Op-Ed: Israel's Nuclear Doctrine Needs Reexamination
"The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost," complains Dr. Strangelove, "if you keep it a secret."
Avrum Burg, a former member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has been accused of treason because of statements that seemed to confirm Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. The accusation was made by the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, and was leveled in direct response to Burg's recent call for an "open and brave public discussion" of Israel's longstanding policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.
Although Burg's point was offered in explicit sympathy with the idea of a nuclear-weapon free Middle East - a preposterous idea, inherently inconsistent with Israel's physical survival - the former Knesset speaker's call for an end to Israel's "bomb in the basement" had plainly unintended but still notable merit.
In principle, at least, Israel's strategic nuclear policy has always remained a matter of great secrecy. Nonetheless, the country's posture of deliberate nuclear ambiguity had already been breached by two of Israel's prime ministers, first, by Shimon Peres, on December 22, 1995, and later, by Ehud Olmert, on December 11, 2006. Peres, speaking to a group of Israeli newspaper and magazine editors, had said publicly: "...give me peace, and we'll give up the atom. That's the whole story." When Olmert offered very similarly general, but also revelatory remarks, they were widely interpreted as "slips of the tongue."
From the standpoint of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv's national command authority, these apparently incautious prime-ministerial statements would already appear to have undermined Israel's security. But, an antecedent question should be raised: Is determined nuclear secrecy necessarily in the best survival interests of the Jewish State?
A fully proper answer to such an urgent and analytic query should be grounded in the expectations and exigencies of formal strategic doctrine. It should not be an off-the-cuff, or otherwise unreflective posture, invented and re-invented viscerally, or simply ad hoc, changing casually, from one crisis to the next. Above all, it should not be motivated by any wildly implausible belief in a security-enhancing Middle East "nuclear weapon free zone."
Unaffected by narrowly partisan or political goals, this proper answer should be based upon a reasoned assessment of all available options. Any useful loosening of Israeli nuclear ambiguity would need to be subtle, nuanced, more-or-less indirect, and also conspicuously incremental. Contrary to the often parodied views of such disclosure that are found in popular newspapers and magazines, it would not have to take the more provocative form of an openly forthright or otherwise official Israeli policy pronouncement.
Formal doctrine represents the indispensable framework from which any gainfully pragmatic Israeli nuclear policy of ambiguity or disclosure should be suitably extrapolated. In all military institutions and traditions, such doctrine, inter alia, describes the tactical manner in which national forces ought to fight in various combat situations; the prescribed "order of battle," and all manner of assorted corollary operations. Significantly, the literal definition of "doctrine" derives from Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, which means teaching, learning, and instruction.
There is more. The central importance of codified military doctrine lies not only in the way it can animate, unify, and optimize national military forces, but also in the efficient manner it can transmit desired "messages" to an enemy state or sub-state proxy. Understood in terms of Israel's strategic nuclear policy, any indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity could prove net-injurious to the country's national security. Although possibly counter-intuitive, this is the case because effective deterrence and defense could sometimes call for a military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by certain adversary states, or even by particular insurgent/terrorist groups.
Obviously, in routine military planning, options for strategic surprise can be very helpful, if not altogether prerequisite, to successful combat operations. But successful deterrence is another matter entirely. In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first, a manifestly complex effort of dissuasion, too much secrecy can sometimes be counter-productive.
In the pertinent matter of Israel and its enemies, ultimate military success must lie in credible deterrence, not actual war-fighting. Understood in terms of ancient Chinese military thought offered by Sun-Tzu in The Art of War, "Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." With this worthy dictum in mind, there are times when successful deterrence policies could require the deliberate "loosening" of information that had formerly been tightly held. Such information could concern Israel's capabilities, its intentions, or even both qualities together.
