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Staying Focused: Why Israel Needs More Coherent Nuclear Doctrine and Strategy



Falling towers, Jerusalem Athens Alexandria, Vienna London, Unreal.-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

On fundamental issues of national survival, the new Israeli prime minister must remain conspicuously above politics.  One core issue – arguably the most important issue of all – is Israel’s “ambiguous” nuclear strategy.[1] Though news about the Middle East has recently been focused on sub-state or terrorist threats to Israel’s national security,[2] ultimate concern in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv should still emphasize existential perils from enemy states.[3]

               Such overriding threats, both immediate and long-term, could involve certain inter-state or “hybrid” (state- terror group[4]) intersections. For the moment, the most dangerous such intersection for Israel would be Iran and/or Syria fighting in alliance with Hezbollah. Significantly, this Shiite militia is already more of a genuine terror-army than a “mere” terror group.

               Always, complex geopolitical issues should be confronted first at a suitably conceptual or theoretic level. This means variously antecedent conceptual matters of seeking peace via threats of nuclear retaliatory destruction. As such matters are strategic and jurisprudential,[5] they would not necessarily reinforce or even complement each other. Finally, evident elements of morality[6] should also continue to be respected by a Jewish State rooted in Torah and Talmud.[7]

               Further observations are axiomatic. To begin, nuclear weapons are not per se negative for global peace and national security. Rather, as thoughtful observers should already have been able to glean from U.S.- Soviet relations during the Cold War (we may now be embroiled in “Cold War II”[8]), nuclear weapons could prove indispensable to the avoidanceof catastrophic war in general.[9]

               This is not a blanket or across-the-board observation. In prospectively subtle strategic matters, differentiation and nuance are plainly significant. It is plausible, for example, that any additional “horizontal” nuclear proliferation would be destabilizing, and that any further nuclear spread to non-nuclear states should be conscientiously prevented.

               That said, there are recognizable states/countries in our decentralized or “Westphalian”[10] world system that could never survive in the global “state of nature”[11] without maintaining a credible nuclear deterrence posture.[12] The State of Israel is the most obvious case in point.[13] It is conceivably the onlyreasonable example, but – prima facie – that sort of exclusionary judgment is politically sensitive. Ultimately, it must be contingent upon the reciprocally subjective expectations of other presumptively beleaguered states.

               “Everything is simple in war,” we learned long-ago from Carl von Clausewitz On War, “but even the simplest thing is very difficult.”

               What next?Should Israel ever have to face one or several enemies without credible nuclear deterrence, the prospect of an existential defeat could become real and intolerable.[14] This is the case even in the absence of any specifically nuclear adversaries and regardless of whether Israeli nuclear deterrence would continue to be based upon policies of “deliberate ambiguity”[15] – the so-called “bomb in the basement.”[16] In all likelihood, Israel would already have begun to move toward certain limited and selectively defined forms of “nuclear disclosure.”[17]

               In the main, these matters are not hopelessly bewildering. If it should ever be left without nuclear weapons, Israel might not long endure. More than any other state on earth, and perhaps even more than any other state in history, Israel requires nuclear weapons to remain “alive.”For anyone who has watched Middle Eastern security affairs evolve over the past seventy years (Israel became a modern state in May 1948), this sobering conclusion is meaningfully incontestable.

               Periodically,within the United Nations, Israel’s assorted enemies introduce tactical resolutions calling, inter alia, for a Middle East “Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.” Sometimes, these states have called for Israel to join the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and/or submitted a resolution of condemnation directed solely at Israel. On September 20, 2013, such a non-binding resolution specifically targeting Israel was defeated by a vote of 51 to 43, with 32 abstentions. This Iranian-backed resolution was defeated at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) annual general conference; significantly, it had expressed “concern about Israeli nuclear capabilities” and also called upon Israel “to accede to the NPT, and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.”

               Israel is a member of the IAEA, but it is not subject to IAEA inspections, except for a single and minor research facility.[18]

                Should Israel ever feel compelled to heed such intentionally one-sided resolutions, possibly in response to misguided political pressures from Washington, nothing of decisive military consequence might then stand in the way of singular or coordinated Arab[19] or Iranian attacks. Ultimately, in all war, as Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz once commented, “mass counts.” But Israel lacks mass. Without its nuclear weapons, appropriately configured and conspicuously recognizable, the indispensable core of Israel’s capacity to deter major enemy assaults could irremediably disappear.

               In late September, 2013, then new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani was sounding more conciliatory and reasonable to Israel and the United States than his rancorous predecessor. At one level of assessment, Rouhani’s diplomatic discourse was no longer corrosive or expressly genocidal. Nonetheless, real power in Tehran has remained with senior clerical leadership, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In those key quarters, little or nothing has changed. The next Iranian presidential election will be on 15 June 2021.

               Back on September 22, 2013, Iran’s military forces publicly paraded their arsenal of ballistic missiles deemed capable of hitting Israel. According to western intelligence at the time, Iran displayed 30 missiles, 12 Sejil and 18 Ghadr, with a nominal range of 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles). This was the first time that Iran had featured so many missiles, two-stage weapons using solid fuel (with a verifiable capacity to strike Israeli target and U.S. bases in the Gulf.)

               The Iranian president had been focused on Israel’s chemical weapons, urging, in the name of “fairness,” that Jerusalem be deprived of both its nuclear and its chemical arsenal. Pointing to ongoing chemical disarmament efforts then being directed at Syria, the Iranian Foreign Ministry also urged that Israel pledge to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

               Geopolitically,[20] the Tehran regime’s plan was to displace pressure from its core ally in Damascus and to undermine Israel’s non-nuclear deterrence posture. Israel did sign the CWC in 1982, but Jerusalem never formally ratified the agreement. In strict jurisprudential terms, non-ratification is not automatically exculpatory, because all states, whether or not they are formal parties to this particular agreement, are still bound by all pertinent and pre-existing customary international law.[21]

               Prima facie, no Israeli government would ever use chemical weapons against noncombatants. Moreover, its implicit deterrent threat of using such weapons against enemy military forces could concern only an existentially last-resort retaliation for the adversarial state’s prior and unconventional aggression. In the final analysis, Israel’s only true existential protection must lie with its presumptive nuclear forces. What is needed now, apropos of this utterly basic requirement, is a comprehensive and systematic re-examination of the country’s underlying nuclear doctrine and strategy.[22]

               Core requirements don’t really change. Without proper doctrine and strategy, Israel’s nuclear forces could sometime become little more than a disjointed mélange of military hardware, one without any recognizable and usable Order of Battle.

               The next time that Israel is forced to defend its multi-system deterrence posture from adversarial calls to enter a regional “nuclear weapons free-zone” or join the NPT, the new prime minister in Jerusalem should already have at hand much more “ammunition” than polite syntax of diplomatic rejection. His Minister of Defense should also already maintain a conceptual and strategic template for optimally coherent national security preparation. Most important, in this regard, will be a persuasive understanding of why Israel should remain a nuclear power and whether the “bomb in the basement” should remain “ambiguous” or sometime be disclosed.

               Any usefully correct answer must include at least the following coalescing arguments, some of which may be intersecting, interpenetrating or synergistic.

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

2. Israel needs nuclear weapons to deter all levels of unconventional (chemical/biological/nuclear) attacks.  The effectiveness of these forms of Israeli nuclear deterrence will also depend, on (a) to (h) above. In this connection, Israel’s nuclear weapons are needed to deter enemy escalation of conventional warfare to unconventional warfare, and of one form of unconventional warfare to another (i.e., escalation of chemical warfare to biological warfare, biological warfare to chemical warfare, or biological/chemical warfare to nuclear warfare). This means, in military parlance, a capacity for “escalation dominance.”[23]

3. Israel needs nuclear weapons to preempt enemy nuclear attacks.  This does not mean that Israeli preemptions of such attacks would necessarily be nuclear (on the contrary, they would almost certainly be non-nuclear), but only that they could conceivablybe nuclear.  Of course, should Israel ever need to use its nuclear forces for any such purpose, it would signify the consummate failure of these forces as a deterrent (per number 2, above).  Significantly, such failure is increasingly plausible because of the problematic nature of nuclear deterrence in general, and because of the particular circumstances of the Middle East regarding possible decisional irrationality.

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

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

6. As only a distinctly last resort,[24] Israel could need nuclear weapons for nuclear war fighting.  Although, in the best of all possible worlds, this residual need would never have to arise, and although Israel should always do everything possible to avoid any such use (Project Daniel made this avoidance a major point in its final report, Israel’s Strategic Future, presentedto former PM Sharon in 2003), it cannot be ruled out altogether. Rather, Israeli planners and decision-makers who could possibly find themselves in a dire situation of “no alternative” (Ein Breira) must still take it seriously.  Among the possible and more-or-less probable paths to nuclear war fighting are the following:  enemy nuclear first-strikes against Israel; enemy non-nuclear first-strikes against Israel that elicit Israeli nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes; Israeli nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets; Israeli non-nuclear preemptions against enemy states with nuclear assets that elicit enemy nuclear reprisals, either immediately or via incremental escalation processes.  Other paths to nuclear war fighting might include accidental/unintentional/inadvertent nuclear attacks between Israel and regional enemy states, and even the escalatory consequences of nuclear terrorism against the nation.   As long as it can be assumed that Israel is determined to endure, there remainconditions wherein Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv could resort to nuclear war fighting.  This holds true if: (a) enemy first-strikes against Israel would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy retaliations for Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear weapons would not destroy enemy second-strike nuclear capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for enemy conventional first-strikes would not destroy enemy nuclear counter-retaliatory capabilities.  It follows, from the standpoint of Israel’s nuclear requirements, that Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv should prepare to do what is needed to ensure the likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the unlikelihood of (c) and (d).

