NUCLEAR DETERRENCE AND NUCLEAR CONFLICT
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science
and International Law (Purdue University). He is author of many
books and articles dealing with international politics. His
columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington
Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press). This article was originally published
in The Jerusalem Post.
is a net. Only those who cast, can catch.
Karel Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery
Plausibly, from the
very beginning, Israel has had at least one continuing “mantra”
regarding its undeclared and ambiguous nuclear weapons. It is
that nuclear ordnance can never reasonably succeed except through
carefully calculated non-use. In other words, the sole discernible
rationale of the “bomb in the basement” has been
and must remain nuclear deterrence. By definition, of course,
this core objective is always contingent upon the expected rationality
of pertinent adversaries.
rational adversaries, there can be no successful nuclear deterrence.
But, going forward, precisely how accurate is this altogether
critical assumption? For the moment, Israel’s identifiable
enemies may still be considered rational, and must also be nation-states.
This is the case even though sometimes Israel’s adversaries
might operate in formal or informal alliance with other states,
and/or as "hybridized" actors working cooperatively
with recognizable terror groups. At some point, moreover, Israel's
nuclear enemies could be expanded to include certain sub-state
adversaries acting by themselves; most likely, this means Iran-sponsored
soon, prima facie, Israel’s strategists must
prepare to cope with increasingly substantial and complex nuclear
scenarios. In order for the country’s nuclear deterrence
posture to work long-term, particular would-be aggressor states
will need to be told more rather than less about Israel's nuclear
targeting doctrine, primarily about (1) its "counter value"
(counter-city) versus "counterforce" (nuclear war
fighting) choices, and (2) its expected actions regarding the
vulnerability and penetration-capability of Tel Aviv's nuclear
forces. In essence, this means that to best prepare for all
conceivable nuclear attack scenarios, Israel must plan, inter
alia, for the measured replacement of "deliberate
ambiguity" with various appropriate levels of "disclosure.
Israel, one point is indisputable. The only true and continuous
purpose of nuclear weapons must be nuclear deterrence. Still,
there remain certain residual circumstances under which Israeli
nuclear deterrence could fail. Here, in these particular circumstances,
there could ensue unprecedented belligerent firings of catastrophic
might such intolerable failures actually arise? Four principal
though not mutually exclusive scenarios should come quickly
to the strategist’s mind. Israel's strategic planners
must analyze these nuanced and theory-based narratives closely.
Correspondingly, they must prepare to deal effectively with
all of them.
quickly as possible, also, these strategists must fashion similarly
guiding narratives involving certain significant non-state adversaries,
both Sunni and Shiite. In this connection, it may sometimes
be necessary for Israel to "choose sides” from among
its relevant adversaries, thus effectively lining up with one
Israeli foe against another. Needless to say, special attention
should then be directed toward comparatively assessing and subsequently
obstructing all adversarial opportunities to "go nuclear."
together with the four basic scenarios outlined below, these
narratives could help provide Israel with the needed theoretical
armaments to best prevent a nuclear attack and/or nuclear war.
“Theory is a net.” Without it, Israeli strategic
analysis must be more-or-less disjointed and unfocused.
an enemy state or alliance of enemy states ever launch a nuclear
first-strike against Israel, Jerusalem would respond, assuredly,
and to whatever extent possible, with a nuclear retaliatory
strike. If enemy first-strikes were to involve other available
forms of unconventional weapons, such as chemical or biological
weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Israel might then still launch
a nuclear reprisal. This grave decision would depend, in large
measure, upon Jerusalem's informed expectations of any follow-on
enemy aggression, and also on its associated calculations of
Israel were to absorb a massive conventional attack, a nuclear
retaliation could not automatically be ruled out, especially
if: (a) the state aggressors were perceived to hold nuclear
and/or other unconventional weapons in reserve; and/or (b) Israel's
leaders were to believe that non-nuclear retaliations could
not prevent annihilation of the Jewish State. A nuclear retaliation
by Israel could be ruled out only in those discernible circumstances
where enemy state aggressions were clearly conventional, "typical"
(that is, consistent with all previous instances of attack,
in both degree and intent) and hard-target oriented (that is,
directed towards Israeli weapons and related military infrastructures,
rather than at its civilian populations).
