Israel's nuclear strategy: The rationality of pretended irrationality
Israel's nuclear strategy: The rationality of pretended irrationality



Louis René Beres

Special to Israel National News

10 April 2016

Louis René Beres

Emeritus Professor of International Law

Purdue University

"The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it." (Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existence (1935))

Normally, philosophical discussions of reason and rationality seem very distant from concrete considerations of military strategy, especially from those matters pertaining to nuclear strategy. Nonetheless, in complex matters of nuclear deterrence, correctly anticipating the complex calculations of an enemy will always require careful attention to such arcane considerations. More precisely, in the guiding spirit of Karl Jaspers' more general understanding (above) of the indivisibility of rationality and irrationality, the policy architects of any actual Israeli strategy of nuclear deterrence will need to explore (1) the inherent interdependence of these two concepts; and (2) the various ways in which this core connection might best be exploited.   

To begin, Israel's strategic planners must attempt to ascertain whether a particular adversary will actually be rational. This means determining whether the relevant adversary will always value its collective survival (either as a state, or as an organized terror group) more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. Another obligation here, depending in part upon this prior judgment concerning expected enemy rationality, will be for Israel to assess whether a strategy of "pretended irrationality" could enhance its own nuclear deterrence posture.

These two determinations need not be mutually exclusive, of course, and any nuclear weapons state (not just Israel) could reasonably decide to address both questions at the same time.

Here, however, our analytic focus will be limited to the tiny and perpetually beleaguered State of Israel, a country of such starkly limited mass that, even in its entirety, is smaller than America's Lake Michigan.

There is more. Israel's enemies, it must always be kept in mind, include both state and sub-state foes. In dealing with Israel, each discrete class of enemies could sometime choose to feign irrationality - a potentially clever strategy, selected to "get a jump" on Israel in any expected or already-ongoing competition for "escalation dominance."  Naturally, these very same enemies could sometime decide, either consciously or unwittingly, to be irrational.  In any such case, it would be incumbent upon Israeli planners to very capably assess which form of irrationality -  pretended or real - is actually underway.

By definition, genuine enemy irrationality would mean valuing certain specific preferences (e.g., presumed Islamic religious obligations or personal and/or regime safety) more highly than collective survival. For Israel, the threatening prospect of a genuinely irrational nuclear adversary is still most worrisome with regard to Iran. For ample reason, there is little confidence, in Israel, that the 14 July Vienna (P5 + 1) Agreement will have any tangibly inhibiting effect on Iranian nuclearization. Although this lack of confidence may or may not be justified, it is always worth remembering seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' warning in Leviathan:  "Covenants, without the sword, are but words...."

With these points in mind, how then should Israel best proceed? In narrowly military terms, the very best option might still seem to be preemption; that is, a defensive first-strike directed against Iran's pertinent hard targets. Yet, it is already very late for launching any operationally "cost-effective" preemption against Iran, and - even if it could be properly defended in law as "anticipatory self-defense" - such action would probably come at a much too- substantial human and political cost. 

In essence, this implies a now primary obligation, for Israel, to focus alternatively, on steadily enhancing its own nuclear deterrence posture. Jerusalem should always bear in mind this posture's core focus on prevention, rather than on punishment. By definition, using its own presumed nuclear forces for vengeance rather than deterrence, would miss the point.[1] Arguably, in fact, any such Israeli use, even as a residually default option, would be not only purposeless, but also manifestly irrational.

There is more. Israel's nuclear deterrent must always be backed up by appropriate systems of active defense (BMD), but especially if there should be good reason to fear an irrational nuclear adversary. Although it is well-known that no system of active defense, including even Israel's very promising Arrow, can ever be "leak-proof," there is still reason to suppose that certain BMD deployments could help safeguard both Israeli civilian populations (soft targets) and Israeli nuclear retaliatory forces (hard targets). It follows, inter alia, that Arrow and certain corollary systems (e.g., Iron Dome and David's Sling) will indefinitely remain a necessary complement to the Jewish State's offensive nuclear deterrence posture.

"Everything is very simple in war," says Clausewitz, in On War, "but the simplest thing is still difficult." To progress in its national security obligations, Israel's military planners must expressly identify the prioritized goals of the Jewish State's nuclear deterrence posture. Before a rational adversary of Israel could be suitably deterred by an Israeli nuclear deterrent, that enemy would first need to believe that Israel had assuredly maintained both the capacity to launch appropriate nuclear reprisals for certain forms of aggression (nuclear, and perhaps non-nuclear), and also the will to undertake any such uniquely consequential launch.

In more perplexing matters involving any expectedly irrational nuclear enemy,[2] successful Israeli deterrence would then need to be based upon credible threats to enemy values other than national survival.