Sometimes, strategic truth is counterintuitive. There are times, for example, when too much secrecy can effectively undermine a country's security. One may recall, in this connection, a wildly-popular 1960s movie, in which Dr. Strangelove, an "eccentric" strategic advisor to the American president (and also the name of the film) discovers, to his horror, that the existence of America's "doomsday machine" had never been made known in advance to the Soviets.
"The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost," complains Dr. Strangelove, "if you keep it a secret." To have been deterred, the film instructs, the Soviets ought to have been given suitably prior warnings of the "doomsday machine." The device, after all, had been designed solely to ensure the perceived automaticity of America's nuclear retaliatory response. Moreover, remembering the strategic posture known as MAD, this response would have been instantly recognizable in The Kremlin as "massive," or "assuredly destructive."
It follows from all this that Israel's nuclear weapons must always be oriented to deterrence ex ante, not to war fighting or revenge ex post. As instruments of deterrence, nuclear weapons can succeed only in their non-use. Once they have been used for battle, deterrence, by definition, will have failed. Also, once actually used, any traditional meanings of "victory," especially if both sides are nuclear, are apt to become moot.
The Cold War is over, and Israel's deterrence relationship to a prospectively nuclear Iran is not really comparable or analogous to the American-Soviet "Balance-of-Terror." Still, there are Cold War deterrence lessons to be learned currently and concurrently in the Jewish State. In essence, any unmodified continuance of total nuclear ambiguity concerning Israel's (a) strategic targeting doctrine; (b) secure basing modes; and/or (c) capacity to penetrate an enemy's active air defenses, could cause a nuclearizing enemy state like Iran to critically underestimate Israel's retaliatory capacity or resolve
Similar uncertainties surrounding actual components of Israel's nuclear arsenal could lead enemy states to reach the same conclusion. In part, this is because Israel's willingness to make good on threatened nuclear retaliation could be seen, widely perhaps, as inversely related to weapon system destructiveness. Ironically, if Israel's nuclear weapons were believed to be too destructive, they might not deter.
A continuing policy of ambiguity could also cause an enemy state such as Iran to overestimate the first-strike vulnerability of Israel's nuclear forces. In part, this could be the result of a too-complete silence concerning measures of protection deployed to safeguard Israeli nuclear weapons.
Or it could be the product of Israeli doctrinal obfuscation on the country's defense potential, a silence that could be mistakenly understood, again, by certain enemy states, as an indication of inadequate Israeli Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). To be maximally useful, therefore, certain relevant strengths and capabilities of Arrow3 could actually need to be revealed.
To more fully understand the utility of Israeli strategic doctrine, one must first identify the core foundations of Israeli nuclear deterrence. These foundations concern prospective attackers' perceptions of Israel's nuclear capability, and also Israel's willingness to use this capability. Any selective telegraphing of Israel's strategic nuclear doctrine could potentially enhance Israel's nuclear deterrence posture. It would accomplish this by heightening enemy state perceptions of both Israel's capable nuclear forces, and by its announced willingness to use these forces in reprisal for certain stipulated first-strike, and/or retaliatory attacks.
To deter an enemy attack, or a post-preemption retaliation against Israel, Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv must always prevent a rational aggressor, by threat of an unacceptably damaging retaliation or counter-retaliation, from deciding to strike. Here, national security would be sought by convincing the potential rational attacker (irrational state enemies could pose an altogether different problem) that the costs of any considered attack will always exceed the expected benefits. Assuming that Israel's state enemies: (1) value self-preservation most highly; and (2) choose rationally between alternative options, they will always refrain from any attack on an Israel that is believed both willing and able to deliver an adequately destructive response.
These enemy states might also be deterred by the prospect of a far more limited Israeli attack, one that is directed only at national leaders. In the usual parlance adopted by military and intelligence communities, this prospect refers to plausible threats of "regime targeting."
Two factors must communicate such a belief. First, in terms of capability, there are two essential components: payload and delivery system. It must be successfully communicated to any prospective attacker that Israel's firepower, and its means of delivering that firepower, are capable of inflicting unacceptable levels of destruction. This means that Israel's retaliatory or counter-retaliatory forces must always appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes, and also aptly elusive to penetrate the prospective attacker's active and civil defenses.
