Daily Israel Report

Israel's Strategic Nuclear Doctrine: Ambiguity vs. Openness

Jerusalem must always prevent a rational aggressor from deciding to strike first.
By Prof. Louis René Beres
First Publish: 9/4/2012, 1:45 AM

Dimona plant
Dimona plant
Flash 90

Israel's strategic nuclear policy is always a matter of great secrecy. From the standpoint of Jerusalem's national command authority, this stance would appear to be prudent and sensible. After all, beginning with the country's longstanding commitment to "deliberate ambiguity," a manifestly core policy position concerning nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare, every element of pertinent Israeli doctrine has remained determinedly in the "basement."

But is such pervasive strategic secrecy really in the best survival interests of the imperiled Jewish State? The answer to such an important question should be firmly grounded in formal strategic doctrine. It should not be an off-the-cuff or otherwise ad hoc posture, invented and re-invented viscerally from one crisis to the next.

This answer should also be based upon a carefully reasoned awareness of all available options. Any purposeful loosening of Israeli nuclear ambiguity could be subtle, nuanced, indirect, and incremental. Contrary to the often caricatural views of such loosening found in popular newspapers and magazines, it would not have to take the more provocative forms of an explicit or official policy pronouncement.

Formal doctrine is the required framework from which any pragmatic nuclear policy of ambiguity or disclosure should be suitably extrapolated. In all military institutions and traditions, such doctrine describes the tactical manner in which national forces ought to fight in various combat situations, the prescribed "order of battle," and assorted corollary operations. Significantly, the literal definition of "doctrine" derives from Middle English, from the Latin doctrina, meaning teaching, learning, and instruction.

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 way it can transmit desired "messages" to an enemy state.

Understood in terms of Israel's strategic nuclear policy, an indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity can be more-or-less injurious to the country's national security. This is the case because effective deterrence and defense may sometimes call for a military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by certain adversary states, or even particular insurgent groups.


"The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost," complains Dr. Strangelove, "if you keep it a secret."
In routine military planning, options for strategic surprise can obviously be very helpful, if not altogether indispensable, to successful combat operations. But successful deterrence is another matter entirely. In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first, a complex effort at dissuasion, too much secrecy can sometimes be counter-productive.

In the matter of Israel and its enemies, ultimate success must lie in deterrence, not war-fighting. There are times, too, when stable deterrence relations may require the deliberate "loosening" of certain information that had formerly been tightly held. Such strategic information could concern Israel's capabilities, its intentions, or both together.

Sometimes, strategic truth is counterintuitive. There are times when too much secrecy can actually undermine a country's security. Recall, in this connection, a wildly-popular 1960s movie, in which Dr. Strangelove (also the name of the film) discovers, to his horror, that the existence of America's "doomsday machine" was never made known to the Soviets.

"The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost," complains Dr. Strangelove, "if you keep it a secret." To be deterred, the film then instructs, the Soviets ought to have been given advance warnings of the "doomsday machine." The device, after all, had been designed solely to ensure the perceived automaticity of America's retaliatory response. Naturally, this response would be recognized in Moscow as "massive" or "assuredly destructive."

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 are used for actual battle, deterrence, by definition, has failed. Also, once used, any traditionally meaningful sense of "victory," especially if both sides are nuclear, is 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 Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.

In essence, any unmodified continuance of total ambiguity about Israel's strategic targeting doctrine could cause a nuclearizing enemy state like Iran to underestimate Israeli retaliatory capacity or resolve.

Similar uncertainties surrounding actual components of Israel's nuclear arsenal could lead such 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, in other words, if Israel's nuclear weapons were believed to be too destructive, they might not deter.

There is also the related matter of doctrine, and Israeli strategic nuclear capability. A continuing policy of total ambiguity could cause an enemy state to overestimate the vulnerability of Israel's nuclear forces. This could be the partial result of a too-complete silence concerning measures of protection safeguarding Israeli nuclear weapons.

It could be the product of Israeli doctrinal obfuscation on the country's defense potential, a silence that could be mistakenly understood, by certain enemy states, as an indication of inadequate Israeli Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). To be maximally useful, certain strengths and capabilities of Arrow, Iron Dome, and, in the future, Magic Wand, will need to be revealed.

To fully understand the question of Israeli strategic doctrine, we must first recall the core foundations of Israeli nuclear deterrence. These foundations concern prospective attackers' perceptions of Israel's nuclear capability, and Israel's willingness to use this capability. Any selective telegraphing of Israel's strategic nuclear doctrine, therefore, could possibly enhance Israel's nuclear deterrence posture. It would do this by heightening enemy state perceptions of both Israel's capable nuclear forces, and its announced willingness to use these forces in reprisal for certain stipulated first-strike and retaliatory attacks.

To deter an enemy attack, or a post-preemption retaliation against Israel, Jerusalem must always prevent a rational aggressor, by threat of an unacceptably damaging retaliation or counter-retaliation, from deciding to strike first. Here, 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) always choose rationally between alternative options, they will 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 more limited Israeli attack, one that is directed at national leaders as such; that is, by 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 sufficiently elusive to penetrate the prospective attacker's active and civil defenses.

Counter intuitively, it may or may not need to be communicated to a potential attacker that such firepower and delivery vehicles are superior. Deterrence is not about "victory." In fact, 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 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 immensely 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 of an Israel that is, in fact, willing to follow-through on its nuclear threats.

There are, then, persuasive connections between an incrementally more "open" or disclosed strategic nuclear doctrine, and enemy state perceptions of Israeli nuclear deterrence. One such connection centers on the expected relation between greater openness, and 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 both that (a critical number of) Israel's retaliatory forces would survive any Iranian first-strike, and that these forces could not then be stopped from hitting their designated targets in Iran. Regarding the "presumed survivability" component of Iranian belief, possibly recent expansions of sea-basing by Israel could be a relevant case in point.

Carefully articulated, expanding doctrinal openness, or partial nuclear disclosure could represent a distinctly rational option for Israel, 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 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, such doubts could lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.

Finally, a key problem in refining Israeli strategic nuclear doctrine has to do with what the classic military thinker, Clausewitz, calls "friction." No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as corollary, the precise reactions of human commanders under fire. It follows that Israel's nuclear doctrine must always be encouraged to combine tactical flexibility with selective openness.

To understand how such seemingly contradictory objectives can best be reconciled now presents a primary intellectual challenge to the principal decision-makers in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press,1980), and Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington, 1986). Professor Beres, who was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, has lectured widely on these issues at both United States and Israeli military/intelligence institutions.