7. Israel also needs nuclear weapons for a residual “Samson Option.” Although any such use of nuclear weapons would be profoundly catastrophic by definition, Israel could still reason that it would be better to “die with the Philistines” than to die alone.  This sort of last-resort understanding is more than a matter of Jewish honor, and is also more than a refutation of the so-called “Masada complex” (suicide without punishment of the aggressor).  It could (depending upon level of awareness by an enemy state) represent an integral and indispensable element of Israel’s overall nuclear deterrent.  The biblical analogy is somewhat misleading.  Samson chose suicide by pushing apart the temple pillars, whereas Israel, using nuclear weapons as a last resort, would not be choosing “suicide” or even committing suicide.  For nation-states, the criteria of “life” and “death” are hardly as clear-cut as they are for individual persons.  Inter alia, it is essential that Israel’s new leaders, in considering possible uses of nuclear weapons, regard the Samson Option as one to be precluded by correct resort to all other nuclear options.  Stated differently, any resort to the Samson Option by Israel would imply the complete failure of all other options, and therefore the failure of its nuclear weapons to provide essential national security.

Deterrence Options

               Scholars may observe (numbers 1 – 2, above) that Israel needs nuclear weapons, among other purposes, to deter large conventional attacks and all levels of unconventional attack by enemy states.   Yet, the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in meeting these needs may be distinctly limited and problematic.  Even if the country should sometime move toward partial or full disclosure of its presumptive nuclear weapons, Israel could not reasonably rely entirely upon nuclear deterrence for its survival.

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

               Where a rational enemy state considering an attack upon Israel would be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might then choose to strike first, depending, of course, upon the particular value or utility it places upon the expected outcomes of such an attack.

               Regarding willingness, even if Jerusalem were prepared to respond to certain attacks with nuclear reprisals, any enemy failure to recognize such preparedness could still provoke an attack upon Israel.  Here, misperception and/or errors in information could immobilize Israeli nuclear deterrence.  It is also conceivable that Jerusalem would sometime lack willingness to retaliate, and that enemy decision-makers could then perceive this lack correctly.  In this notably perilous case, Israeli nuclear deterrence would be immobilized not because of any “confused signals,” but rather because of specific Israeli intelligence and/or policy failures.

               Regarding capacity, even if Israel is known to maintain a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons, it is essential that an enemy state such as Iran always believe these weapons to be usable. This means that if a first-strike attack were believed capable of destroying Israel’s arsenal, the Jewish State’s nuclear deterrent could still be immobilized.  Even if Israel’s nuclear weapons were configured such that they could not be destroyed by an enemy first-strike, enemy misperceptions or misjudgments about Israeli vulnerability could occasion the catastrophic failure of nuclear deterrence. 

               A further complication here might concern enemy state deployment of anti-tactical ballistic missile defenses, which could contribute to an attack decision against Israel by lowering, more-or-less, the intended aggressor’s expected costs.[25]

               The importance of “usable” nuclear weapons must also be examined from the standpoint of probable harms.  Should Israel’s nuclear weapons be perceived by any would-be attacker as “too destructive,” they might not deter.  Here, to some extent at least, successful nuclear deterrence may actually (and ironically) vary inversely with perceived destructiveness. At the same time, per earlier recommendations by Project Daniel, it is essential that Israel always base its central deterrence position on appropriate levels of “counter value” (counter-city) targeting; never on “counterforce.”[26]

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

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

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

               To the extent that removing the bomb from the basement or disclosure, would encourage enemy views of an Israeli force that is sufficiently invulnerable to first-strike attacks and/or is capable of piercing enemy active defenses, disclosure could soon represent a rational and prudent option for Israel.[27]  Here, the operational benefits of disclosure would stem from variously deliberate flows of information about dispersion, multiplication, hardening, speed and evasiveness of nuclear weapons systems, and about certain other pertinent technical features of certain nuclear weapons.  Most importantly, such flows, which could also refer to command/control invulnerability and possible pre-delegations of launch authority, could serve to remove any lingering enemy doubts about Israel’s nuclear force capabilities.

               Left unchallenged, however, such doubts could undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence. 

               There is more. Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could heighten enemy perceptions of Israel’s willingness to make good on retaliatory threats.  For example, by releasing information about its nuclear forces that identifies distinctly usable weapons, Israel could successfully remove any remaining doubts about the country’s nuclear resolve.  A prospective attacker, newly aware that Israel could retaliate across the entire spectrum of possible yield scenarios without generating intolerably high levels of civilian harms, could then be more likely (because of Israeli disclosure) to believe Jerusalem’s nuclear deterrent threats.

               There are substantially vital connections between disclosure, doctrine and deterrence.  To the extent that Israel’s strategic doctrine actually identifies certain nuanced and graduated forms of reprisal – forms calibrating Israeli retaliations, to particular levels of provocation – any disclosure of such doctrine (at least in its broadest and most unspecific contours) could contribute to Israel’s nuclear deterrence.  Without such disclosure, Israel’s enemies could be kept guessing about Jerusalem’s probable responses, a condition of protracted uncertainty that could conceivably serve Israel’s security for a while longer, but, at one time or another, could also fail altogether.

               For more than fifty years, I have studied the stunningly complex problem of enemy rationality, including certain earlier published writings concerning the nuclear threat from Iran. By definition, strategic assessments of nuclear deterrence always assume a rational state enemy; that is, an enemy that values its own continued survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. But for actual operational reasons, this assumption could sometimes become problematic. 

               There is no plausible reason to assume that all prospective attackers of Israel would consistently rank physical survival above all other possible options or even that such attackers would hew perfectly to careful, systematic and transitive comparisons of all expected costs and benefits.  As long as such enemies are capable of missile attacks upon Israel, and as long as Israel is unable to intercept these attacks with a near-perfect or even perfect reliability (no system of ballistic missile defense, including Israel’s Arrow, can ever be leak-proof),[28] any too-great an Israeli dependence upon nuclear deterrence could have existential consequences.

                Where should Israel go from here?  Recognizing the substantial limitations of any “Middle East Peace Process,” Israel must seek its security, at least in part, beyond the tactical protections offered by nuclear deterrence.  Also, it must, as earlier recommended by Project Daniel(2003), stay prepared for possible preemptions against pertinent military targets. Although many will find any such preparations to be “aggressive,” “disproportionate”[29] or “uncivilized,” and while it may already be very late in the game for considering relevant attack scenarios, alternatives could amount to national suicide. Significantly, the right of preemption[30] is well established under customary international law,[31] where it is known formally as “anticipatory self-defense.” [32]

Preemption Options

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

               Regarding its rational preemption options, Israel’s overriding question should be as follows:  Because Jerusalem must plan for such forms of anticipatory self-defense, against which particular configurations of hard targets should they be directed and when should they be mounted?  If it is assumed that enemy states will only add to their chemical/biological/nuclear arsenals, and that these additions (together with variable air defenses) will make any effective Israeli preemptions more and more difficult, if not impossible, rational Israeli strategy could compel Jerusalem to strike defensively as soon as possible.  If, however, it was assumed that there will be no significant enlargement/deployment of enemy unconventional weapons or air defenses over time, this may actuallysuggest a diminished strategic rationale for Israel to strike first. 

               Israel’s inclinations to strike preemptively in certain circumstances could also be affected by the steps taken by prospective target states to guard against any Israeli preemption.  Should Israel refrain too long from striking first, enemy states could then implement protective measures that would pose additional hazards to Israel. These measures could include the attachment of certain launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems, and/or the adoption of “launch-on-warning” policies.  Such policies would call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles on mere receipt of warning that a missile attack is underway.  Requiring launch before the attacking warheads actually reached their intended targets, launch-on-warning could clearly carry very grave risks of error.

               Ideally, Israel would do everything possible to prevent such enemy measures from being installed in the first place, especially because of the expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks against its armaments and population centers.  Yet, if such measures should become fact, Jerusalem might still reasonably calculate that a preemptive strike would be cost-effective.  This is because an expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, might still appear less unacceptable than the expected consequences of enemy first strikes.

               Perhaps the single most important factor in Israeli judgments on the preemption option will be the expected rationality of enemy decision-makers.  If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike at Israel with unconventional forces, irrespective of anticipated Israeli counterstrikes, deterrence, as we have already seen, might not work.  This means that certain enemy strikes could be expected even if enemy leaders understood that Israel had “successfully” deployed its own nuclear weapons in survivable modes, that Israel’s weapons were entirely capable of penetrating enemy active defenses, and that Israel’s leaders were fully willing to retaliate.

               Faced with an irrational enemy bent upon unconventional aggression,[33] Israel could sometime have no effective choice but to abandon all reliance on traditional modes of nuclear deterrence. At the same time, even an irrational enemy –  that is, one that does not value national survival more highly than every other preference, or combination of preferences[34] – could still maintain a recognizable and “transitive” hierarchy of wants. For Iran, such a hierarchy would likely place certain Shiite religious values and institutions at the very top. Hence, directing retaliatory threats toward precisely such values and/or institutions could conceivably still “work.”

                Even if it is not faced with an irrational enemy,[35] Israel will still have to plan carefully for certain preemption options, planning that must take into account Jerusalem’s own nuclear weapons. In the course of such planning, it will be important to recognize that enemy capabilities and intentions are not separate and discrete, but rather interpenetrating, interdependent, and interactive.  This means:  (1) capabilities affect intentions, and vice-versa; and (2) the combined effects of capabilities and intentions may produce certain policy outcomes that are greatly accelerated, and/or are more than the simple sum of these individual effects.

               What are the particular dangers issuing from Iran? For the moment, those who would still downplay the Iranian threat to Israel sometimes argue that Teheran’s unconventional capabilities remain problematic, and/or that its willingness to attack Israel – Jihadist ideologies/motivations notwithstanding [36]– is still tolerably low.  Yet, over the next year, that country’s further development of nuclear weapons will likely become irreversible – accelerated, perhaps, by former US President Donald Trump’s poorly-conceived withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA agreement – creating conditions whereby a first-strike against Israel might sometime be construed as rational. 