Significantly, it may or may not need to be communicated to a potential attacker that such firepower and delivery vehicles are superior. Deterrence, Israel's planners must always bear in mind, is never about "victory." The capacity to deter may or may not be as great as the capacity to "win."
With Israel's strategic nuclear forces and doctrine kept locked in the "basement," enemy states could conclude, rightly or wrongly, that a first-strike attack or post-preemption reprisal would be cost-effective. But, were relevant Israeli doctrine made more plainly obvious to enemy states contemplating an attack - that Israel's nuclear assets met both payload and delivery system objectives - Israel's nuclear forces could then better serve their critically existential security functions.
The second factor of nuclear doctrine for Israel concerns willingness. How may Israel convince potential nuclear attackers that it possesses the resolve to deliver an appropriately destructive retaliation, and/or counter retaliation? Again, the answer to this question lies largely in doctrine, in Israel's demonstrated strength of commitment to carry out such an attack, and in the nuclear ordnance that would presumably be available.
Here, too, continued ambiguity over nuclear doctrine could wrongfully create the impression of an unwilling Israel. Conversely, any doctrinal movement toward some as-yet-undetermined level of disclosure could heighten the impression that Israel is, in fact, willing to follow-through on its now explicit nuclear threats.
There are determinedly persuasive connections between an incrementally more "open" or disclosed strategic nuclear doctrine, and certain enemy state perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence. One such connection centers on the expected relation between greater openness, and the perceived vulnerability of Israeli strategic nuclear forces from preemptive destruction. Another such connection concerns the relation between greater openness, and the perceived capacity of Israel's nuclear forces to reliably penetrate the offending state's active defenses.
To be deterred by Israel, a newly-nuclear Iran would need to believe that (a critical number of) Israel's retaliatory forces would survive any Iranian first-strike, and that these forces could not subsequently be stopped from hitting their pre-designated targets in Iran. Regarding the "presumed survivability" component of Iranian belief, possible sea-basing (submarines) by Israel could be an especially relevant case in point.
Carefully articulated, expanding doctrinal openness, or partial nuclear disclosure, could represent a distinctly rational option for Israel, at least to the extent that pertinent enemy states were made appropriately aware of Israel's relevant nuclear capabilities. The operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from deliberate flows of information about more-or-less tangible matters of dispersion, multiplication, and hardening of its strategic nuclear weapon systems, and also about certain other technical features of these systems. Most importantly, doctrinally controlled and orderly flows of information could serve to remove any lingering enemy state doubts about Israel's strategic nuclear force capabilities and intentions. Left unchallenged, however, such doubts could lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.
Finally, a key problem in purposefully refining Israeli strategic nuclear policy on deliberate ambiguity has to do with what the classic Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, calls "friction." No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as a corollary, the precise reactions of individual human commanders under fire. It follows that Israel's nuclear doctrine must somehow be encouraged to combine adequate tactical flexibility with selective doctrinal openness. To understand exactly how such seemingly contradictory objectives can be reconciled in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv now presents a primary intellectual challenge to Israel's national command authority.
However naive and potentially injurious his particular vision and intention, Avrum Burg has unwittingly opened the way for a genuinely purposeful reconsideration of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. In this connection, it is now up to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his principal strategic planners, animated by a far more sophisticated and supportable expectation, to consider the substantial security benefits to Israel of "breaking" nuclear ambiguity.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many major books and monographs dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview,1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press,1980); Mimicking Sisyphus: America's Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1983); and Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986). His most recent articles have appeared in US News & World Report; The Atlantic; The Jerusalem Post; The Washington Times; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; and International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Professor Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. He has lectured widely on law and strategy issues at both United States and Israeli military/intelligence institutions. In Israel, his specially-prepared monographs have been published for many years as selected Working Papers of the annual strategy conference at Herzliya.