974. Spratly islands are most disputed among China, Philippines and Vietnam (Ngo, 2017). This group of islands are under the different countries like China, Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia and Taiwan. China has constructed seven artificial islands on this place (Southerland, 2016). The US has initiated Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the SCS region with objective to contain China from establishing its hegemony in this region. It has increased the sensitivity of this issue in region (Harress, 2015).   

Vietnam and Philippines both are the potential rival of China in South China Sea dispute. These countries have deep economic and diplomatic ties with China. Both countries are engaging China to set up alliances with the US and other important states for restraining and hedging China. Vietnam and Philippines are making efforts to strengthen their military setup against China. The US is providing its assistance to the rival states of China and opposing Chinese irredentist claim with the help of maritime law and the right of freedom of navigation in the SCS as an international sea. In this way, China has to face potential rivalry from the US, Vietnam and Philippines in SCS.

Philippines and Vietnam have huge trade and diplomatic relations with China for hedging China. Both countries even have strong economic and strategic relations with Chinese competitors like the US, Russia, Japan and India. In this way, both countries are reducing the risk. Vietnam is consistently building its military capabilities through strong economy and making alliances with the strong countries and international and regional institutions. There are following way which cause to hedging China.

  • For hedging China, Philippines and Vietnam are engaging China through a huge trade volume and interdependence. Vietnam has become the biggest trading partner of China. Mutual interdependence will cause to stop China from taking any aggressive action against Vietnam.
  • Philippines and Vietnam are developing diplomatic, political, party to party and people to people relations with China. This will help to know about the behavior of China towards Philippines and Vietnam over South China Sea dispute.
  • Philippines and Vietnam are focusing to increase its military strength. For this purpose, Vietnam has bought large military equipment from Russia and developed its military equipment complex in Vietnam for modernizing its military equipment with the help of Russia. Philippines has increased its military alliance with the US.
  • Vietnam has made alliances with world powers like the US, Russia, India, Japan etc. to secure itself against any aggression from China. For this purpose, it has engaged itself in many exercises and joint ventures with the US and many other countries.
  • Philippines and Vietnam has improved its relations with neighboring countries who can provide help in time of difficulty. This is the reason that Philippines and Vietnam are active in ASEAN forum.

China would play its role as a hegemon after the US. The US should contain China through its neighboring countries like Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and Russia. To gain hegemonic status, it is necessary to become regional hegemon. John Mearsheimer supports regional hegemon. He gives example of the US that it first became regional hegemon in 1898 after Monroe doctrine and gained world hegemonic status after the WWII (Mearsheimer, 2004).

China has acquired economic and military power and about to become a regional hegemon. John Mearsheimer (2006) suggests China to gain hegemonic status; China must need to become regional hegemon and to get more power than its neighbors like Japan, Russia and India. China should increase its military strength and power. China has to regain Taiwan for establishing the status of regional hegemon (Mearsheimer, China’s Unpeaceful Rise, 2006).

Rising security demands of China has unsecured the neighboring countries. Arm race has been started in East Asia region. Although, China has maintained good relations with its neighbors but they have strong concerns over Chinese security measures. China’s largest economy and advanced military stimulate China to control its surroundings (Roy, 2013).

After open up policies, China has rapidly grown and become world imminent actor. To become a great power, China has to respond all challenges positively and set its priorities to overcome its drawbacks. In future, China should not claim its hegemony. China should need to advocate new world system with some reforms in economy and politics without claiming its hegemony (Bijian, 2005).

China is the largest trading partner of Vietnam. Vietnam’s second largest export partner is China with 13.2 percent of its export. The US secure biggest trading partner with 21 percent of Vietnamese export and Japan secured third with 8.4 percent of Vietnam export. Vietnam’s first largest import partner is China with 34 percent of its import and Japan secured fourth largest import partner with 6.4 percent of Vietnamese import (CIA, 2017). A huge numbers of Chinese foreign direct investment companies are working in Vietnam. It is estimated that about 833 companies are running their business in Vietnam in 2011. The quantity of these companies are increasing day by day and their total registered capital is 4.3 billion. There are following benefits of Vietnam for economic partnership with China;

Spratly Islands (Kalyan Islands Group) are the part of Philippines territory. KIG is the part of Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under UNCLOS 1982 (Palma, 2009). Philippines has filed a case against China and its historical claim of nine dash lines in International court of Tribunal in Hague in 2013. Court has given decision in favor of Philippines on 12 July 2016 but China has rejected the decision and remained adamant in its claim (France-Presse, Agence, July 8th, 2016). Philippines and Chinese relations worsen due to Philippines case and the ongoing problem in Scarborough Shoal and Chinese construction of new islands. This was the scenario when Philippines new president Rodrigo Roe Duterte took charge on 30 July 2016 (Philippine History, 2017) and initiated new strategy that is called strategic hedging. Although Philippines previous governments have close economic and political relations but current government is leading in this respect.  Philippines started to engage China with a huge trade volume. Politically, Philippines has come closer to China (Shead, 2017).

The Geo-strategic position and bundle of resources are the main reason that China is very conscious to control this region whereas other regional actors like Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia and Brunei are also active for sovereignty over these islands due to Geo-proximity and resources. The US as the global hegemon has become the part of this game and wants to get its part from these resources. This is the reason that it has established strong alliances with other stack holders against China and also provoking Japan, Australia and India against China due to this regional dispute. The SCS is important for the US for three purposes; first it secures the US trade and military, second, it is check to restrain and contain the Chinese hegemony in the East Asia region (Mustajib, 2016), third, it is necessary for the protection of the US allies like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan and ASEAN member countries. On the trade basis, the SCS is the passage of the 5 trillion annual ships (Robinson, 2018) and ships related to the US trade and military activities are worth 1.2 trillion dollar trade with East Asian countries (Mustajib, 2016).

Peace lies in continuous diplomatic engagement of claimant countries of the SCS dispute. Any change in existing status quo might put the peace of whole region at risk. Philippines and Vietnam consider China as an assertive state. Both States want to establish close relations with China in order to stop China from assertive actions. The US has strong political, economic and military bilateral alliances with Philippine, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.  The US has launched the FONE operations in the SCS to contain China. These operations show that the US wants to sustain its hegemony in East Asia.

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