               Whether correct or incorrect in its calculations, any Iranian leadership that believed it could strike Israel with impunity, near-impunity, or at least without incurring what it defined as unacceptable costs, could be strongly motivated to undertake such a strike.  Such motivation could be further heightened to the extent that Iran remained uncertain about Israel’s own preemption plans. Here, Iranian capabilities could affect, and possibly even determine, Iranian intentions.

               The Iranian threat to Israel might, on the other hand, originate from a different direction.  In this scenario, Iran’s intentions toward the Jewish State, irremediably hostile and perhaps even potentially genocidal, could animate Teheran’s accelerated development of nuclear military capabilities. Representing genuinely far-reaching hatreds rather than mere bluster and propagandistic bravado, Iranian diatribes against Israel could ensure the continuing production/deployment of increasingly destructive forces, weapons, and postures that would threaten Israel’s physical survival. 

               What has been described here are circumstances wherein Iranian intentions could affect, and possibly even determine, Iranian capabilities.  Such circumstances now warrant very careful strategic attention in Jerusalem.

               What if Iran’s intentions toward Israel were not irremediably hostile or genocidal? What if its public bombast were not an expression of genuinely belligerent motivations, but rather a concocted position designed entirely for intranational, and/or international political consumption?  The short and most obvious answer to these questions is that such shallow and contrived intentions would not impact Iranian capabilities vis-à-vis Israel. 

               Yet, upon reflection, it is likely that even certain inauthentic expressions of intent could, over time, become authentic, that repeated again and again, such expressions could become self-fulfilling.

                It would be unreasonable for Israel to draw any substantial comfort from an argument that Iranian intentions are effectively harmless. Over time, such falsely reassuring intentions could impact capabilities, perhaps even decisively.  Backed by appropriate nuclear weapons, certain preemption options must remain open and viable to Israel, augmented, of course, by appropriate and complementary plans for comprehensive cyber-defense and cyber-warfare.

               If one or another “Peace Process” should eventually produce a Palestinian State, the effects on enemy capabilities and intentions and therefore on Israeli preemption options, could become significant.  Israel’s substantial loss of strategic depth might be recognized here by enemy states as a distinct military liability for Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv.[37] Such recognition, in turn, could then heat up enemy intentions against Israel, occasioning an accelerated search for capabilities and consequently a heightened risk of war.

               Israel could foresee such enemy calculations, and then seek to compensate for the loss of territories in a number of very different ways.  It could decide that it was time to take its bomb out of the “basement” (nuclear disclosure) as a deterrence-enhancing measure, but this might not be enough of a productive strategy. It could, therefore, accept a heightened willingness to launch preemptive strikes against enemy hard targets, strikes backed up by Israeli nuclear weapons. Made aware of any such Israeli intentions, intentions that would derive from Israel’s new territorial vulnerabilities, certain enemy states could respond in a more or less parallel fashion, preparing more openly and more quickly for their own nuclearization, and/or for first-strike conventional attacks against the Jewish State.

               Taken by itself, a Palestinian state, although non-nuclear itself, could still affect the cumulative capabilities and intentions of Israel and its enemies. But if such a state were created at the same time that Israel had reduced or abandoned its nuclear weapons capabilities, the total impact could be much greater. This starkly complex “correlation of forces”[38] scenario should never be dismissed out of hand. 

               What would happen if Israel were ever to openly relinquish its nuclear options? Under such difficult to imagine circumstances, Israel would not only be more vulnerable to enemy first strikes, it would also be deprived of its essential preemption alternatives. Any Israeli counter-retaliatory deterrence could be immobilized by reduction or removal of its nuclear weapons potential; also, Israeli preemptions could not possibly be 100% effective against enemy unconventional forces. 

               A less than 100% level of effectiveness could be tolerable if Israel had a “leak proof” ATBM (anti-tactical ballistic missile) capability in the Arrow and its related multi-layered systems,[39] but any such capability is unachievable.

Nuclear War fighting Options

               In principle, at least, Israel could require nuclear weapons, among their other essential purposes, for actual nuclear war fighting. Should nuclear deterrence options and/or preemption options fail altogether, Israel’s “hard target” capabilities could then become necessary to national survival. These capabilities would depend, in part, upon nuclear weapons.

               What, exactly, would be appropriate” in such expressly dire circumstances, under conditionsthat Israel must continuously strive to prevent?Instead of “Armageddon” type weapons (see the “Samson Option,” below), Israel would need precision nuclear warheads that could reduce collateral damage to acceptable levels, and hypervelocity nuclear warheads that could readily overcome enemy active defenses. Israel would also benefit from certain radio-frequency weapons. These are nuclear warheads that are tailored to produce as much electromagnetic pulse as possible, destroying electronics and communications over wide areas.

               Regarding the nuclear weapons needed by Israel for actual nuclear war fighting, Jerusalem would require an intermediate option between capitulation on the one hand and a resort to multi-megaton nuclear weapons on the other. 

               Any such discussion may seem objectionable to all people of feeling and sensitivity.   It would, after all, be more apparently “peaceful” to speak of nuclear arms control or sustainable nuclear deterrence or even preemption than nuclear war fighting.  Yet, the Middle East remains a particularly dangerous and potentially irrational neighborhood, and any strategic failure to confront the most catastrophic possibilities could very quickly produce the most correspondingly terrible harms.

                For Israel, a state born out of the ashes of humankind’s most terrible crime, genocide looms both as an ineradicable memory and as a sobering expectation.  Resisting the short-term temptations of any future “Road Map” or contrived “Peace Process,” its new leaders must plan accordingly. But, per earlier recommendations by Project Daniel (2003), nuclear war fighting options should always be rejected wherever possible.[40]

The Samson Option

               Recurring proposals for a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone notwithstanding, Israel needs to maintain its nuclear weapons, both for the indisputably compelling reasons already discussed and also for “last resort” purposes.  Although this is likely the least important need – since, by definition, any actual resort to the Samson Option[41] would reveal the antecedent failure and collapse of all essential security functions – it is not unimportant.  This is because Israeli preparations for last resort operations could still play a major role in enhancing Israeli nuclear deterrence, preemption, and war fighting requirements, and because such preparations could show the world that the post-Holocaust Jewish State had kept its most primal faith with an unwavering Jewish obligation.

               Regarding any prospective contributions to Israeli nuclear deterrence, preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince any would-be attackers that aggression would not prove gainful. This is especially the case if Israeli preparations were coupled with some level of disclosure, if Israel’s pertinent Samson weapons appeared to be sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes, and if these weapons were identifiably “counter value” in mission function. By definition, the Samson Option would need to be executed with counter value-targeted nuclear weapons. Any such last-resort operations could come into play only after all Israeli counterforce options had already been exhausted.

                Considering what strategists sometimes call the “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could aid Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a willingness to take existential risks, but this would hold true only if last-resort options were not tied definitionally to certain destruction.       

               Regarding prospective contributions to preemption alternatives, preparation for a Samson Option could convince Israel that essential defensive first strikes would be undertaken with diminished expectations of any unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations.  This would depend upon antecedent Israeli decisions on disclosure, on Israeli perceptions of the effects of disclosure on enemy retaliatory prospects, on Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability, and on enemy awareness of Samson’s counter value force posture. 

               As in the case of Samson and Israeli nuclear deterrence (above), any last-resort preparations could assist Israeli preemption options by displaying a persuasive willingness to take existential risks.  But Israeli planners must be mindful here of pretended irrationality as a double-edged sword.  Brandished too “irrationally,” Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could sometime encourage enemy preemptions.

               Regarding prospective contributions to Israel’s nuclear war fighting options, preparation for a Samson Option could help convince enemy states that achieving a clear victory would be impossible.  But here, it would be important for Israel to communicate to potential aggressors the following understanding:  Israel’s counter value-targeted Samson weapons are additional to (not at the expense of) its counterforce-targeted war fighting weapons. In the absence of such communication, recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could effectively impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear war fighting options

Quo Vadis?

               Nuclear weapons states are notcreated equal. Some, like Iran, in a few years from now, could present an inestimable threat of nuclear engagement.[42] Others, like already-nuclear Israel, need nuclear weapons and associated doctrine to secure themselves from residually mortal harms, whether sudden or incremental. Without these weapons and possibly certain others, Clausewitz’s concept of insufficient “mass” (here referencing Israel’s irremediably limited strategic depth) could at some point overtake and suffocate the mini-state.

                In the still “Westphalian” international system,[43] Israel’s nuclear weapons are required to fulfill identifiable deterrence options, preemption options, potential war fighting options and even a Samson Option. Accordingly, these complex weapons should never be negotiated away in formal international agreements, especially in the midst of any so-called “Peace Process” and during its expectedly attendant creation of a Palestinian state. This imperative remains valid no matter how appealing the ultimate vision of a “world without nuclear weapons” and no matter how apparently sincere the peace-orientation of Iran’s leadership elite.

                For Israel, nuclear weapons choices should be made in cumulative conformance with the seven (7) relevant options just discussed, and with the ever-changing strategic environment of regional and world power configurations.  In the final analysis, regrettable as it may first appear, the ultimate structure of Israeli security must be built in substantial measure upon foundations of nuclear weapons and strategic doctrine, not on “security regimes,” “confidence building measures,” “nuclear weapon free-zones” or US-mediated “Abraham Accords.”[44] On this core point, U.S. President Joseph Biden and his counselors should take careful note: If these foundations were constructed carefully and diligently in Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv, they could best assure that nuclear weapons would never actually be used.

               There remains one last key observation concerning nuclear doctrine and strategy. Israeli planners must always make certain essential distinctions (1) between intentional and inadvertent nuclear war; and (2) between inadvertent nuclear war and accidental nuclear war. By definition, an accidental nuclear war would always be inadvertent, but an inadvertent nuclear war would not necessarily be accidental. False warnings, which could be spawned by mechanical, electrical or computer malfunction or by cyber-hacking, would fit under variously clarifying narratives of accidental nuclear war. A nuclear war caused by decisional miscalculation would be inadvertent but not accidental.