NUCLEAR COUNTER RETALIATION
Israel ever feel compelled to preempt enemy state aggression
with conventional weapons, the target state(s)' response would
largely determine Jerusalem/Tel Aviv's next moves. If this response
were in any way nuclear, Israel would doubtlessly turn to some
available form of nuclear counter retaliation. If this retaliation
were to involve other non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction,
Israel could also feel pressed to take the escalatory initiative.
Again, this decision would depend upon Jerusalem/Tel Aviv's
judgments of enemy intent, and upon its corollary calculations
of essential damage-limitation.
the enemy state response to Israel's preemption be limited to
hard-target conventional strikes, it is unlikely that the Jewish
State would then move to any nuclear counter retaliations. If,
however, the enemy conventional retaliation was "all-out"
and directed toward Israeli civilian populations as well as
to Israeli military targets, an Israeli nuclear counter retaliation
could not immediately be excluded. Such a counter retaliation
could be ruled out only if the enemy state's conventional retaliation
were identifiably proportionate to Israel's preemption; confined
to Israeli military targets; circumscribed by the legal limits
of "military necessity;" and accompanied by certain
explicit and verifiable assurances of non-escalatory intent.
is highly implausible that Israel would ever decide to launch
a preemptive nuclear strike. Although circumstances could arise
wherein such a strike would be both perfectly rational, and
permissible under authoritative international law, it is unlikely
that Israel would ever allow itself to reach such irremediably
dire circumstances. Moreover, unless the nuclear weapons involved
were usable in a fashion still consistent with longstanding
laws of war, this most extreme form of preemption could represent
an expressly egregious violation of international law.
if such consistency were possible, the psychological/political
impact on the entire world community would be strongly negative
and far-reaching. In essence, this means that an Israeli nuclear
preemption could conceivably be expected only: (a) where Israel's
pertinent state enemies had acquired nuclear and/or other weapons
of mass destruction judged capable of annihilating the Jewish
State; (b) where these enemies had made it clear that their
intentions paralleled their genocidal capabilities; (c) where
these enemies were believed ready to begin an operational "countdown
to launch;" and (d) where Jerusalem/Tel Aviv believed that
Israeli non-nuclear preemptions could not achieve the needed
minimum levels of damage-limitation - that is, levels consistent
with physical preservation of the Jewish State.
NUCLEAR WAR FIGHTING
nuclear weapons ever be introduced into any actual conflict
between Israel and its many enemies, either by Israel, or by
a regional foe, nuclear war fighting, at one level or another,
could ensue. This would hold true so long as: (a) enemy first-strikes
would not destroy Israel's second-strike nuclear capability;
(b) enemy retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption
would not destroy the Jewish State's nuclear counter retaliatory
capability; (c) Israeli preemptive strikes involving nuclear
weapons would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear
capabilities; and (d) Israeli retaliation for conventional first-strikes
would not destroy the enemy's nuclear counter retaliatory capability.
means that in order to satisfy its most indispensable survival
imperatives, Israel must take appropriate steps to ensure the
likelihood of (a) and (b) above, and the simultaneous unlikelihood
of (c) and (d).
everything else, Israel must prepare thoughtfully for all possible
nuclear war contingencies, even when any such preparations would
be enormously “expensive.” For Israel, looking ahead,
even its most evidently threatening nuclear weapons could prove
absolutely useless or self-defeating unless there had first
been suitable advance planning for every imaginable conflict
scenario. It goes without saying that although such planning
will seem exhausting, both intellectually and fiscally, it will
also represent an utterly incontestable sine qua non for
the Jewish State’s national survival.