Forging Israel's strategic posture: simple but still difficult
Forging Israel's strategic posture: simple but still difficult

"Everything is very simple in war," says Carl von Clausewitz, in On War, "but the simplest thing is still difficult." Looking ahead, in the Middle East, Israel's strategic posture will soon need to confront multiple and rapidly expanding difficulties. Understood conceptually, this will mean an informed consideration of (1) all possible interactions between available strategic options; and (2) all possible synergies arising between plausible enemy attacks. By focusing on synergies - specific interactions, where the overall attack effects could exceed the calculable sum of separate harms -  Israeli strategists could go usefully beyond more conventionally mainstream kinds of assessment.

World politics is not geometry. Rather, its theoretical foundations lie in very unique networks of axioms and postulates. Ultimately, its core challenges lie in understanding a conspicuously broad and nuanced variety of international interactions. Plainly, for Israel, going forward, it will become absolutely vital to fashion more than a traditional "correlation of forces" or "order of battle" analysis. In this connection, only a comprehensive strategic doctrine will serve Israel as an indispensable "net."

The fishing metaphor is illuminating. In Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, only those who have first learned to "cast," will be able to "catch."

To properly fashion its strategic posture, Israel must first learn to figure out a very "dense" amalgam of general interactions and specific synergies. But figuring out this complex configuration will present Israel with a computational task on the highest order of  intellectual difficulty.This means that the progressive refinement of Israel's nuclear deterrent should always be viewed as a primarily analytic task; not merely as an ad hoc or narrowly operational chore.

To proceed, Israel's military planners must expressly identify the core goals of the Jewish State's nuclear deterrence posture. Moreover, before any rational adversary of Israel could be suitably deterred by an Israeli nuclear deterrent, that enemy would first need to believe that Israel had maintained both the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals (for certain forms of aggression), and also the will to actually undertake such a launch. In those matters involving an expectedly irrational nuclear enemy of Israel, successful deterrence would need to be based upon certain threats to enemy values other than national survival, and/or would need to be complemented or supplanted by certain recognizably viable strategies of preemption. 

In law, when they are permissible, such strategies are correctly known as "anticipatory self-defense." Oftentimes, enemies of Israel will argue that all permissible self-defense under international law must follow an armed attack (an argument drawn narrowly from Article 51 of the U.N. Charter), but such disingenuous arguments simply ignore that (per Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice) certain authoritative norms of international law originate from "custom," as well as from "treaties or conventions."

In matters of strategic posture or doctrine, Israel will need to demonstrate, among other things, the substantial invulnerability of its own nuclear retaliatory forces to enemy first strikes. Almost certainly, in this connection, it will be in Israel's long-term survival interests to more fully commit to various submarine-basing nuclear options.  Israel is a tiny country, and its land-based strategic forces could sometime present to enemies as too-vulnerable.

In part, whether or not Israel should actually proceed to more explicit submarine-basing of its presumed nuclear retaliatory forces, it could still acquire meaningful deterrence benefits from a subtle and incremental end to "deliberate nuclear ambiguity," or, as it is otherwise called, the "bomb in the basement." Without such a cessation, there could exist certain critically undermining enemy doubts about the operational "usability" of Israel's nuclear deterrent (too high-yield Israeli weapons could sometime lack deterrent credibility), and/or about this deterrent's capacity to successfully penetrate enemy active defenses (BMD).

Israel is a tiny country. It has long understood the overriding need to rely upon a "great equalizer," that is, on nuclear weapons, and on corresponding strategy. There are, of course, a great many circumstances in which any nuclear option would be rationally unsuitable, but, in the end, there can be no acceptable substitute for maintaining such a residual option. Doctrinally, so it would seem, Israel has already rejected any notions of theatre nuclear deterrence, and/or nuclear war-fighting. Nonetheless, there are still certain identifiable circumstances wherein a nuclear exchange might simply not be preventable.

Conceivably, at least, some forms of nuclear war-fighting between Israel and particular enemies might not always be avoidable. In essence, any such failure could take place so long as: (1) enemy state first-strikes launched against Israel would not destroy Israel's second-strike nuclear capability; (2) enemy state retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel's nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (3) conventional Israeli preemptive strikes would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capability; and (4) Israeli retaliations for enemy state conventional first strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability. may even be necessary for Israel to consider (at least on occasion) feigning irrationality itself.
What this means, for Israeli security and doctrine, is that Jerusalem must take appropriate steps to ensure the absolute plausibility of (1) and (2), above, and, simultaneously, the utter implausibility of (3) and (4).

Submarine deployments could prove helpful or perhaps even indispensable to Israel's nuclear deterrence posture. Submarines, after all, still represent the ultimate stealth weapon, and an Israeli submarine force could essentially guarantee the ability to unleash a catastrophic retaliatory strike.

To be sure, Israel's submarines have been constructed to meet very specific national strategic requirements. The Rahav, for example, is over 220 feet (67 meters) long, and weighs more than 2,000 tons. Seemingly, this larger size is intended to accommodate nuclear tipped missiles. Another Israeli submarine is named Leviathan.

In the seventeenth century, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in  his own and original Leviathan, observed that "Covenants without the sword are but words." Today, there is nothing about the 2015 Vienna Agreement that will in any way meaningfully curtail Iran's steady policy of military nuclearization. On the contrary, in late February this year, the State Department coordinator on Iran, Stephen Mull, freely admitted that the Obama administration had already failed to monitor the transfer of Iranian uranium shipments to Russia. And on March 8, 2016, Iran admitted to test-firing two ballistic missiles, one with the phrase "Israel should be wiped off the earth" written on it, in Hebrew.

Now, to be sure, Israel will need to rely increasingly on a multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Further, certain elements of this "simple but difficult" doctrine will soon need to be rendered less "ambiguous." In turn, this complex posture will imply an even more determinedly "synergistic"  focus on prospectively rational and irrational enemies, including both national and sub-national foes.

To deal successfully with its presumptively irrational or non-rational enemies, Israel will effectively need to compose an altogether original strategic "playbook," a daunting challenge that will require, inter alia, very considerable intellectual imagination. Here, as a creative corollary, it may even be necessary for Israel to consider (at least on occasion) feigning irrationality itself. Although counter-intuitive, it may not always be in an imperiled state's security interest to be seen by certain adversaries as perfectly and consistently rational.

Years ago, when he was Minister of Defense, General Moshe Dayan had instructed: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." He may have had a unique and now timely point, one that ought not to be dismissed out of hand. Clausewitz, for one, who favored "audacity," would likely have agreed.


The writer is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D.,1971), he is the author of twelve books and several hundred published articles dealing with Israeli security matters. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (2003). Dr. Beres' newest book is titled, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).