               In dealing with a future nuclear Iran (i.e., Iran in another few years), Israel (and reciprocally, Iran) would have to strike a continuously correct balance between achieving “escalation dominance” and avoiding intra-crisis escalations. During contestation in extremis atomicum, several unanticipated entanglements could lead quickly to a nuclear war.[45] Always, the pertinent decision-makers should bear in mind, these are essentially unprecedented scenarios, and ought never be approached with an intellectually-empty bravado or hubris.

               A non-Israeli case in point as former US President Donald J. Trump’s visceral approach to the Singapore Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, an approach based on “attitude,” not “preparation.” Unsurprisingly, United States security vis-a-vis North Korea is not at its lowest historical point. Thanks to empty US presidential bravado and hubris, North Korean nuclearization has continuously accelerated.

               Today, in a Middle East region marked by a steadily-advancing chaos,[46] more conspicuous equanimity and caution could provide tangible security gains for all. This common gain could be jurisprudential as well as strategic,[47] and place Israel much more squarely in the valued category of law-based and law enforcing nation-states. To be sure, in the best of all possible worlds, the need for national nuclear deterrence would be unnecessary everywhere. But a world order based firmly upon human cooperation and human “oneness” is not yet plausible.[48]

               For now, even in the best of all still-reasonable and still-realistic world systems, Israel should  stay focused on catastrophic war between states[49] and on nuclear doctrine and strategy. Inter alia, former US President Donald J. Trump’s “Abraham, Accords” represent little more than jurisprudential caricature, firming up “peace” between states that never displayed any discernible inclinations toward active belligerency. What is needed, going forward, is a more thoroughly dialectical[50] understanding of credible connections between an expanding Palestinian insurgency and potentially impending nuclear threats from Iran.[51] Though T.S. Eliot describes his geopolitical “wasteland” as “unreal,” the poet was actually being characteristically ironic.

               There is nothing “unreal” about larger and more frequent wars[52] occurring in the Middle East.

               Nothing at all.

[1]See, by this author, Louis René Beres:   The actual security benefits to Israel of any explicit reductions in nuclear ambiguity would remain dependent, more or less, upon Clausewitzian “friction.” This refers to the inherently unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning intra-Israel (IDF/MOD) strategic uncertainties; on Israeli and Iranian under-estimations or over-estimations of relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[2]See, by present author: Louis René Beres,

[3] One may think here of the warning by the High Lama in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon: “The storm…this storm that you talk of…. It will be such a one, my son, as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage until every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos…. The Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world is a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary.”

[4] Under international law, terrorist movements are always Hostes humani generis, or “Common enemies of mankind.” See: Research in International Law: Draft Convention on Jurisdiction with Respect to Crime, 29 AM J. INT’L L. (Supp 1935) 435, 566 (quoting King v. Marsh (1615), 3 Bulstr. 27, 81 Eng. Rep 23 (1615) (“a pirate est Hostes humani generis”)).

[5] Formal application of the law of war to insurgent forces dates to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. As more than codified treaties and conventions comprise the law of war or humanitarian international law, it is also plain that obligations of jus in bello (justice in war) are part of “the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations” (Art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice) and thereby bind all categories of belligerents. (See Statute of the International Court of Justice, art. 38, June 29, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. 993). Hague Convention IV of 1907 declares that even in the absence of a precisely published set of guidelines regarding “unforeseen cases,” the operative pre-conventional sources of humanitarian international law obtain and govern all belligerency. Moreover, the related Martens Clause is included in the Preamble of the 1899 Hague Conventions, International Convention with Respect to the Laws and Customs of War by Land, July 29, 1899, 187 Consol. T.S. 429, 430.

[6] Recalling Blaise Pascal’s Pensées: “All our dignity consists in thought…. It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.”

[7]See, by this author, at Modern Diplomacy: Louis René Beres,

[8] See, by this author, at The Jerusalem Post:  Louis René Beres, and at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School: Louis René Beres:

[9] For early accounts by this author of nuclear war effects in particular, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: 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). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[10] Reference here is to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years War, and created the now still-existing and radically decentralized state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648., 1, Consol. T.S. 119; together, these two treaties comprise the very important Peace of Westphalia.

[11] The seventeenth-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, instructs that although international relations are in a state of nature, it is nonetheless a more benign condition than that of individual men in nature. With individual human beings, Hobbes reflected, “the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.” Now, however, with the advent and spread of nuclear weapons, there is no longer any reason to believe that the state of nature remains more tolerable. Moreover, precisely because of this significant transformation of the state of nations into a true Hobbesian state of nature, certain individual states such as Israel even more desperately require a nuclear “equalizer.”

[12] See: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,” Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Beres and General Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; Professor Beres and General Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009; Professor Beres and General Ben-Israel, “Defending Israel from Iranian Nuclear Attack,” The Jewish Press, March 13, 2013; Louis René Beres and (General/USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?”  The Atlantic, August 9, 2012; and Professor Beres and General Chain, “Living with Iran,” BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Israel, May 2014. General Chain was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[13] A different opinion, however, is offered by Israeli academic strategist, Professor Zeev Maoz. See his 2004 debate with this writer: Louis René Beres and Zeev Maoz, “Israel and the Bomb: A Dialogue,” International Security (Harvard), Vol. 29, No. 1, Summer 2004, pp. 175-180.

[14] For a systematic assessment by this author of how a nuclear war might begin in the Middle East, see:  Louis René Beres:

[15] See: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York and London: Roman & Littlefield, 2016); Louis René Beres, “Looking Ahead: Revising Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity in the Middle East,” Herzliya Conference Working Paper, March, 2013; and 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.

[16] For an early treatment of this issue/metaphor, see: Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath/Lexington Books), 1986, 243 pp.

[17] Two Prime Ministers have already had pertinent “slips of the tongue” about Israel possessing nuclear weapons. On December 22, 1995, then Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared to the press that Israel would be willing to “give up the atom” in exchange for peace. Years later, on December 11, 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made much the same statement. Of course, neither prime minister went so far as to make his particular disclosure more purposefully or strategically revealing.

[18] No state, including Israel, is ever under any automatic legal obligation to renounce access to nuclear weapons. In certain distinctly residual or last-resort circumstances, even the actual use of nuclear weapons could be lawful (to the extent, of course, that such use was consistent with codified and customary expectations of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity). On July 8, 1996, the International Court of Justice at The Hague handed down its Advisory Opinion on “The Legality of the Threat or Use of Force of Nuclear Weapons.” The final paragraph of this Opinion concludes as follows: “The threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law. However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of the state would be at stake.” Significantly, Iran, unlike Israel, is a party to the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and has thereby lawfully bound itself never to build or use nuclear weapons.

[19] Following former US President Donald J. Trump’s “Abraham Accords,” the likelihood of coordinated Sunni Arab attacks has perhaps been diminished, but the probability of Shiite attack from Iran has probably been enlarged. One negative factor in this timely calculation is that these agreements – and also the complementary accords signed by Israel with Sudan and Morocco – will have the effect of masking Iran more insecure. See:    For complementary agreements with Sudan and Morocco, see Israel-Sudan Normalization Agreement (October 23, 2020) and Israel-Morocco Normalization Agreement (December 10, 2020).

[20] For philosophic origins of geopolitics (Realpolitik), see Plato ‘s Republic:  “Right is the interest of the stronger,” says Thrasymachus in Bk. I, Sec. 338 of The Republic (B. Jowett tr., 1875).  “Justice is a contract neither to do nor to suffer wrong,” says Glaucon, id., Bk. II, Sec. 359.  See also, Philus in Bk III, Sec. 5 of Cicero, De Republica.

[21] Article 38(1)(b) of the STATUTE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE describes international custom as “evidence of a general practice accepted as law.” The essential significance of a norm’s customary character is that the norms bind even those states that are not parties to the pertinent codification. Even where a customary norm and a norm restated in treaty form are apparently identical, these norms are treated as jurisprudentially discrete. During the merits phase of MILITARY AND PARAMILITARY ACTIVITIES IN AND AGAINST NICARAGUA, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated: “Even if two norms belonging to two sources of international law appear identical in content, and even if the States in question are bound by these rules both on the level of treaty-law and on that of customary international law, these norms retain a separate existence.” See: MILITARY AND PARAMILITARY ACTIVITIES IN AND AGAINST NICARAGUA, Nicar. V. US., Merits, 1986 ICJ, Rep. 14 (Judgment of 27 June).

[22] See, on this issue: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, op. cit., Louis René Beres, “Staying Strong: Enhancing Israel’s Essential Strategic Options,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, June 13, 2014; Louis René Beres, “Changing Direction? Updating Israel’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Strategic Assessment, INSS, Israel, Vol. 17., No.3, October 2014, pp. 93-106; Louis René Beres, “Forging Israeli Strategic Doctrine to Deal with Iran,” The Jerusalem Post, November 19, 2013; and Louis René Beres, “Facing Myriad Enemies: Core Elements of Israeli Nuclear Deterrence,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. XX, Issue 1, Fall/Winter 2013, pp. 17-30.

[23]See, by this author at Israel Defense (Tel Aviv):  Louis René Beres,

[24] By any measure of reasonableness, exercising a nuclear war fighting option must be regarded by Israel as the single most residual and reluctant choice. Nuclear weapons can succeed only via skillful non-use, that is, as a deterrent. Long prior to the nuclear age, ancient Chinese military theorist Sun-Tzu argued in The Art of War: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence” (see Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”). See also, by this author: Louis René Beres, “Lessons for Israel from Ancient Chinese Military Thought: Facing Iranian Nuclearization with Sun-Tzu,” Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School, October 2013.