It will be in Israel's long-term survival interests to continue to commit to assorted submarine-basing nuclear options.  Otherwise...Israel's land-based strategic nuclear forces could sometime present to an existential enemy as invitingly too-vulnerable.
Israel will also need to demonstrate, among several things, the substantial invulnerability of its own nuclear retaliatory forces to any enemy first strike aggressions. More precisely, it will be in Israel's long-term survival interests to continue to commit to assorted submarine-basing nuclear options.[3]  Otherwise, as it is easy to contemplate, Israel's land-based strategic nuclear forces could sometime present to an existential enemy as invitingly too-vulnerable.

Whether or not Israel should proceed to more explicit submarine-basing of its presumed nuclear retaliatory forces, Jerusalem could still benefit from a carefully controlled and incrementally phased end to "deliberate nuclear ambiguity." Without such a calculated termination to the country's "bomb in the basement," there could arise certain serious enemy doubts about Israel's nuclear deterrent, troubling questions that could sometime prove even more persuasive that Israel's perceived willingness and capacity to make good on its still only implicit nuclear retaliatory threats.

Looking ahead, Israel will have to rely increasingly on a multi-faceted doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In turn, specific elements of this "simple but difficult" doctrine will soon need to be rendered less "ambiguous." This complex and nuanced modification will imply an even more determined focus on prospectively rational and irrational enemies, including, again, both national and sub-national foes.

To deal most successfully with its presumptively irrational or non-rational enemies, Israel will need to compose a more-or-less original strategic "playbook." It may even be necessary for Israel to consider, at least on occasion, feigning irrationality itself. In such cases, however, it will be important for Jerusalem not to react in an ad hoc or "seat-of-the-pants"  fashion, to each new strategic challenge, but rather to derive or extrapolate its specific policy reactions from a carefully pre-fashioned strategic nuclear doctrine. Without such a thoughtful doctrine as guide, pretended irrationality could quickly become a "double-edged sword," effectively bringing more rather than less survival risk to Israel.

Years ago, when he was Minister of Defense, General Moshe Dayan (the legendary warrior, with the eye patch) had instructed: "Israel must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother." Then, Dayan may already have seized upon an instructive and timely metaphor. Clausewitz, who had much earlier favored recognizable "audacity" in war, would have agreed.

There is one last, but still vital, observation. It is improbable, but not inconceivable, that certain of Israel's principal enemies would be neither rational nor irrational, but mad.[4]While irrational decision-makers would already pose special problems for Israeli nuclear deterrence -  because these decision-makers would not value collective survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences - they could still be rendered susceptible to alternate forms of deterrence. For example, like rational decision-makers, they could still maintain a fixed, determinable, and "transitive" hierarchy of preferences. This means, at least in principle, that "merely" irrational enemies could still be successfully deterred.

Mad or "crazy" adversaries, on the other hand - and by definition - would have no such calculable hierarchy of preferences, and would therefore not be subject to any ordinary strategy of Israeli nuclear deterrence. Although it would likely be worse for Israel to have to face a mad nuclear enemy, than a "merely" irrational one, Jerusalem would have no foreseeable choice in this matter. This means that Israel, like it or not, will need to maintain, perhaps even indefinitely, a "three track" system of nuclear deterrence and defense, one track each for its identifiable adversaries that are presumed (1) rational; (2) irrational;  or (3) mad. For the plainly unpredictable third track, special plans will also be needed for undertaking certain presumptively indispensable preemptions, and, simultaneously, for certain corresponding efforts at ballistic missile defense.[5]

However counter-intuitive, general philosophical discussions of reason and rationality could sometimes bear very directly upon vital considerations of a country's nuclear strategy. In this regard, whatever complex national security planning Jerusalem should decide to undertake, Israel should never forget that rationality and irrationality are inevitably two sides of the same coin. Therefore, one can never appear, as we may learn from philosopher Karl Jasper's 1935 commentary (above) on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, without the other.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES 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' just-published book is titled, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield).


[1] This point was central to Israel's Strategic Future, the Final Report of Project Daniel, Israel, 2004. Said this Report, "The primary point of Israel's nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post."

[2] See, on deterring a prospectively irrational nuclear Iran, 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 was Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[3] On the sea-basing issue, see Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney, "Israel's Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine-Basing," The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Louis René Beres and Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney, "A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel," Washington Times, September 5, 2014. Admiral Edney was NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic (SACLANT).

[4] "Do you know what it means to find yourselves face to face with a madman," asks Luigi Pirandello, in Henry IV, "with one who shakes the foundations of all you have built up in yourselves, your logic, and the logic of all your constructions?"

[5] On timely issues of Israeli ballistic missile defense, see: Louis René Beres and Major General (IDF/res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, "The Limits of Deterrence," The Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Louis René Beres and MG Isaac Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iran," The Washington Times, June 10, 2007; and Professor Louis René Beres and MG Isaac Ben-Israel, "Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack," The Washington Times, January 27, 2009. Major General Ben-Israel was a Member of the IDF General Staff, and Head of the Israel Space Agency. He was also a member of Professor Beres' Project Daniel (2003).