[25] See: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[26] Israel, it would appear, has already rejected any doctrinal notions of battlefield or tactical nuclear weaponry. Interestingly, Pakistan, an already nuclear Islamic state and still in protracted nuclear standoff with India, has expressly tilted toward theater nuclear weapons (TNW). Since Pakistan first announced its test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile in 2011, that country’s emphasis on TNW appears to have been intended to more effectively deter conventional war with India. In essence, by threatening, implicitly, to use relatively low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons in retaliation for any major Indian conventional attacks, Pakistan hopes to appear more credible and less provocative to Delhi. By such appearance, Islamabad could less likely elicit Indian nuclear reprisals.

[27] In this connection, Israel has likely been moving toward further sea-basing for a portion of its strategic nuclear forces. On these submarine-basing measures, see: 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. Admiral Edney is former NATO Supreme Allied Commander/Atlantic.

[28] On pertinent Israeli liabilities of ballistic missile defense, 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 MG Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and MG Isaac Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009.

[29] The law of armed conflict is largely concerned with the “principle of proportionality,” a principle that has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the “law of exact retaliation.” Significantly for Israel, the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” precept can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch. These Torah rules are likely related to the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728- expression 1686 BCE), the first written evidence of penalizing wrongdoing with exact retaliation. In matters concerning personal injury, the code prescribes an eye for an eye (# 196), breaking bone for bone (#197), and extracting tooth for tooth (#199). Among the ancient Hebrews, we must speak not of the Lex Talionis, but of several. Lex Talionis appears in only three passages of the Torah. In their sequence of probable antiquity, they are: Exodus 21: 22-25; Deuteronomy 19: 19-21; and Leviticus 24: 17-21. All have similarities to various other Near Eastern legal codes. These three passages address specific concerns: hurting a pregnant woman, perjury, and guarding Yahweh’s altar against defilement. See Marvin Henberg, Retribution: Evil for Evil in Ethics, Law and Literature, 59-186 (1990). In contemporary international law, the principle of proportionality can be found in the traditional view that a state offended by another state’s use of force, if the offending state refuses to make amends, “is then entitled to take `proportionate’ reprisals.” See Ingrid Detter De Lupis, The Law of War, 75 (1987). Evidence for the rule of proportionality can also be found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) at Art. 4. Similarly, the American Convention on Human Rights allows at Art. 27(1) such derogations “in time of war, public danger or other emergency which threaten the independence or security of a party” on “condition of proportionality.” In essence, the military principle of proportionality requires that the amount of destruction permitted must be proportionate to the importance of the objective. In contrast, the political principle of proportionality states “a war cannot be just unless the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensure from the war is less than the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensue if the war is not fought.” See Douglas P. Lackey, THE ETHICS OF WAR AND PEACE, 40 (1989).

[30]This is a right previously and prominently exercised by Israel. The Six Day War, (1967); Operation Opera (1981); and Operation Orchard (2007) come immediately to mind.

[31] The customary right of anticipatory self-defense has its modern origins in the Caroline incident, an event that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada, against British rule. Following this incident, the mere threat of a serious armed attack can now sometimes be taken as sufficient legal justification for preemptive military action. More precisely, in an exchange of notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require a prior attack. Here, a proportionate and discriminate military response to military threat was judged permissible, as long as the danger posed was determinably “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

[32] Classically, Cicero’s justification for anticipatory self-defense, as recalled by Hugo Grotius in his authoritative Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, is that it obtains “whenever he who chooses to hesitate will be obliged to pay an unjust penalty, before he can exact a just penalty….” Grotius, who wrote and published in the seventeenth century, is universally regarded as the “father of international law.”

[33] Under international law, the crime of aggression – itself derivative from earlier criminalizing codifications at Nuremberg’s 1945 London Charter, and the 1928 Pact of Paris, has nothing to do with the particular nature of weaponry employed (conventional or unconventional). See: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No.31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974.

[34] Consider Oswald Spengler: “`I believe,'” is the great word against metaphysical fear, and at the same time it is an avowal of love.'” See: The Decline of the West, his Chapter on “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.”

[35] A worrisome variant of enemy irrationality would be any adversary that views death as a zero-sum commodity; i.e., believes its own life requires the death of certain designated “others.” The underlying core idea here is captured generically by Ernest Becker’s paraphrase of Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises it head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.” (See Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil 2 (1975).  Similarly, according to Otto Rank: “The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.” (See: Otto Rank, Will Therapy and Reality 130 (Knopf, 1945) (1936).

[36] Such potentially apocalyptic motivations should not be dismissed too lightly. See, on this point: Andrew G. Bostom, Iran’s Final Solution for Israel: The Legacy of Jihad, and Shiite Islamic Jew Hatred in Iran, Amazon, March 24, 2014, 350 pp. Dr. Bostom is also the author of The Legacy of Jihad: The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism; and Sharia Versus Freedom. See also: Bernard Lewis, The Political Language of Islam (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1988).

[37] In this connection, Israel could take no comfort from any pre-independence agreements for Palestinian “demilitarization.” On this point, see: Louis René Beres and Ambassador Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, Winter, 1998, pp. 347-363. Zalman Shoval was a two-time Israeli Ambassador to the United States.

[38] See: Louis René Beres, “Understanding the Correlation of Forces in the Middle East: Israel’s Urgent Strategic Imperative,” The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. IV, No. 1., (2010).

[39] Israel’s anti-missile defense shield has four acknowledged layers: The Iron Dome system for intercepting short-range rockets; David’s Sling for medium-range rockets; Arrow-2 against intermediate-range ballistic missiles; and Arrow-3 for deployment against ICBM’s and (potentially) satellites.

[40]Louis René Beres:

[41] Earlier, by this writer, see: Louis René Beres, “Israel and Samson: Biblical Lessons for Israel’s Strategy in the Nuclear Age,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 1. No.3, July 2005, pp. 491-503.

[42]See, by this author, Louis René Beres:   To answer all its most compelling nuclear  concerns, Israel’s strategic planners will need to adhere to well-established scientific canons of systematic inquiry, logical analysis and dialectical reasoning. Four plausible and potentially intersecting narratives “cover the bases” of Israel’s nuclear war risk scenarios: 1) nuclear retaliation; 2) nuclear counter-retaliation; 3) nuclear preemption; and 4) nuclear warfighting.

[43] Regarding legal origins of this Westphalian system, it was founded upon twin–principles of sovereignty and self-determination. See, by this author: Louis Rene Beres, “Self-Determination, International Law and Survival on Planet Earth,” Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, Vol. 11., No. 1., 1994, pp. 1-26. See also: Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (The Principle of Equal Rights and Self-Determination of Peoples), G.A. Res. 2625, U.N. GAOR, 25th Sess., Supp. No. 28 at 121, U.N. Doc. A/8028 (1970), reprinted in 9 I.L.M. 1292; Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, G.A. Res. 1514, U.N. GAOR, 15th Sess., Supp. No. 16, at 66, U.N. Doc. A/4684 (1960); Principles Which Should Guide Members in Determining Whether or Not an Obligation Exists to Transmit the Information Called for Under Article 73e of the Charter, G.A. Res. 1541, U.N. GAOR, 15th Sess., Supp. No. 16, at 29, U.N. Doc. A/4684 (1960).

[44]For a recent and authoritative assessment of one element of  these accords, see:

[45] Israeli planners must inquire whether accepting risks of a limited nuclear war would exacerbate enemy nuclear intentions, or whether it would enhance the nation’s viable nuclear deterrent. Such conceptual questions have been raised by this author for many years, but usually in reference to more broadly theoretical or generic nuclear questions. See, for example, Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1972); Louis René Beres, Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979; second edition, 1987); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016).

[46] Whether it is described in the Old Testament or in other discernible sources of ancient Western thought, chaos can also be viewed as a source of human betterment. Chaos is that which prepares the world for all things, both sacred and profane. Further, as its conspicuous etymology reveals, chaos represents the yawning gulf or gap wherein nothing is as yet, but where all civilizational opportunity must inevitably originate. Appropriately, the great German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic which stands at the roots of the things and which prepares all things.” Even in the pagan ancient world, the Greeks thought of such a desert as logos, which indicates to us that it was presumed to be anything but starkly random or without conceivable merit.

[47] Criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is never limited to direct personal action or limited by official position. On this peremptory principle of “command responsibility,” or respondeat superior, see: In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1 (1945); The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb), 12 Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals 1 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp., 1949); see Parks, Command Responsibility for War Crimes, 62 MIL.L. REV. 1 (1973); O’Brien, The Law of War, Command Responsibility and Vietnam, 60 GEO. L.J. 605 (1972); U.S. Dept. Of The Army, Army Subject Schedule No. 27 – 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907), 10 (1970). The direct individual responsibility of leaders is also unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the act of state defense. See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS, Aug. 8, 1945, 59 Stat. 1544, E.A.S. No. 472, 82 U.N.T.S. 279, art. 7.

[48] The term “world order” has its contemporary origins in a scholarly movement begun at the Yale Law School in the mid-and late 1960s, and subsequently expanded at the Politics Department at Princeton University in 1967-68. The present author, Louis René Beres, was an original member of the Princeton-based World Order Models Project, and wrote several early books in this scholarly genre.

[49].Under international law, the generic question of whether or not a state of war actually exists between states may be somewhat ambiguous.  Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was a necessary condition before “formal” war could be said to exist.  Hugo Grotius, for example, divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not.  (See Grotius, THE LAW OF WAR AND PEACE, Bk. III, ch. iii, V and XI).  By the beginning of the twentieth century, the position that war obtains only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties, was codified by Hague Convention III.  More precisely, this convention stipulated that hostilities must not commence without “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum.  (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.)  Currently, of course, declaration of war may be tantamount to declarations of international criminality (because of the criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law), and it could be a jurisprudential absurdity to tie a state of war to formal declarations of belligerency.  It follows that a state of war may exist without formal declarations, but only if there is an armed conflict between two or more states and/or at least one of these states considers itself at war.  On the argument that war need not be formally recognized, see J. Pictet, IV Commentary, Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War 20-1 (1958) (“no need for formal declaration of war, or for recognition of the existence of a state of war”); U.S. Dept. of Army FM 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare 7-8, paras. 8-9 (1956) (instances of armed conflict without declaration of war; law of war applies); The Prize Cases, 67 U.S. (2 Black) at 668 (“war may exist without a declaration on either side”); see also M. McDougal & F. Feliciano, LAW AND MINIMUM WORLD PUBLIC ORDER (1961), pp. 97-113 (legal status of war may be brought about by use of armed force).

[50] Dialectical thinking originated in Fifth Century BCE Athens, as Zeno, author of the Paradoxes, was acknowledged by Aristotle as its “inventor.” In the middle dialogues of Plato, dialectic emerges as the supreme form of philosophic/analytic method. The dialectician, says Plato, is the special one who knows how to ask and then answer vital questions. From the specific standpoint of currently necessary refinements in Israeli nuclear strategy and doctrine, this knowledge should never be underestimated or taken for granted.

[51]Palestinian and Iranian threats could be further enlarged by an always-possible collaboration between (Sunni) Hamas and (Shiite) Hezbollah. For Israel, any such collaboration could be “force-multiplying” or “synergistic” to extant dangers posed by Palestinian terrorism and Iranian nuclearization. In the latter case, by definition, the expected “whole” of any prospective harms to Israel would be greater than the calculable sum of its “parts.”

[52] See:

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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Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority



Credit: U.S. Air Force

Abstract: In post-World War II memory, no greater political danger has confronted the United States than the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Endowed with nuclear command authority, this unstable and openly law-violating American leader pointed the United States toward existential harms.[1] Recognizing this threat to the nation’s physical survival, General Mark Milley acted honorably and effectively to protect an imperiled republic. By expanding pertinent safeguards against any presidential abuse of nuclear command authority,[2] the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff did what was necessary and proper. The following assessment by Professor Louis René Beres, who has been publishing on nuclear war-related issues[3] for more than half a century, underscores what should never again be allowed to defile America’s national security decision-making. “The safety of the people,” reminds Cicero in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”


“As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”

General Maxwell D. Taylor, from personal letter to the author, 14 March 1976[4]

Meanings of Decisional Irrationality

Strictly speaking, irrationality is not a proper medical or psychiatric term; rather, it is a more-or-less scientific description of human distortion and behavioral disposition.[5] Still, as a convenient shorthand for exploring mental or emotional debility in US presidential decision-making, this colloquial reference is adequate, timely and potentially useful. In essence, though now just retrospective, America’s most senior general officer revealed assorted verifiable grounds for questioning former President Donald J. Trump’s mental stability. Now, looking ahead, it is necessary to take a longer term and generic look at US presidential nuclear authority.

               This look must become a task for disciplined strategic thinkers, not politicians.

               How to begin? This uniquely critical area of presidential decision-making – one that has remained ambiguous or deliberately “opaque” – concerns both the right and capacity to order a launch of US nuclear weapons. To be tangibly meaningful, these intersecting decisional components must always be examined together. This is the case though any presidential nuclear capacity functioning without correct antecedent authority would be worrisome per se.

               By definition, as I have discovered personally over the past half century, these are all complicated intellectual matters. In 1976, then just five years out of Princeton as a newly-minted Ph.D., I began work on an original book about nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.[6]  From the start, I focused especially on US presidential prerogatives to order the firing of nuclear weapons.  I was most particularly interested in the potentially-plausible prospect of presidential nuclear irrationality and/or wrongdoing.

               In technically scientific terms, this did not mean a US president who was “clinically insane” (obviously the most fearsome sort of scenario), but “only” a Head of State who might sometime value some specific preference or combination of preferences more highly than American national survival. Today, at least until General Milley’s revelations, we worry more about leadership irrationality in certain other countries, most conspicuously in North Korea and Iran.[7] Nonetheless, as the JCS Chair recently disclosed, the worst atomic decisional errors could happen here. Even if this were not the case, there could still take place  variously unforeseen decisional synergies between (1) a fully rational American president and his irrational negotiating counterparts in Pyongyang or Tehran;[8] or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.[9]

In the Beginning

               Back “in the early days” of apocalyptic nuclear issues, and with an expressly American decision-making focus in mind, I entered into ongoing communication with then-former JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. In my last correspondence with the distinguished and decorated general, he responded with a handwritten letter (attached hereto) dated 14 March 1976. As the Taylor response explicitly referenced only the dangers of an “irrational American president,” I could legitimately undertake no automatic extrapolation of his diagnosis to other strategic risks.[10]

Still, there are various related hazards that ought never be disregarded prima facie.  For example, we must become better prepared to deal with a US Chief Executive who appears more than irrational. This means a president who was seemingly “crazy,” “insane,” or “mad.”[11]

               It is difficult for me to imagine that General Taylor would have hesitated to adapt these characterizations of more advanced decisional “pathology” to the extant subject-matter scope of nuclear decision making. This is the case even though such characterizations could never be seriously scientific. To obtain authentically scientific assessments of nuclear event probability, there must first exist a determinable frequency record of pertinent past events. Unassailably (and fortunately), there has never been a nuclear war from which to draw valid strategic inferences.

               There is more. Any US presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be effectively sui generis. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II did not constitute a nuclear war, but rather the American use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional war. In August 1945 (the month of my own birth in war-torn Europe), there were no other atomic bombs anywhere on earth.

               Not a one.

Whether concerned with presidential irrationality or madness, present analytic concern should be focused upon an emotionally or mentally debilitated president.[12]  Whichever applies, the truly vital questions going forward will have to do with Constitutional, statutory and other recognizable sources of US war-making authority, especially presidential right to order the use of nuclear weapons.

International Law and US Law

Urgent questions here will relate to assorted and sometimes subtle intersections of international law and US law. From the beginning of the United States, international law has been an integral part of its national law. Early on, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted and reasserted that all international law – whatever its source – had been incorporated into the domestic law of the United States.[13] Before Marshall, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Law of England clarified that the “law of nations” is always “a necessary part of  the law of the land.”

These Commentaries represent the authoritative foundation of all United States law.

               Under current US law, whatever its apparent jurisprudential origins, a president may correctly use military force once Congress has declared a war or after the US (and/or its citizens) have been attacked.[14] As to the permissible kinds of force and levels of force, these operational decisions would have to be determinable according to longstanding laws of war of international law (the comprehensive law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law), and also the municipal law of the United States. In any such foreseeable circumstances, there would exist no clearly identifiable prohibitions against nuclear force per se.[15]

               For better or for worse, non-weapon-specific prohibitions would apply broadly, to the extent that any US retaliation or counter-retaliation would violate the always-binding expectations of discrimination (sometimes called “distinction”), proportionality,[16] or military necessity.[17]

               Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act place strict limits on any president’s authority to initiate hostilities with a foreign power, whether by conventional or nuclear means. A significant grey area has to do with the Commander-in- Chief’s right to strike first defensively or preemptively; that is, as a presumptive expression of “anticipatory self-defense.[18] Here, the authorizing component of permissibility must be the perception of any grave danger that is “imminent in point of time.”

               Logically, the relevant criteria of “imminence” could not reasonably be the same today as they were back in a pre-nuclear 1837. That was the year of the Caroline, the classic case setting the correct legal standard for all subsequent preemptive national action.[19]

Matters of Chronology and Crisis

               What should we have expected from former President Donald Trump if he had sometime reasoned that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies was “imminent in point of time?” Should we have remained comfortable with leaving such a prospectively existential judgment to his own personal decisional standards of the moment? Or should this eleventh-hour option have been be a matter of more plainly shared or “concurrent authority” with the US Congress?[20]

               In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption[21] that any  president’s final authority in defending the United States should never be challenged during an impending or already-ongoing crisis. This sort of assumption would become especially worrisome in circumstances where an enemy nuclear attack could be contemplated and anticipated. In brief, this means that a verifiably irrational or mad American president would likely have his military commands obeyed, up to and including an order to use nuclear weapons. This reasoning applies also to preemptive American strikes, whether launched in retaliation or counter-retaliation. It also means that while a wide variety of redundant safeguards already exists to prevent unauthorized uses of American nuclear weapons up and down the identifiable nuclear chain of command, no parallel safeguards can exist at the top or apex of this unique decisional hierarchy.

               This was the precise conclusion reached in General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 letter to me (attached hereto) on nuclear command authority.

               There is more. It remains possible, of course, and even potentially desirable, that a presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be disobeyed at one or another recognizable level of implementation. Strictly speaking, however, as any such expression of disobedience would be “illegal,” it is not sufficiently probable or reliable in extremis atomicum. The staggering irony of actually having to hope for certain high-level instances of disobedience or chain-of-command failures ought not be too casually set aside.

               Prima facie, this irony reveals that extant US nuclear-decision safeguards are sorely and overwhelmingly inadequate.

The Best Protection Lies with the American Voter           

               Is the US nuclear presidential authority dilemma remediable in any still-promising ways? “The best protection,” I learned from General Maxwell Taylor almost fifty years ago, is “not to elect” an irrational president. But now, as such straightforward advice cannot be acted upon retroactively, the residually “best protection” must lie elsewhere Among potentially gainful sources, this suggests more vigilant statutory oversight by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and certain select others. This oversight also includes a more predictably reliable willingness – either singly or in appropriate collaboration with the others – to disobey any presumptively irrational or insane presidential nuclear command.

               Such willingness could be correctly defended as law-enforcing under those universally binding Nuremberg Principles (1946)[22] that obligate all persons (especially senior government officials everywhere)  to resist “crimes of state.” Because war and crimes against humanity are not mutually exclusive, compliance with overriding Nuremberg Principles could become necessary not only to limit aggression, but also to prevent genocide.[23]

               Ultimately, America’s best chance of avoiding or surviving such a grievous threat could depend less upon any codified law or tangible institutions than the last-minute or impromptu courage of a handful of senior officials. Though any such estimation must be less than ideal or optimal, it may simply be “realistic.” To wit, it was the courage and insight of a single senior decision-maker, JCS Chair Mark Milley, that firmed up necessary Constitutional protections against a severely debilitated commander-in-chief.

Buttressed by national and international law, it is incumbent upon voting American citizens to act upon General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 warning.[24] That earlier alarm, which cautioned “not to elect” a potentially “irrational” American president, should be extended to include even a potentially “insane” Commander-in-Chief. In the final analysis, however, we may not be able to rely upon prudential and law-oriented voters to effectively save the United States from itself – that is, from prospectively aberrant nuclear decision-making. In that intolerable case, all narrowly statutory or technical directions on nuclear decision making would be overtaken by  visceral expectations of American “mass.”[25]

               Then it would be too late.

 American democracy owes a sincere debt to US General Mark Milley. In the sycophancy-driven Trump world, a world of determined anti-reason, Milley’s reliance upon law and virtue was much more than merely acceptable.[26] For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.

But what should we do now?

[1] For informed accounts by this author of nuclear attack effects, see: Louis René Beres,  The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975);  Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: 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); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[2] This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.

[3] These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.

[4] General Taylor was an earlier Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His handwritten letter to Professor Beres follows this article and the author’s bio. On August 18, 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill to the US House of Representatives that would have required President Donald Trump to undergo a mental health examination to determine if he is emotionally stable enough to remain in office. The proposed legislation expressly invoked the 25th Amendment, a rarely-used Constitutional provision allowing the vice-president and members of the Cabinet to remove a president from office. Rep. Lofgren’s bill did not become law.

[5] “Science,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis, ” by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former.”

[6] This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).

[7]Irrational adversaries would likely not be deterred by the same threats directed at presumptively rational foes. On pertinent errors of correct deterrence reasoning (here regarding Iran in particular) 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).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] Nuclear risks threatening US security could form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such risk must eventually include a patient search for synergies, and also for possible cascades of failures that would represent one especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this genre include contagion potential and persistence.

[10] One such generally ignored risk is “playing to the audience,” that is, seeking personal popularity at the expense of national security. Accordingly, see Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have…. anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[11] Donald Trump’s presidency brings to mind those fragments of Euripides that concern tragic endings. Here we may learn from the classical playwright, “Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Inter alia, Greek tragedy explores the wider civil harms that any deranged “sovereign” mind can produce. Looking at the United States today, struggling with rampant “plague” and with extraordinary domestic instability, there is a still-discoverable wisdom in classical Greek tragedy.

[12] Significantly, neither the irrational/rational nor insane/sane distinction is narrowly dichotomous. There are, rather, multiple or “continuous” variations of each pairing, an indisputable fact that makes any more far-reaching psychological or legal analysis of these already-complex nuclear decision-making issues even more problematic.

[13]  See also “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution (Article VI); The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677,700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F.2d. 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam).

[14] For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[15] See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.

[16]  The principle of proportionality has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch.

[17] The principle of “military necessity” is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.

[18] Long before the nuclear age, Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel took a position in strong favor of anticipatory self-defense. Vattel concludes The Law of Nations (1758) as follows: “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” (See Vattel, “The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations,” reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust 1916 (1758). Vattel, in the conspicuously earlier fashion of Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, (The Law of War and Peace, 1625) drew widely upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and Jewish law.

[19] The Caroline concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been sufficient in law to justify certain appropriate militarily defensive actions. In a formal exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then US Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for national self-defense that did not require antecedent attack. Accordingly, the authoritative jurisprudential framework now permitted a military response to threat as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Naturally, this standard could sometimes be more easily met in our time-compressed and prospectively apocalyptic nuclear age.

[20] Reflecting this second point-of-view, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D, LA County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D, Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 (Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017) back on 24 January 2017. Although this proposed legislation would have prohibited the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a Congressional Declaration of War, it’s not clear that it could also have dealt satisfactorily with the irrationality/insanity issues herein under discussion. Moreover, the proposed legislation seemed to make no meaningful distinction between a nuclear first-strike and a nuclear first-use.

[21] In part, at least, this implicitly core assumption is rooted in our continuously-anarchic system of international relations, a decentralized structure often referred to by the professors as “Westphalian.” The reference here is to the landmark Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty-Years War and created the still-extant state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two major agreements comprise the historic “Peace of Westphalia.”

[22] See Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 11 December 1946. Inter alia, these Principles underscore the formal jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This peremptory expectation, known in formal law as a jus cogens assumption, was already evident in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 The Law of War and Peace (1625; Chapter 20); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758; Chapter 19).

[23] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.

[24] “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

[25] The “mass-man,” we may learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.” Seem, also, by Professor Beres, at Yale: Louis Rene Beres,; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres:

[26] There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

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American Weaponry in the Hands of the Taliban



Source: Twitter

The hasty withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan attests to both the indifference of the U.S. administration as regards the future of Afghanistan as a state and the neglect for its obligations to its allies. Besides, Washington has clearly violated the current UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban, which was established in accordance with Resolution 1988 (2011).

Paragraph 1, subparagraph (c), of the Resolution calls on all countries to “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of arms and related material of all types including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts” to the Taliban and other individual groups, undertakings and entities associated with them [1].

Washington faced serious backlash for violating the UN sanctions regime upon abandoning weaponry and ammunition during an abrupt evacuation of troops from the country—such as when U.S. troops left Bagram, the largest airbase in Afghanistan, without warning the local Afghan army in early July, 2021. General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the new commander of Bagram Air Base, stated that Afghan soldiers only later learned of the Americans having departed, once they had all “disappeared into the night.” This is important as this proves that the Americans did not transfer weaponry and ammunition to the Afghan army through official channels. Since U.S. troops had turned off electricity at the airbase, looters soon found their way in, with barracks and storage tents ransacked. Among the “trophies” left by the Americans were hundreds of armored vehicles and ammunition, all of which ended up in the hands of the Taliban, either that very night or after Bagram being taken over (see image 1).

Image 1: Armored vehicles (left) and ammunition (right) deserted by the Americans at Bagram Airbase.

Source: RIA Novosti (left) and Haroon Sabawoon – Anadolu Agency (right)

According to The Military Balance, a military journal published annually, Afghan government forces had 640 MSFV armored security vehicles, 200 MaxxPro armored fighting vehicles and several thousand Hummers at their disposal. The Afghan Air Force had 22 EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) light attack aircraft (see image 2), four C-130H Hercules transport aircraft, 24 Cessna 208B and 18 turboprop PC-12s. The Army Air Corps boasted 41 MD-530F light turbine helicopters and as many as 30 multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters (see image 2).

Image 2: A light attack EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) aircraft captured by the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport (left) and a light MD-530 F multi-role helicopter (center); a multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter in the sky above Qandahar with what seems to be a person hanged by the Taliban (right).

Source: Twitter

On August 17, 2021, Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Advisor, confirmed that a significant amount of U.S. weapons had fallen into the hands of the Taliban. “And obviously, we don’t have a sense that they are going to readily hand it over to us at the airport,” he noted, thus confirming that the United States allowed the indirect transfer of weapons to what the UN Security Council has designated a terrorist organization.

This is not the first time that Washington has violated a UN Security Council Resolution. For example, a statement by Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, suggests that the United States released four Taliban members from Guantanamo in 2014, all of whom were on the Security Council sanctions list, to send them to the Middle East.

This was quite in line with the U.S. policy incepted back in 2010 and aimed at engaging in direct dialogue with the Taliban. This led to the UN Security Council Committee—established pursuant to Resolution 1267 on sanctions against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda—breaking up into two independent sanction mechanisms[2]. The UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 devised procedures that allow for a more liberal approach to the Taliban list (compared to those involved with Al-Qaeda), excluding those mentioned in consolidated lists of persons, groups and entities subject to restrictions.

Such facts should, in fact, be subject to the scrutiny of the UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 (including its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team), in whose proceedings the Russian Federation takes part and whose mandate implies monitoring compliance with Taliban-related sanctions as well as presenting periodic reports on sanctions measures to the Security Council.

Prospects of the U.S. imposing sanctions against Russia in connection with the Taliban

It is important to recognize that the “Taliban issue” could become somewhat of a scapegoat for Washington, especially in the eyes of its allies, to impose even more anti-Russia sanctions. In addition to the Executive Order on Blocking Property with Respect to Specified Harmful Foreign Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation signed on April 15, 2021, the White House published a Fact Sheet outlining key accusations against Russia, which include reports on rewards for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. According to the document, the Biden administration is taking measures following the intelligence reports of Russia having encouraged Taliban attacks on the U.S. and alliance contingent in Afghanistan. Since such allegations directly affect the safety and well-being of U.S. troops, a solution can be found through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.

Biden’s executive decree foresees the introduction of blocking sanctions for attempts to challenge the credibility of elections in the United States and allied countries, malicious hacker activities, spreading corruption internationally, crackdowns on dissidents and journalists, undermining security and stability in countries and regions important for U.S. national security interests, and the violation of international law, including the territorial integrity of states.

The reason for the Biden administration’s concern is likely a story published in The New York Times in June 2020 claiming that Russian military intelligence had offered Taliban-affiliated militia a reward for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Sources of the newspaper claimed to have uncovered such information during interrogations of Afghan militia.

As a result, senator Robert Menendez suggested in September 2020 that the U.S. Congress move forward with yet another anti-Russia sanctions package, the Russia Bounty Response Act of 2020. The Act implied freezing assets, visa restrictions for President Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and other high-ranking officials, as well as restrictions on defense enterprises. The initiative was supported by Dem. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In an interview with MSNBC, she emphasized the need to immediately impose sanctions against Russia for “colluding” with the Taliban.

In his turn, however, former President Donald Trump called The New York Times story “a fake,” stating that the article had been ordered for political reasons. Trump went on to state that the U.S. intelligence had acknowledged the information used in the publication was misleading. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said there was no evidence of a “conspiracy” between Russia and Taliban officials. The Taliban also denied information from The New York Times about existing ties with Russia.

One should bear in mind that the United States and Russia are adopting more polarized stances regarding the situation in Afghanistan, which became evident during the UN Security Council meeting on August 30, 2021, when Moscow and Beijing refrained from supporting the West-drafted resolution on Afghanistan. Thus, Washington will look for any excuse to discredit Russia. An effective instrument in counteracting such sanctions, hoaxes and other foul play common for the United States should be that of keeping a meticulous record of Washington’s violations of the UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban to present the findings to the international community.

  1. The Taliban is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.
  2. Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.

From our partner RIAC

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A Glimpse at China’s Nuclear Build-Up




The People’s Republic of China is now the second largest military spender after the United States, and the country has proven that it has the technical capability to develop revolutionary outer space technology, which is often related to military purposes. Nevertheless, China’s armed forces continue to lag behind when it comes to nuclear military technology, as Beijing only has 270 to 350 nuclear warheads, slightly more than the French armed forces.

Thus, China is investing in innovative research on civilian thorium nuclear facilities to become a leader in civilian nuclear, while it is reportedly not investing as much in the military nuclear sector.

This article explores the latest developments concerning “Made in China” nuclear weapons to explain why China’s armed forces are rather sluggish to increase the number of warheads due to the parallel development of other components of the military (e.g. nuclear submarines).

A brief history of Chinese nuclear weapons

China’s first nuclear weapons experiment took place in 1964, followed by its first hydrogen bomb test in 1967. Further development continued well until 1996, when China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In order to do so, China started building uranium enrichment plants in Baotou and Lanzhou as early as 1958, followed by a plutonium facility in Jiuquan and the Lop Nur nuclear test site in 1960. It is no secret the Soviet Union assisted in the early stages of the Chinese programme by sending advisers to the fissile material production facilities, having even agreed to provide a prototype bomb, missiles and related technology in October 1957.

In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Mao that he planned to discuss arms control with the United States and Great Britain, while Beijing was adamantly opposed to Khrushchev’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” after the fall of Stalin. Although Soviet officials assured the Chinese leadership that the country will remain under the Soviet nuclear umbrella, the disagreements widened the emerging Sino-Soviet rift. In June 1959, the two nations formally terminated their military and technological cooperation agreement, and all Soviet assistance to China’s nuclear programme was abruptly terminated by July 1960, with all Soviet technicians withdrawn from the programme.

This brief history of nuclear weapons in China tells us a lot about the current reason for Chinese weak nuclear capabilities, which had to be developed without the support of the USSR since the 1960s. Moreover, the desire for nuclear capabilities is closely related to the conflict with Taiwan and, as such, Beijing does not need to radically increase its capabilities since the island remains a non-nuclear territory to this day. Furthermore, increasing capabilities would worry the United States and Russia, the other two major nuclear powers—and Beijing had no interest in doing so, especially during the Cold War.

China’s nuclear posture and policy

The Chinese approach is focusing on quality over quantity, which explains the low number of warheads to this day. As of today, most nuclear warheads built during the Cold War can be intercepted by anti-missile systems in NATO and Russia as they are relying on outdated technology, which explains Russia’s desire to build the hypersonic glide vehicle such as the “Avangard”.

The same is true for China. As the U.S. strengthens its missile defenses capabilities, China is likely to further modify its nuclear posture to first ensure the credibility of its retaliatory strike force, including deploying hypersonic glide vehicles rather than increasing the number of warheads.

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained a “low alert level” for its nuclear forces and keeps most of its warheads in a central storage facility in the Qinling Mountain Range, although some are kept in smaller regional storage facilities around the country. Although there are rumors that China has coupled warheads to some of its missiles to increase their availability, we have not seen official sources confirming this. In fact, the latest Pentagon report explicitly states that “China almost certainly retains the majority of its peacetime nuclear force—with separate launchers, missiles, and warheads”.

Both the United States and Russia operate early warning systems to detect nuclear attacks and launch their missiles quickly, and a Chinese early warning system could also potentially be designed to enable a future missile defense system to intercept incoming missiles. The latest Pentagon report indicates that China is developing an HQ-19 mid-course missile defense system that could intercept Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) and possibly intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs), although this would take many more years to develop. In addition, the Chinese government has a long-standing policy of not using nuclear weapons first and not using nuclear capabilities against non-nuclear countries or nuclear-weapon-free zones.

Military nuclear capabilities on land, air and sea

China has continued to field the DF-26, a dual-capable mobile IRBM, and is replacing the older DF-31A road-mobile ICBM launchers with the more maneuverable DF-31AG launcher. It is also in the early stages of commissioning the new DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM that would be capable of carrying multiple independent target re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) like the old DF-5B based on a liquid fuel silo.

At sea, China is adding two more ballistic missile submarines and developing a new type. Additionally, China has recently reassigned a nuclear mission to its bombers and is developing an air-launched ballistic missile to have a nuclear capability.

It is estimated that China has produced a stockpile of about 350 nuclear warheads, of which about 272 are intended to be launched by more than 240 operational land-based ballistic missiles, 48 sea-based ballistic missiles and 20 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to bombers. The remaining 78 warheads are expected to arm additional land- and sea-based missiles that are being installed.


The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, supervised by General Zhou Yaning (commander) and General Wang Jiasheng (political commissar), is in charge of the ground nuclear forces. Since the Cold War, China is continuing the gradual modernization of its nuclear-capable ground missile force, and it is estimated that the PLA rocket force has about 240 land-based missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Of these, about 150 can strike parts of the United States (Hawaii). The number of ICBMs that can strike the continental United States is smaller: about 90 missiles with some 130 warheads.

These capabilities are easily explained by the fact that land-based missiles have a greater range than sea- and air-based ones, at least until China upgrades its sea-based systems. Thus, land-based missiles increase range and allow targeting of distant nuclear counterparts—the United States, France and the United Kingdom—while ensuring capabilities against the other four nearby nuclear powers: Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan. It is likely that land-based capabilities will remain a major component until submarine capabilities are expanded. Once submarines are as advanced as those of other nations, then—like the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom—China is likely to focus more and more on submarines rather than land-based capabilities.


China has introduced six Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which are based at the Longposan naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island (only four of them are currently operational). The two newest SSBNs, which were handed over to the PLA Navy in April 2020, are said to be variants of the original Type 094 design, known as Type 094A. These boats have a more prominent hump, which has led to a speculation that they could carry up to 16 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (CSS-N-14), instead of the usual 12. However, satellite images confirm that the new submarines are equipped with 12 launch tubes each.

Each JL-2 is equipped with a single warhead and, possibly, penetration assistance. The JL-2, which is a modified version of the DF-31, is supposed to have a range of about 7,200 km, although U.S. estimates of the range have varied over the years. Such a range would be sufficient to target Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, as well as Russia and India, from waters near China.

Unlike the land-based approach, the nuclear submarine can move around the world, have an unknown destination and a changing position, and it can retaliate up to several months after a nuclear conflict has ended. As such, submarines are now the main component of the French and British nuclear forces, and are vital to the U.S. and Russia. However, this requires advanced technology, which China does not yet have (nor do India and Pakistan). Therefore, the People’s Liberation Army is upgrading its submarine capabilities and technology, which should lead to increased relevance of submarines for nuclear operations in the long term. China’s new-generation Type 096 SSBNs will carry an extended-range SLBM, the JL-3, which, according to unofficial sources, could have a range of over 9,000 km. Chinese media describe the JL-3 as an SLBM “equivalent or similar to the French M51,” pointing out that its diameter has been increased compared to the JL-2 and that it incorporates a carbon-fiber casing, giving it an increased range.


China developed several types of nuclear bombs and used aircraft to carry at least 12 of the nuclear weapons it detonated as part of its nuclear test programme between 1965 and 1979. However, the PLA Air Force’s nuclear mission remained dormant until the 2000s, presumably because its older bomb-equipped aircraft were unlikely to be relevant in a nuclear conflict.

Countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan and India, are not focusing on long-range bombers, as they are easier to track, they move slowly and they are no major asset compared to submarines and land-based missiles. In this respect, only two nuclear powers—the United States and Russia—are investing in bombers. China wishes to become the third nuclear power and has therefore developed the H-6 bomber, which is technologically advanced enough to compete with its American counterparts Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit”, Rockwell B-1 “Lancer” and Boeing B-52 as well as the Russian Tupolev Tu-22M, Tupolev Tu-95 and Tupolev Tu-160. The Chinese H-6 should be complementary to the Xian H-20, as the bomber world is rapidly evolving with the introduction of the new American Northrop Grumman B-21 “Raider” and the Russian Tupolev PAK DA.

In conclusion, China is most certainly on its way to becoming the third largest nuclear power with growing capabilities to rival Washington and Moscow. In order to do so, it will need to increase its nuclear submarine capabilities to catch up with France and the United Kingdom, as well as the continued development of the H-20 bomber project to compete with the United States and Russia. Beijing has surely decided to invest in quality rather than quantity, preferring to slowly and precisely increase the number of warheads when it will first have the ability to defeat anti-missile systems.

Interestingly, China’s military nuclear approach is more about catching up with the other nuclear powers, in contrast to the civilian nuclear sector where the country is more innovative, as evidenced by the two thorium nuclear reactors under construction in the Gobi Desert (China plans to bring thorium reactors into commercial operation by 2030). Thus, China could become the leader in civil thorium nuclear power before it closes the gap as a military nuclear power.

From our partner RIAC

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